For a notably flat state, the Chicago metro area has quite the Napoleon complex.
There’s “Highland” Park, Chicago “Heights,” Palos “Hills,” Park “Ridge,” and towering above them all, “Mount” Prospect. One glance at these townships, and you’d be forgiven for expecting a topographical electrocardiogram.
The reality is significantly more horizontal. That means climbers have to head indoors to scramble up man-made walls.
But as AJ Velon has discovered, Chicago is home to some of the country’s best facilities for belayers and boulderers alike. And perhaps even more importantly, the culture around the sport is thriving. “The climbing community in Chicago is really friendly and accepting,” says Velon, the senior instructor at REI’s Outdoor School. “It’s a safe haven. If someone is struggling, everyone on the ground is cheering them on. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know each other—people are open and friendly.”
Outdoor recreation opportunities do exist within a short drive of the city: REI hosts top-roping day trips to Devil’s Lake, there’s great bouldering in Governor Dodge State Park in Wisconsin, and Red River Gorge in Kentucky (which Velon calls “the mecca for serious Chicago climbers”) is only eight hours away.
But for those looking to stay in shape—especially during brutal Chicago winters—here are Velon’s top five gyms and climbing walls.
Facilities: First Ascent is the pioneering dedicated climbing gym in the city, marketing itself as a grassroots organization founded by Chicago climbers. Every location is slightly different: Humboldt Park, the Loop and Uptown are bouldering-only gyms, while Avondale offers autobelay, top rope, lead climbing and bouldering. The 30,000-square-foot Arlington Heights location, set to open in 2019, will feature top rope, lead climbing and bouldering. Across First Ascent’s gyms, wall heights rise as tall as 60 feet.
Pricing: Day passes are $19 ($15 for students) and roped gear rental is packaged at $10. Memberships are $79 per month (or $869 for the year).
Additional services: Yoga and fitness services, personal training, team building and workshops on everything from bachata dance to finger-injury prevention.
What’s unique: Founded by Chicago climbers, First Ascent is the definition of homegrown—established to fill a gap in the market (which some Chicagoans had addressed by building DIY walls in their garages). First Ascent’s “walls are textured, so you get that real rock sense when you’re climbing,” Velon says. “And their multiple locations around the city are super convenient.”
Location: West Loop
Facilities: 25,000 square feet of bouldering, auto-belay, top-roping and lead climbing.
Pricing: $25 for a day pass, $11 for full gear rentals, and $125 for monthly memberships ($1,250 for the year). They also offer a 30-day “Beginner to Badass” course for $199 with introductory classes, personal coaching, and access to studio classes and member events.
Additional services: Competitive teams, outdoor field trips, an eight-session “Climb Like A Girl” female-led course, and co-working spaces with WiFi.
Locations: Glendale Heights
Facilities: Three bouldering areas, 30 auto belays, and hundreds of routes on walls up to 30 feet tall.
Pricing: $18 for a day pass; $5 each for shoe, harness, belay and chalk bag rentals. They host an “On The House” event (free for first-time visitors) starting at 6pm on the first Friday of each month, and they have special discount days for homeschoolers and Scouts.
Additional services: Climbing camps, competitive teams, yoga and fitness lessons.
What’s unique: “It can be tougher to access from the city if you don’t have a car, but it’s great for people in the suburbs,” Velon says.
Locations: Evanston, Lakeview, Lincoln Park (outdoor wall under renovation)
Facilities: Evanston and Lakeview offer indoor walls with heights ranging from 40 to 65 feet, with top-roping and lead climbing available along dozens of routes ranging from 5.7 to 5.13 in difficulty. There are also three spacious bouldering grottos across the clubs with steep overhangs that offer difficult technical challenges.
Pricing: $35 day passes for nonmembers (first climb is free, however).
Additional services: CAC is primarily a fitness center, with classes running the gamut from pilates to boxing to pre- and post-natal yoga.
What’s unique: “Before dedicated climbing gyms existed, this is where you would go,” Velon says. “They blazed the trail.”
Locations: Maggie Daley Park (downtown) and Steelworkers Park (South Chicago)
Facilities: Bouldering and roped climbs are available at both locations; Maggie Daley, however, boasts 40-foot walls with 19,000 square feet of surface area that can support up to 100 climbers at a time.
Additional services: Playgrounds, history exhibits, and an ice-skating and rollerblading ribbon.
What’s unique: Though other climbing walls exist at Broadway Armory and Harrison Park, the options at Maggie Daley and Steelworkers parks are the largest and most diverse. Then there are the views: Climb in the shadow of Chicago’s iconic skyline at Maggie Daley, or greet Lake Michigan with a fist pump on top of the ore wall at Steelworkers.