A Classic North Carolina Winter Climbing Destination Is Open Again

Sauratown Mountain has a new approach trail and freshly negotiated access for climbers.

One of North Carolina’s best winter climbing destinations has a new approach trail and freshly negotiated access for climbers. Sauratown (pronounced “sour town”) is a long ridgeline cliff band rising from the Piedmont, two hours northwest of Raleigh. It’s a south-facing cliff on the privately owned YMCA Camp Hanes property, full of classic trad and sport routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.12. The crag saw heavy route development during the ’80s and ’90s, but after an accidental fire in 2005, climbing access was lost for several years. Since 2013, the Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) has worked diligently with Camp Hanes to slowly regain limited access to the crag. The nonprofit recently signed a 20-year-lease with the landowners, securing long-term winter access for climbers, and is in the process of constructing a new 1.5-mile approach trail with grant funds from REI.

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“Sauratown is one of the best climbing areas in the Piedmont during the winter,” said Brian Payst, the northern Piedmont representative for the CCC. “It’s a beautiful orange and white quartzite cliff with really fun, high-quality routes. Gaining access to Sauratown reopens some amazing climbs.”

While crags like Linville Gorge and Looking Glass Rock in North Carolina’s western mountains get most of the attention from climbers, the Piedmont in the middle of the state has a few cherished crags that offer easily accessible rock to climbers in the heavily populated triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Winston-Salem. Sauratown’s south-facing nature makes the cliff too hot to climb in the summer, but perfect for winter climbing. The rock is solid with mostly face climbing with some steep roofs. The majority of the climbing in North Carolina is traditional, requiring climbers to place temporary protection as they ascend a route. But Sauratown offers a variety of sport routes with fixed anchors and provides a rare diversity that’s unparalleled in the state. The CCC was able to secure a long-term lease by offering to build a new access trail to the cliff, as the original trail frequented by climbers had been steep and unsustainable. In 2017, REI provided a $17,000 grant to build the first half of the new trail; this year, the co-op followed up with an additional $20,000 grant to finish the project.

A new access trail was made possible thanks to a partnership between the Carolina Climbers Coalition and REI.

The new access trail was made possible thanks to a partnership between the Carolina Climbers Coalition and REI. (Photo Credit: Brian Payst)

“We thought this was a great opportunity to secure a coveted winter climbing spot that was closed to the public for so long and a chance to celebrate what the CCC had already accomplished,” said Tara Racine, outdoor programs market coordinator for the REI in Central North Carolina. “We’re excited to see this project through because it will create a great spot for climbers all over the state, thanks to its central location.”

The new trail, which will be completed in November, will also allow Camp Hanes better access to the cliff portion of their property, which they weren’t previously using because the original access trail was in such poor shape. Sauratown is open seven days a week from Dec. 1 through March 31. Free camping is also available if arranged through Camp Hanes (call Camp Hanes in advance: 336-983-3131; camphanes.org). REI will also begin operating climbing instruction at Sauratown beginning in April 2019.

Three Classic Climbs at Sauratown

Stokes County Monkey Trial: This is a classic 5.10 face climb with some crack, bulky jugs and a big roof at the finish. The route is a mix of trad and sport anchors, so bring a light trad rack to fill in the gaps.

Kids Dish: At 5.8, this is one of the easier routes at Sauratown. It’s a sport route through steep rock with an optional roof finish that adds a couple of grades.

Sour Balls: A tough 5.11, Sour Balls is a trad route that’s steep from beginning to end. It begins by ascending a dihedral and finishes with a face climb. According to Payst, legendary climber Todd Skinner once called Sour Balls the “best 5.11 in America.”