Back in 93, when Troy Johnson and I made our first pilgrimage to Smoke Hole Canyon, there was a ragged piece of white tat hanging from a rusted piton up in the deep green Entrance Arch dihedral that would eventually become the start of Hunting Unicorns. Climbing, long slumbering in the shadows, had returned to Smoke Hole Canyon.
The first bolted lines would go up in Copperhead Cove soon thereafter, including Faces in Stone and the start of Bad Drugs. Then other routes at other canyon crags called us away, and the challenges of access between floods kept us away. We scattered to the four corners in 1995, and I spent six years exploring the Four Corners region.
In 2009, Cindy Bender and I put up our first route together on a tall, roof stacked corner in the Cove, and called it Going on a Bender. In 2011, we moved to Arizona, and the Cove went back undercover.
Flash forward to 2017; I returned to cleaning and drilling lines at the Cove and Jake Hill with Michael Holmes, J. and Ben Feher. More recently, Virginia activist Mitchell Goldman joined the fun, adding the mixed lines Flagman and ADrop in the Ocean.
Today, three decades after Troy and I first drove into the Canyon, the Entrance Arch has 30 routes of its own, with 16 more lines waiting at Copperhead Cove, and 9 instant classics at Jake Hill.
If you are a new Smoke Hole climber or have not previously downloaded the guides, grab them today to get the best tools for exploring Smoke Hole’s crags, old and new. Your purchases help support trail work and other stewardship efforts in the canyon and at nearby Reed’s Creek, while giving you all the best beta on route development, camping, parking and access issues.
Come explore the best of the old, and the new, at the Entrance Walls of Smoke Hole Canyon.
Smoke Hole Canyon: Entrance Walls, Copperhead Cove and Jake Hill was last modified: March 18th, 2023 by Mike Gray
Looking upstream from the top of ‘Shattered Illusions’, at the height of summer; the route’s anchors sit near the top of the Long Branch Buttress, rewarding climbers with one of the most amazing views in the canyon
Climbers are a quixotic breed. We are known to leave behind good jobs, family and loved ones to cross the country, camping in our cars or sketchy rest areas, pounding down twisting wash boarded backroads, living on fast food and cheap beer, bush whacking and hiking for miles, thrashing through thorns and stumbling across talus, to find great crags in unique settings.
Truly great climbs and climbing areas both challenge and inspire; they motivate us to push the edge, to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, and they return us to that quiet place inside, where wonder still lives.
These are the crags from which we return tired but renewed, exhausted and at the same time, restored.
The east end of the Sunshine Wall on a fall day, as seen from the approach trail; these conditions can persist into the middle of winter. Photo by Mike Gray.
Some of these destinations require great expense, deprivation, epic approaches, and hardship of every kind for the lucky and determined few who scale their walls. Others are tucked away, just around the corner, minutes from the main road, less than a morning’s drive from major cities, but somehow still lost to the masses; secret gardens to test strength, endurance, and mental control, in which we can, when day is done, find replenishment for mind, body and soul.
The crags that sit on either side of Long Branch, two miles downstream from Shreve’s little store in the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon, are the perfect setting for this dualistic pursuit of peace and adventure.
Heather Jiles spots Andrea Nelson on the 5.8+ Arete of the Sunshine Wall. Photo by Tyrel Johnson
Hidden behind a screen of trees and perched high on the ridge, the Guide Walls’ southern end was dubbed The Sunshine Wall for good reason. Here you can shed those layers and dance up lines like the long-distance 5.8+ Guide’s Arete, 5.9s Zendo, Funboy and The Never Ending Story, huck and crimp your way through the Guide’s 5.11 or George’s Dilemma, another great bucket tour that leads to a challenging 5.10 roof crux. If you’re in the mood to test your roof technique, try the Macdaddy Roof; weighing in at 5.10d, this body-length overhang will tax even the strong for the bucket at the lip.
Around the corner, on the crag’s middle section and northern end, the east-facing lines of the Ninja Walls offer climbers both summer shade and a haven from winter’s cold, as leaves and temperatures begin to fall.
The author and Andreas Czerwinski enjoying some fall sunshine on The routes of the Macdaddy Roof; the 5.9 Never Ending Story and the Guide 10b
Chris Beauchamp’s ‘Glossolalia’ kicks things off and Nick Kurland’s ‘Cu Rodeo’ ups the ante with thin holds on steep ground and a touch of run-out. Beyond these wait classic Ninja lines like ‘Destiny’ and ‘Hummingbird’, the 5.9- trad headpoint “Name Your Poison’ and mind-boggling roof of 5.10c/d ‘Carpe Diem’.
For a final burn of all remaining rounds, hike out to the north end and jump on crusher Mike Fisher lines like ‘Slight of Hand’, ‘Defenders of the Faith’, or Chris Beauchamp’s thuggish ‘Pon Hoss’.
On the south side of the creek, Long Branch is home to some of the tallest faces, as well as some of the most difficult technical lines, to be found in the canyon.
Tom Cecil’s world-class ‘Beautiful Loser’ checks in at a sustained 5.11 with 9 well-spaced bolts, nearby ‘Shattered Illusions’ requires a full bag of 5.10 tricks over the course of 11 bolts and a V-slot through a roof, while ‘Big Johnson’, ‘The Ron Jeremy Arete’, ‘The Darkness’, ‘The Lightness’, ‘Gone Sniffin’’, ‘Local Hospitality’ and Parker Smith’s new addition ‘Shorty’s Lament’, all lay solid claim to territory at 5.12 and above.
Michael Fisher cruising the bomber moves and stone of ‘Destiny’, one of the original lines at the Ninja Walls.
Troy Johnson and I first came here in the very early 90s, at the invitation of Darrell Hensley, the Seneca Rocks guide and WV native who explored Smoke Hole and climbed here before most people knew the canyon existed. Franklin Gorge, where we had all been climbing for years, was filling up with people and the number of new routes left for development was down to maybe a handful of good lines and a dozen or so more mediocre routes.
Troy and I drove up to Smoke Hole on a windy, rainy day, waving at Franklin as we passed, grabbing coffee at the Shell station at the light, then rolling up 220 through pastureland and river bottom farms. We stared up at Reed Creek and wondered again if the “No Trespassing” signs were bogus (it turned out that they were, but that is another story), waved at the old men of the Liar’s Club, drinking coffee on the bench in front of Kile’s Grocery in Upper Tract, and turned off just before the old iron bridge.
We rounded the curve, crossed the hill by the old Alt farmhouse, and dropped into wonderland. Cliffs rose up on both sides of the river, the nearest just ten feet from the car windows as we stopped to stare up at the huge roof of the Entrance Walls. Another shower drove us back into the car, and hid most of Eagle Rocks and the French Fin from our gaping view as we passed.
Tyrel Johnson fighting the good fight and looking for Zen on the steep Mike Fisher route ‘Defenders of the Faith’ (5.10d), at the Ninja Walls.
Eventually we reached Shreve’s Store, got our bearings, and had almost returned to sanity when we dropped into the lower canyon, and saw that all that had gone before was just a prelude.
We gibbered. We pointed, craned our necks and pointed some more, making nonsense noises and banging our heads on the windshield, spilling coffee.
Two miles beyond the store, we reached the destination Darrell had described and a breaking point at the same instant; parked, grabbed water bottles, and scrambled madly up the talus slope leading to the base of the Long Branch Buttress.
After half an hour of absolutely speechless wandering, we nodded to each other, returned to the car, and headed home to gather allies and supplies.
Troy came back and bolted “Local Hospitality’, ‘Big Johnson’, ‘Pigs on the Wing’, and began the task of ground-up bolting the visionary project that would eventually become Mike Farnsworth’s ‘The Lightness’. He took off from the start of my mixed route “Through the Looking Glass’ and gave us the superb 5.11 ‘Pigs on the Wing’.
The massive Long Branch Buttress, in the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon. Photo by Mike Gray
Rachel Levinson and Melissa Wine joined us, as did Mike Fisher, Greg Fangor, Chris Riha and a host of talented climbers from the Shenandoah and Albemarle valleys. Together, the group of us cleaned and put up ‘Shattered Illusions’, then Melissa and I produced ‘Hippo Head’ (the wall’s first all-female FA by Wine and Levinson), ‘Batteries Not Included’ and ‘Overtime’.
Taking a break from developing routes on the far side of the creek, at the Sunshine Wall, Tom Cecil, Tony Barnes and Darrell came over to bolt ‘Beautiful Loser’ and Tony’s mixed 5.10 line in the cave to the left.
Mike Fisher had dubbed our group the Five Deadly Ninjas, a tongue-in-cheek nod from his deep love of Kung Fu theater. Troy, Rachel, Melissa, myself, and Mr. Fisher decided that we needed a look at the walls they were developing on the other side of the creek, and the classic lines of the Ninja Walls were born in the following months.
Mike Farnsworth, on the crux of “The Lightness”, 5.12d, Darkside, Long Branch Buttress.
Life went on, our little crew drifted apart, and I moved off to the west. I would call Mike Fisher on my occasional trips home, and we would invariably wind up at Smoke Hole for a climb or three, plotting on the remaining lines in this apparently forgotten corner of West Virginia.
In 2003, I returned to the Valley, and we put up Funboy and Zendo on an overlooked ledge at the Sunshine Wall. Four years later, we bolted and led the routes of the Corvinus Cave, at Long Branch.
A recent surge in activity saw four new lines at or above 5.12, bolted and led by Michael Farnsworth, the guy who conquered one of the steepest routes of Seneca Rocks. Added to the already impressive set of routes in place, you have an area to test the mettle of climbers from around the globe.
Mahtaab Bagherzadeh eyes the long road ahead, facing the first of many cruxes on ‘Shattered Illusions’, the longest 5.10 on the Long Branch Buttress. Photo by Tyrel Johnson.
But don’t worry, moderate climbers and fun seekers… there’s still plenty of good times to be had, with enjoyable lines tucked in amongst the test pieces and enduro routes. Smile your way through sport warm-ups like ‘My Silver Lining’ (5.7), ‘Lost World Arete’ (5.7), or ‘Batteries Not Included’ (5.8+), mix things up with bolt and gear offerings like the 5.8 ‘Through the Looking Glass’, or take a break from the bolts and pull out the whole rack for the long trad adventure of 5.7 ‘Cherry Lane’.
Although the road is a bit bumpy, and even dusty and blessed with more than its share of potholes, from the crags of Long Branch and the Guide Walls, climbers are still less than an hour from hot food, showers and all the comforts of modern life.
Volunteers are constantly working to protect access, maintain the trails and improve old routes with new hardware.
Racked up and ready for ground-up adventure; the author clips in for the first ascent of ‘Cherry Lane’, 5.7, Darkside, Long Branch Buttress.
No bushwhacking, no epics, no ‘scene’, just great lines of all levels on great stone, a zen garden in which to find a bit of peace and quiet, in the beat of your heart, in the heart of the canyon.
Smoke Hole Canyon Rock Climbing: Long Branch and Guide Walls by Mike Gray was last modified: March 15th, 2023 by Mike Gray
South of Smoke Hole Canyon and the town of Upper Tract, Reed’s Creek Road intersects with the old Petersburg Turnpike, after winding down from the shoulders of North Fork Mountain through meadows of cows and sheep, steep ridges surrounding proud old family homes and weathered barns, clusters of doublewide trailers and modular housing and the occasional vine-covered ruin of a log cabin.
Cindy Bender (now Gray) pulls welcome buckets on Welcome to Reed Creek (5.7)
The road is busier than it once was, but there are days, late summer evenings and pristine winter afternoons, when the sound of a tractor is more common than that of an automobile, and there is a sense of timelessness, the smell of honeysuckle, livestock, strains of gospel music and southern rock in the air.
This is Reed’s Creek; a series of south-facing arêtes and dihedrals and a high-quality selection of sixty sport and trad lines on featured metamorphic limestone, with a reasonable approach hike, a serviceable trail and ample parking, just off State Route 220 in West Virginia’s historic Pendleton County.
Trevor Albert cuts loose on Ryan Eubank’s Golden Horseshoe (5.10b/c)
Guides from Seneca Rocks first put bit to stone to the walls of Reed Creek in 2002 and 2003, creating Welcome to Reed Creek, One Page at a Time, and Catfish Strangler, the original Boneyard Routes.
The routes were good and the stone was fine, but there were other crags and other callings, and they moved on to new horizons.
Although visited once or twice by some local legends, the crag languished for years, hidden behind the thick summer canopy, layers of old fence, greenbrier and No Trespassing signs, until I found the three original lines on a scouting expedition in 2008 and was blown away by the untapped potential of the other walls.
Unknown climber stretched out on the crux of Catfish Strangler (5.10b) Photo by Mike Gray
The following week, I made my way to the Cheat Potomac Ranger Station, where records indicated that the land was public. I wasted no time and began exploring and developing routes, starting with the 5.10 Reaching Conclusions, the premier line on the Reach Wall.
The following spring, Lyndon State College sensei Jamie Struck brought an eager crew from Vermont to create the lower trails around the Gypsies Wall and top-rope the line that would become Shaved Scamper. Long-time area developer and hard man Mike Fisher and NoVA’s Ryan Eubank soon joined the development push with routes like Second Rule, Shaolin Mantis, Little Purple Flowers, Hunter’s Moon and Grapevine Massacre. Cindy Bender was there from the start, with hot coffee and snacks, spending long hours on belay and building trail before dancing up some of the first ascents of lines like A Horse With No Name, Second Rule, Winterharvest and Fire On the Mountain.
Whitney Moss, reaching for hope on the crux of Disorientation 101 (5.11)
Following repeated questions of property boundaries, the author’s investigation into county tax records, deed descriptions, and MNF survey documents proved once and for all that these sweet crags were public land. Route development resumed immediately.
Pennsylvania climbers Michael Stewart and Randy La Force added excellent moderates like Dr. Taco and Superman, as word of the crag began to spread among locals and across the region.
Following the proactive precedent of Franklin Gorge, The First Spring Send-a-thon and Trail Daze event was organized and attended by Gray, Bender, Fisher, Eubank and a coalition of strong climbers from Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as “locals” from Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. Trails around and leading to the Boneyard were improved and expanded, and trash was collected along Reed Creek Road. The National Forest resurveyed and marked the boundaries along the private property line, making it easier for hunters and climbers to avoid trespassing.
Brian Brydges, cruising through a sweet April day on Little Purple Flowers (5.9)
Today, Reed’s has over 40 routes, in a wide variety of grades and styles, from Mike Fisher’s 5.7 funfest dihedral Second Rule and my own trad 5.7 SuperNatural to technical challenges like Fisher’s 5.11+ Shaolin Mantis, Eubank’s burly 5.11 Grapevine Massacre, and Michael Farnsworth’s 5.12 cave line Harlem. Newcomers Chris Beauchamp and Tyrel Johnson have been adding bold trad, mixed and sport lines like Invasive Species and Mare Imbrium.
(Tyrel has been instrumental in continuing the tradition of trail work and stewardship, and tireless the editing process; hiking trails, correcting errors, and tweaking all the details of the app.)
The project Cold Day in Hell, originally bolted by Eubank, has yet to see an ascent, despite repeated tries by strong 5.12 climbers who say the grade may be as high as 5.13.
Sunny winter days and shady summer mornings, easy access, great lines and an incredible setting, just off the beaten path; Reed’s Creek has something for every climber.
Smoke Hole Canyon Rock Climbing: Reed’s Creek – Summer Fun and Winter Sun by Mike Gray was last modified: March 15th, 2023 by Mike Gray