Photo: Geartooth Productions/Shutterstock

Everything to Know About Rock Climbing in Bishop, California

by Hayden Seder Jun 23, 2023

Bishop, California, may be a small town, but it’s surrounded by big names in the outdoors: it’s close to Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Mountain, and Mount Whitney (the highest point in the continental US).

However, what it’s not small on is climbing. Bishop climbing is some of the best in the country for both bouldering and wall climbing. It’s in the eastern Sierra Nevada, a few hours south of Lake Tahoe, and (weather permitting), you can usually climb year-round. Add in cheap places to camp, beautiful nearby wilderness areas, plenty of hot springs, and a friendly climbing community, and it’s not surprising that Bishop climbers return year after year after year to put their skills to the test.

Bishop, California map

On a map, Bishop looks close to well-known places like Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. But in the Sierras, it’s mostly mountain roads, and driving can be slow going. If you’re coming from the west (from the San Francisco area), the quickest way to reach Bishop will be to cross Yosemite National Park — but the park’s east-to-west road (Tioga Pass) is closed from roughly November to May. If you’re coming from LA, you’ll want to take 395 North. That means that it’s a drive to get to a Bishop no matter where you’re coming from. Fortunately, it’s close to other cool destinations like June Lake, the ghost town of Bodie, and Mammoth Mountain, so there are plenty of places to visit before and after your climbing adventure.

Weather in Bishop, California

bishop, california - climber with crash pad

Bishops, California, is a high-elevation desert at the base of the eastern Sierra. Photo: Kat Carney/Shutterstock

Bishop is considered northern California, though it’s sort of the southern part of northern California. It’s in the eastern Sierra Nevada, which is jagged and steeper than the more rounded peaks around Lake Tahoe. It’s at an elevation of 4,150 feet above sea level, so winters get pretty cold. That doesn’t mean you can’t climb, but it does mean it occasionally snows, and camping can be pretty chilly in the middle of January. Rock faces can also get icy, occassionally limiting your climbing options in the winter.

Also, as with most desert regions, the summers can be pretty brutal; July highs can top 100 degrees.

Bishop bouldering

Person rock climbing

Photo: Kat Carney/Shutterstock

If you prefer to leave the ropes at home, you have plenty of options for Bishop climbing with no harness required. Bishop’s bouldering scene is synonymous with the Buttermilks, named for the dairy farming operation in the area in the 1870s. It’s a beautiful place to climb, since huge mountains form the backdrop to this field of boulders, many of which are as tall as multi-story buildings. Many professional climbers gravitate to Bishop to try the crimpy, granite highball problems in the Buttermilks. (“Problems” is the term for climbing routes on boulders.)

There are 461 bouldering routes around the Buttermilks ranging from V0 (easy as can be) to V16 (extremely difficult, even for professionals). The most famous of these boulders are the Peabodys, Grandma Peabody, and Grandpa Peabody. Grandpa Peabody has nine problems ranging from V4 to V16, none of which are for the faint of heart. While you may not be jumping onto one of these, it’s worth stopping to watch those skilled enough give it an attempt. The rough granite of the Buttermilk problems can make even the most seasoned boulderer whimper, so don’t skimp on taking care of your hands.

The two other main bouldering areas are the Happys and the Sads, both located in the Volcanic Tablelands and full of problems with deep pockets and big jugs. Both these areas are a bit more beginner-friendly than the Buttermilks area. If you’re traveling solo, you can do many of these shorter problems with just one bouldering pad, unlike the highballs at the Buttermilks.

Bishop climbing

Person rock climbing bishop climbing

Photo: robcocquyt/Shutterstock

Despite Bishop’s bouldering reputation, it also is home to California’s most concentrated sport climbing area: the Owens River Gorge. It’s just north of Bishop and has more than 500 sport climbing routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.13c. Beginners will want to stick to routes in the 5.5 to 5.7 range. It also has roughly 150 traditional (or trad) routes. While sport climbing uses existing bolts, trad climbing involves carrying, placing, and then removing one’s own protective climbing gear.

Some climbs are more than 150 feet tall, and the rock is tough. It’s mostly ancient molten lava that offers plenty of ledges and crags. The 10-mile long gorge is broken down into six sections — North Gorge, Upper Gorge, Inner Gorge, Central Gorge, Lower Gorge, and Sub Gorge — with about a 5-10 minute approach to each. Most sections offer a mix of difficulty levels.

Planning a Bishop climbing trip

bishop climbing - valley at sunset

Photo: coronado/Shutterstock

The best way to find out a route or problem’s difficulty rating is to buy a climbing guide you can carry into the field with you (look for a book called “Bishop Area Bouldering” or “Bishop Area Rock Climbs.”) Alternatively, you can look up routes in advance using a website like The Crag or Mountain Project. Bouldering routes are rated from V0 (easiest) to V17 (phew). Climbing routes are rated as 5-point-something. A rating like 5.4 or 5.5 is as easy as it gets; skilled beginners will likely find themselves maxing out around 5.7 on their first time climbing. The hardest rating is 5.15d (incredibly challenging).

Of course, beginners should always go with more experienced climbers who are knowledgeable on evaluating routes and conditions, setting and cleaning routes, and practicing proper belay techniques. Most indoor climbing gyms offer quick classes in everything from belaying to top roping.

Other things to do in Bishop, California

bishop climbing california - duck lake

Photo: Jiri Ambroz/Shutterstock

Bishop climbing may be the main draw for most outdoorsy types, but it’s hardly the only thing to do.

  • Hiking: Aside from Bishop climbing, the next most popular activity is probably Bishop hiking. Bishop is very close to the trailhead for Mount Whitney as well as other stunning hikes in the John Muir Wilderness. Note that while Bishop doesn’t get tons of snow, the summits around Bishop do, and all higher-elevation trails will be impassible between December and May. Top hikes in the JMW include Duck Pass (10 miles, 2,150-foot elevation gain) and Lake Sabrina to Blue Lake.
  • Hot springs: The eastern Sierra is covered in hot springs, both official and unofficial, advertised and hidden. And if you’re doing any Bishop climbing, you’re likely to be a little bit sore after pushing your skills to the limits. Keough’s Hot Springs has a hot tub and pool fed by natural hot springs and costs $10 for a day pass, and Benton Hot Springs is only about 30 minutes from town. Other free, primitive hot springs abound in the area, so check out one of the local guidebooks or ask a local for the best spots.
  • Eating and drinking: Stop into Schat’s Bakery, famous for its Sheepherder’s bread and other delightful pastries and goods, and you’ll find plenty of other climbers stocking up. This place is pretty much packed non-stop, but it’s worth the wait. Nearby Black Sheep is a good spot for coffee, breakfast burritos, and posting Instagram photos with the free Wi-Fi.
  • Visit Mammoth: Mammoth is only about 45 minutes from Bishop and is an awesome mountain town year-round. It’s all about skiing in the winter, but summer is pretty great, too. Mammoth Mountain has one of the best mountain bike parks in the US, and natural sites like Devil’s Postpile and June Lake are nearby, too. If you need gear or guidebooks, go to Mammoth Moutaineering’s Gear Exchange. For craft beers and delicious eats, Mountain Rambler Brewery is solid choice. For a cool spring trip, plan a long weekend in the eastern Sierra, spending one day climbing in Bishop and one day skiing at Mammoth.
  • Check out Bodie: Bodie Historic Site is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the United States. It’s a 30-minute drive along a dirt road to reach it, and it’s completely worth the trip. it’s pretty much only accessible in the summer, and it’s $8 per person to enter. It’s worth it to spring for the $3 guide book, too. BYO everything — aside from restrooms, there’s not much in the way of public facilities.

Camping and hotels in Bishop, California

Tent bishop climbing

Photo: Geartooth Productions/Shutterstock

These are a variety of lodging options in Bishop, from hotels like Best Western or Motel 6 to primitive camping and everything in between.

Many hardcore climbers tend to camp, putting them that much closer to the best routes. The Pit Campground, near the Happy and Sad bouldering areas, is the go-to camping spot for climbers and is a great spot to socialize or recruit a new climbing partner. It’s $5 per night, doesn’t take reservations, and has a maximum stay of two weeks. Every campsite has a picnic table and fire ring, and the campground has pit toilets, dumpsters, and recycling bins (though no potable water). If you’re too cheap for the Pit, you can camp at the Buttermilks on Forest Service Land for free. There are no amenities, but you’ll wake up to gorgeous views and be just steps from climbing.

If you prefer a hotel, good news: they’re not very expensive.

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites

bishop climbing - holiday inn bedroom

Photo: Expedia

The Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites is probably the “fanciest” hotel in Bishop, and it’s not fancy — it’s a Holiday Inn. But it’s comfortable, clean, and reliable, with some nice perks to make your Bishop climbing trip a little easier, like a large complimentary breakfast and an indoor hot tub. Rooms start around $180 per night.

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The Vagabond Inn

Vagabond inn - bishop climbing

Photo: Expedia

The Vagabond Inn is walkable to everything in downtown and a popular place for climbers, hikers, and backpackers to stay before or after their trips. There’s an outdoor pool with a pool deck, free morning coffee, and a cute little BBQ area in case you want to grill something for dinner instead of heading to a restaurant. Rooms start around $90 per night.

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