LAST SUMMER, when I first started learning to climb in the Kootenays, my friends were always talking about Skaha. Between them all it seemed like someone was making the four hour drive from Nelson almost every weekend. I’ve been intrigued about the place since.
My partner and I chose this month to go because we know that Penticton — in the dry Okanagan Valley — gets ridiculously hot mid-summer. Even this early in the season it was quite hot with temperatures hitting the upper 20s (80s for you American folk). Climbing in heat is one thing, but access to the bluffs is a good hike in and can be energy-sapping, especially with the sun blazing down.
Getting to the trailhead
Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park is on the east side of Skaha Lake, just south of Penticton. If you’re in Penticton, follow Main St south to Lakeside Road and follow that until a signpost points you left onto the road to the parking lot.
The park can also be reached from the south end of the lake through the town of Okanagan Falls. Follow East Side Rd — which runs right along the lake (on your left) — until pointed right by the signpost.
Once on the road to the park simply follow it up, past the gates, and up the narrow road to the parking lot (drive carefully, vehicles might be coming down and there is barely room to squeak by each other). If you need a map, here’s one.[Interesting fact: A new permanent parking lot at the trailhead was the result of several years of support and fundraising from the local climbing community. Through their efforts – with support from Canadian outdoor gear company Mountain Equipment Co-op, The Land Conservancy, the province of BC, the Climber’s Access Society, and other partners – $5.2 million was raised to secure the land. The new parking lot opened in March, 2012.]
The park has 586 routes (mostly sport) on 63 crags spread throughout three parallel canyons, with grades ranging from Class 3 to 5.14a. The crags are spaced around the park and accessed by a well-marked trail system. Depending on which routes you want to climb, you could be hiking anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours.
For a novice sport climber like me who top ropes up to 5.10c and leads up to 5.9, there was a lot for me to do on these walls:
- Red Tail Lower (23 routes, 5.6 to 5.10b)
- Red Tail Another Buttress (13 routes, 5.6 to 5.11a)
- Go Anywhere (16 routes, 5.5 to 5.10c)
The choice of guidebooks for the area is Howie Richardson’s Skaha Rockclimbs — a brand new edition was released just this past March. The previous edition, which we were using, is from 2003 (this made for a couple of interesting “unknown” climbs). Or for an online breakdown of the crags, visit ProjectClimb.
Best times to climb
It’s a desert out there and with that comes desert climates. But this also means that there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be dry. It did rain a tiny bit when we were there last weekend but it dried up super quick. The best times to climb are May-June and August-September, when temperatures are comfortable.
There are lots of trees around, so shade is never far away. Portions of crags might be shaded well while others are completely exposed. If you’re on an east-facing wall (like Red Tail), it’s really pleasant when the sun passes overhead and goes behind it. In May this happened in early afternoon, which meant plenty of daylight still to climb.
In any case, make sure you bring and drink lots of water.
Where to stay
There are several campgrounds and motels / hotels in Penticton, which is only about 15 minutes away from the trailhead. After a loud first night camping in Penticton (we were right beside the airport and near a bar blaring music), we drove south 20 minutes to Okanagan Falls. There is camping in Okanagan Falls Provincial Park; however, there are only 25 available spots and it’s first-come first-serve. It was full when we arrived on a Saturday morning in late May.
Sun & Sand RV Park is right on the south end of Skaha Lake — they have a private beach area. This is where we ended up pitching tent for two nights. It’s mostly for RVs but there are 10 potential tenting sites right on the beach, and one private one at the back.
From Okanagan Falls it’s a beautiful 15 minute drive along the lake to Skaha Bluffs.
Pat and Bob, who are currently running Sun & Sand RV Park, were the ultimate hosts. They set us up in a private spot (#49) and made sure we were well taken care of, even giving us a head of lettuce when the nearby IGA grocery store closed early, leaving us in a lurch for dinner. Not to say that all visitors will get free vegetables when staying there. They’re just good people. If you do stay there, tell them I said hi.