Well, if you follow me on Instagram (@cragmama), you may have noticed the poll that went up last week about which crag to feature on the blog next – Hidden Valley or the Red? It was a tight race, with the winner going back and forth numerous times before finally settling on Hidden Valley. If you were hoping for the Red, have no fear, that Travel Beta guide will hopefully be up before your fall projects start calling. But for now, read on for the travel beta for family climbing at Hidden Valley.
First off, let it be known that climbing at Hidden Valley (just like any climbing area), is a privilege, not a right. We as a community lost access to this amazing resource for about 10 years due to climbers squandering that privilege. Thankfully, the cliff was reopened in 2014, thanks to the Carolina Climbers Coalition purchasing the land. That said, some of the climbing areas are still on private property, so please let’s learn from our past mistakes. Don’t bring your dogs, try to keep the noise to a respectable volume, and pack out your trash. Don’t be the one idiot that jeopardizes access for the masses. And if you’re not a CCC member – you should be! And you can do that HERE.
But enough ranting, here’s the deets you need. There are two main options for camping. Your preferred level of rustic-ness will likely determine where you end up. Our family loves camping by the lake. It is gorgeous, about as convenient as it gets, and is generally pretty quiet. More than once we’ve been the only tent there. Usually there’s a couple of climbers and maybe some local fishermen. The camping is primitive – so don’t forget to bring water! There is a porta-potty, and while we’ve seen it pretty dirty a time or two, generally it’s fairly clean and not too stinky! You do need a permit to camp there (it’s actually the same one you are supposed to have to climb there) -get that here. The park ranger regularly patrols through checking permits, so please take the extra few minutes to get one before you come. If you have a kayak/canoe/paddleboard, be sure to bring it as well, as the lake is only a couple hundred feet from the camping. (There’s also a well-marked boat launch in between the camping area and the climber’s parking lot if you’d prefer.) To reach the campsites, just keep driving past the parking lot and take the second right. You can’t miss it!
If a bathhouse and running water are more your jam, check out the Riverside Campground, just a few miles south on Hwy 19. We only stayed there once, when the road to the above mentioned sites was closed for re-paving, and it was just okay for us. The site we stayed at along the river was very nice, but the campground as a whole was super crowded, and felt very commercial with a ton of giant RV’s. It was also more expensive than we are used to paying for camping, probably due to all the extra amenities you wouldn’t normally find at a tent campground – game room, pool, etc. But the bathhouse was clean, and they did have potable water!
Keep in mind that the temperature will likely be 5-10 degrees cooler than whatever the forecast is in Abingdon on a given day, due to elevation. That said, camping can get cold earlier in the season than you might expect. If it’s warm enough to climb but too cold to camp, there are options for varying budgets in Abingdon. We have often stayed at America’s Best Value Inn…it’s just okay, but it’s $60 per night, which includes a barebones breakfast. Once we came for our anniversary sans kids and stayed at the White Birches Inn. It was great for a getaway, but was definitely a little “formal” for bringing the kids.
If you are willing to drive the 20 minutes back down to Abingdon, you’ll have plenty of choices when it comes to food! Our family likes Los Arcos, pretty good Mexican food at a decent price. We’ve also had good experiences at JJ’s Sports Bar. It’s typical bar food fare with some healthier options mixed in, located just before you reach the main downtown area in Abingdon.
More often than not, however, we bring our own food and just do dinner at camp. The lake and surrounding woods offer plenty for the kiddos to do while we cook, and it’s just so darn relaxing down there, it’s hard to make that drive back down to town again!
LEFT SIDE: There’s really just one trail, so it’s pretty hard to get lost! The hiking is pretty easy – not a lot of scrambling, and mostly flat or slightly rolling up and down. The following areas are all on the left side, listed as you reach them from the parking lot.
BUTT CITY and SNAKE GARDEN – My kids refer to this area as Salamander Town, due to all the salamanders we always find in the damp corner separating these two areas from each other. First areas you reach walking from the parking lot – 5 minutes approach time. Be mindful of spreading out too much below the base of the Butt City climbs, as the approach trail goes right up to the cliff. Snake Garden is much wider, and is a great base camp for babies and blankets.
MEAT WALL – Approach time 10-ish minutes. Many routes start on a wide ledge with enough room to play safely, but definitely keep your eyes on toddlers! The area around Gristle 12a has a large, flat, open area that makes a great base camp for families.
CRAZY HORSE – 15 minutes. Great place for families to hang.
SNL WALL – 20 minutes. Another great hangout for kids farther back from the cliff. It’s worth mentioning that if your parties are interested in Farley or Coke, Not Pepsi (both wildly popular 5.9’s), the belay areas are in a small corner behind some boulders. Families with young ones might want to make sure to have an extra grown-up handy, as it will be hard for a belayer to keep eyes on both climber and kiddos.
CHOCOLATE WALL, PLANETARIUM, GINSENG – 25-ish minute hike, plenty of good spots for families to spread out in relative solitude. Seems like most of the crowds tend to stop at SNL Wall or sooner.
FALCON WALL – 30 minute hike, but definitely the best place to avoid a crowd, especially if you get out there in the morning. There are some good spots to spread out a blanket, but the base is a little more rocky than in other areas. However, this makes for some great spots for the kids to explore. Word of caution, however; In the fall a sea of leaves builds up underneath some of the boulders. This is great fun for the kids to play in, but make sure their shoes are tied tight!!! Somehow one of our friend’s kids ended up losing a shoe in the leaves…and we NEVER found it! Every time we’ve come back to that area my kids look for it, but to no avail. 😉 May Remy’s shoe rest in peace!
RIGHT SIDE: Our family has only recently ventured over to the Right Side (the trail behind the kiosk.) Quality is a little hit or miss over there – routes, rock, and hardware! But if you are looking for a change of pace, it’s worth checking out, especially in the summer. The sun doesn’t even start to hit most of the walls until around 2, and even then it was very filtered because of all the tree cover. It’s also WAY less crowded – we’ve had the entire cliff to ourselves all day, only to hike out to a full capacity parking lot! Some of the bolts and anchors are shiny and new, but a lot are pretty sketchy looking, so use good judgment and be over-redundant when you can. While the CCC is working overtime trying to replace old hardware everywhere at Hidden Valley, it takes lots of time and effort from volunteers that have families, jobs, and climbing projects of their own. (Wanna help? Join the CCC!)
One of the best parts about Hidden Valley is the concentration of harder climbs and easier climbs all mixed together. Mom and Dad can take turns on their projects, while kiddos can run laps on the warm-ups – or vice versa, depending on how strong your kids are!!! The only area that doesn’t offer much for the 5.9 and under crowd is the Falcon Wall. Outside of that, it’s a safe bet that any area you pick will make everyone in your crew happy, regardless of their climbing level. And if not, just pack up and migrate farther down the cliff til you find what you want!
Overall, Hidden Valley is a wonderful resource, and I’m very thankful for all the work put in by the CCC to secure access for us! Is the rock as good as the New? Heck no! But truly, not many areas are!!! That said, there is one thing that Hidden Valley boasts that the New River Gorge cannot – high elevation. (“High” being relative to the Southeast, that is.) The crag sits close to 4000′, and as mentioned in the camping section, is significantly cooler than surrounding areas. We have had very pleasant weekends there in August, while the rest of the Southeast is still sweating their you-know-whats off at the New and the Red! Another plus for that higher altitude for families – no poison ivy!!! Your kids can explore without constant parental reminders of “leaves of three, let them be.”
Psyched and ready to plan your next family climbing trip for Hidden Valley? Check out these posts for specific route recommendations for your grade of choice!