Index, Washington: A Climber’s Heaven

index town wallSplit­ter gran­ite. Bold, aes­thet­ic lines. Easy approach­es, ever­green forests, and crags that aren’t crowd­ed. Have you explored the tee­ny town of Index, Wash­ing­ton? Nes­tled deep in the Cas­cades is a world-class rock climb­ing destination—and from Seat­tle, it’s less than a two-hour drive.

How to Get There
From the Seat­tle area, head north on I‑5 to High­way 2, then dri­ve 20 miles east of Mon­roe. Turn north onto Index-Gale­na Road and dri­ve less than a mile on wind­ing coun­try roads. Sud­den­ly you’re in the rus­tic lit­tle town of Index, Wash­ing­ton. To the north is the sweep­ing gran­ite of the Upper and Low­er Town Walls; to the south, the ice-cold Skykomish Riv­er flows through old-growth stands of pine and cedar. Far­ther south, Mount Index (5,991’) tow­ers against the skyline.

It’s a tiny town—so tiny, in fact, that dur­ing the 2010 cen­sus, the pop­u­la­tion was list­ed as 178 peo­ple. And it shows! It’s a two-street town with no name-brand chains—just a one-room library and a mom-and-pop cor­ner store. But to most climbers, that tiny-town vibe is heav­en: there’s no hus­tle and bus­tle, no traf­fic, and no crowds at the best swim­ming holes. Plus, if you ask nice­ly, the town­ies will point you toward the crag and bend your ear with beta about their favorite routes. (For the record: Index locals crush.)

Dri­ve through town to get to the base of the crags, where park­ing is free. Approach­es are gen­er­al­ly 15 min­utes or less, though you’ll need sol­id shoes for some mild-to-mod­er­ate scram­bling. There’s even free river­front camp­ing less than a mile away—just make sure you lock your car doors and hide valuables.

The Good Part
From the park­ing lot, you can glimpse huge slabs of ver­ti­cal gray stone through the trees. The rock qual­i­ty is some of the best in the Pacif­ic Northwest—it’s pri­mar­i­ly a fine-grained gran­ite, which holds pro­tec­tion solid­ly, min­i­mizes rock­fall haz­ard, and is eas­i­er on the hands than the larg­er-grained, rougher gran­ite in the rest of the Cas­cades. The grades are stout, which leads some Seat­tle climbers to refer to Index as a “high-grav­i­ty area.” But the diver­si­ty makes up for the sand­bagged grades: there are long mul­ti-pitch sport and trad routes, well-pro­tect­ed split­ters, and some seri­ous aid climbs. Anchors are gen­er­al­ly bolt­ed, and the area is large­ly well main­tained. Clas­sic routes include the Great North­ern Slab (5.6), Godzil­la (5.9), Davis-Hol­land/Lovin’ Arms (5.10c), and Japan­ese Gar­dens (5.11c). At the belays you’ll hear trains pulse through the area, car­ry­ing sup­plies across the Cas­cade crest.

The best source for beta is Rakkup, a climb­ing-spe­cif­ic app that’s avail­able for iPhone and Android. In the app, look for the dig­i­tal guide­book called “Index Town Walls,” writ­ten by Chris Kalman and Matt Van Biene. It cov­ers 179 of the best routes in the area, and also offers an inter­ac­tive map and detailed descrip­tions of each climb. Just make sure your phone is ful­ly charged! (Kalman and Van Biene are cur­rent­ly work­ing on a hard-copy guide­book, so stay tuned.)

If it’s rain­ing, don’t despair: the area is also a world-class des­ti­na­tion for white­wa­ter raft­ing, steel­head fish­ing, and hik­ing. If you con­tin­ue up High­way 2 you can explore Stevens Pass, which boasts a down­hill ski­ing resort and inter­sects the Pacif­ic Crest Trail. If you need a day away from Index, head to Leav­en­worth, a Bavar­i­an-themed tourist town on the oth­er side of Stevens Pass. If you can stom­ach being served by a wait­er in leder­ho­sen, the bratwurst is unbeatable.

But if it’s sun­ny, stay in Index and sim­ply climb until your wrists give out. Then head to the Mt. Index Brew­ery and Dis­tillery for a cold brew, and if you’re feel­ing bold—or sweaty—top off the day with an icy plunge in the riv­er. Trust me: the locals will respect you for it.