Splitter 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.