5 Sacred Climbing Areas in the American West

Sacred Mountains of Native Americans

Many mountains, rock formations, cliffs, and towers are sacred places to Native Americans, whose ancestors have lived, created flourishing cultures, found visions in high places, and were buried on holy ground for many thousands of years. Many of these sacred places that are revered by both the ancient ones and today's Native American tribes are also used by other Americans for recreation like climbing as well as by those who exploit the earth for minerals, lumber, and profit.

Here are five sacred mountains in the American West that are also unique and beautiful climbing venues. It's important that we as climbers understand the religious significance and the importance of these sacred places to the original Americans and that we bring an attitude of both respect and reverence when we climb on their hallowed ground.

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Baboquivari: Sacred Mountain of the Tohono O’odham

Sunrise light gilds Baboquivari Peak, a sacred mountain on the Tohono O'odam homeland in southern Arizona. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Baboquivari, a 7,730-foot-high rock mountain jutting above the Arizona desert 50 miles west of Tucson, is the most sacred place and mountain to the Tohono O'odham people. The towering mountain is the center of Tohono O'odham cosmology and the home of I'itoli, their Creator and Elder Brother.

The Tohono O'odham tribe, formerly called the Pagago or Bean Eaters, still occupy their ancestral homeland in southern Arizona. Their religious traditions are based on this stark desert landscape, which is dominated by monolithic Baboquivari. The rock god I'itoli, also spelled I'itoi, lives in a cave within the mountain that he enters by a maze of passages. Legend says he came into this world from a world on the other side, leading his people, whom he had turned into ants, through an ant hole. He then changed them back into the Tohono O'odham people. I'itoli often appears in native basketry as a male figure above a maze, teaching the people that life is a maze of obstacles that must be overcome.

Climbers also revere Babo as a special climbing site, and although there are no restrictions on climbing, climbers need to respect the mountain and its people. The easiest route is a 4th Class scramble; the most popular technical route is the classic Southeast Ridge (5.6). Several big aid and free routes ascent the peak's big East Face.

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The Black Hills: Sacred Mountains of the Lakota Sioux

Bill Springer climbing Gossamer at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota.
Many rock climbs are found on granite spires in the sacred Black Hills in western South Dakota. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

The Black Hills in western South Dakota, including the climbing areas at The Needles, Mount Rushmore, and Spearfish Canyon, is the most sacred place in the world for the Sioux Indians.

The Black Hills, called Páha Sapá in Lakota, which translates to "Black Hills," has been a sacred area for more than 60 tribes of indigenous Native Americans, who have traveled for thousands of years to the range to conduct spiritual ceremonies and commune with the gods. The great Lakota shaman Black Elk, like many Sioux men, climbed to the top of the hills on vision quests. He later told writer John Neihardt about his experience in the book Black Elk Speaks.

The range is topped by 7,242-foot (2,207-meter) Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota, the highest summit in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and a popular climbing destination. The Sioux as well as other Native American groups have long been in conflict with the United States and South Dakota governments over preservation of the Black Hills, asking for respect for their traditions and their sacred mountains.

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Devil’s Tower: Sacred Mountain of Native Americans

Over 150 established routes ascend Devil's Tower's sheer flanks.
Devils Tower, one of America's premier climbing destinations, is closed to climbing every June. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Devil's Tower, a 5,112-foot (1,558-meters) volcanic plug in northeastern Wyoming, is a sacred mountain to many Native American tribes, including the Sioux, Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Shoshone Indians. All of the tribes revere the towering rock formation and call it some variation of Bear's Lodge, including Bear's Tipi, Bear's House, and Bear's Liar. The Lakota Sioux called it Mato Tipila or Bear Lodge. They often camped in the valley's below, performing ceremonies like the Sun Dance and fasting, praying, and doing vision quests beneath the holy mountain. Even still sacred bundles are left in special places below the tower.

The National Park Service, who administers the area as Devil's Tower National Monument, have a voluntary climbing closure during the month of June when religious ceremonies are held out of respect for Native American beliefs. Most climbers abide by the voluntary closure and come to climb the tower at other times of the year rather than intrude on the sacred site. Devil's Tower, first climbed in 1937, offers over 150 routes up its sheer basalt cliffs.

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Indian Creek Canyon: Sacred Land of the Ancestral Puebloans

Ed Webster leading Supercrack during the filming of Luxury Liner movie, Indian Creek Canyon, Utah.
Indian Creek Canyon is filled with ancient Anasazi petroglpyhs, ruins, as well as the best crack climbing on planet Earth. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Indian Creek Canyon, a southeast to northwest-trending canyon, drains from the Abajo Mountains to the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.

The canyon, lined with vertical Wingate sandstone cliffs, is famed not only as the best pure crack climbing area in the world but also as a stunning repository of Native American rock art panels. Newspaper Rock in the upper canyon is one of the largest and best preserved panels of petroglyphs or rock carvings in the American southwest, with literally hundreds of ancient petroglyphs including spirals, clan symbols, hunting scenes, and animals on the 200-square-foot sandstone panel.

Down the canyon are many famous crack climbs including the Supercrack of the Desert interspersed with other rock art panels and occasional ruined dwellings left by the ancient ones over 1,000 years ago.

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Shiprock: Sacred Land of the Navajo Indians

Shiprock towers over a barren plain in northwestern New Mexico.
Shiprock, a solidified volcanic plug, figures prominently in both Navajo mythology and American climbing history. Photograph courtesy Brian Crim

Shiprock, a 7,177-foot-high (2,188-meter) rock peak in northwestern New Mexico, is a sacred mountain to the Navajo Indians, who call it Tsé Bitʼaʼí, which means "rock with wings" or simply "winged rock." The formation figures in Navajo Indian mythology as a giant bird that carried the Diné from the north to their present homeland in the Four Corners region. Shiprock also is prominent in American climbing history.

As one of the great climbing problems of the 1930s, it finally saw its first ascent by a party of four Californians in 1939. A ban on climbing Shiprock was instituted by the Navajo Nation in 1970 after a climbing fatality because, as the official notice read, of "the Navajo's traditional fear of death and its aftermath, such accidents and especially fatalities often render the area where they occur as taboo." Shiprock, despite many ascents since the ban, still remains illegal to climb. The formation is located on Navajo lands.