Recreation and Restoration: An Ode to the Shelf Road Recreation Area

By Tia Vierling

Why is a librarian like a hiker? They both love Shelf Road.

Photo by Austin Halpern

This joke may seem pedestrian at best and groan-worthy at worst, but it holds a grain of truth. Shelf Road Recreation Area, located just north of Cañon City, is beloved by locals and visitors to Colorado alike. From the beauty of its forested areas to the trails hikers and equestrians can explore running through it, Shelf Road — which sits atop what once was a stagecoach route — has much to offer interested parties.

While Shelf Road offers a variety of opportunities for its visitors to go out and get active, the area is most famous for its craggy limestone, which poses an enjoyable challenge to any climber. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the Shelf Road Recreation Area, the climbing routes available at the location range from a 5.7 to 5.13 grade. 

Photo by Austin Halpern

To put this in simpler terms, the classes of challenge offered by Shelf Road span from a 5.7 grade, signifying relatively easy climbing, to grades like 5.11 and 5.12 that remain difficult even for experienced climbers. Shelf Road is popular for many reasons, but climbers may be especially drawn to it if they intend to practice their crimping, a climbing strategy that involves gripping onto small handholds with the tips of the fingers. Given that limestone, which constitutes the bulk of Shelf Road’s climbing areas, is known as a good type of rock for sport climbing, many climbers are drawn to the recreation area for sport climbing specifically.

In fact, one 5.11 grade Shelf Road route, “Lats Don’t Have Feelings,” was rated by Climbing Magazine as one of America’s 100 Best Sport Climbing Routes. As one of several routes along Cactus Cliff, nearly all of which are entirely vertical, “Lats Don’t Have Feelings” spans 75 grueling feet of rock — and it has not even been labeled the most difficult of the routes that border it. In the online climbing community Mountain Project, a crowdsourced collection of routes and reviews, Matt Johnson notes in regard to this route that he does not think he has “ever seen [his] lats explode through [his] skin before.”

Photo by Austin Halpern

After climbing on Cactus Cliff or exploring other routes out of the hundreds present in Shelf Road Recreation Area, visitors can camp at either The Banks or Sand Gulch, campgrounds located nearby to climbing, hiking, and horseback riding areas. Fourmile Creek, famous for its availability as a fishing ground, is also within trekking distance. 

As a hotspot for so much outdoor activity, Shelf Road requires upkeep to maintain its trails and routes. The Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) is one of the primary organizations that contributes to keeping Shelf Road usable, focusing on integrating on-site materials into every Shelf Road route “to create a trail that blends seamlessly with its environmental surroundings.” Focusing on preventing and remedying the effects of erosion and educating the public about the land, RMFI acts as a valuable resource for keeping the fate of Shelf Road in the hands of people who care.

As RMFI strikes a balance between creating an area that can be used recreationally and supporting the local ecology of Shelf Road, the site is only strengthened as a place to find adventure. Whether you’re a sport climber or an angler, a hiker or a librarian, Shelf Road has something to offer you.  


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