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Bouldering in Bishop, USA | Destination Article

By Greg Chapman

Bishop: A brief history

Nestling below the volcanic tablelands between the snowcapped peaks of the High Sierra, close to California’s eastern border, is one of Inyo County’s most notable towns, Bishop CA. Its compact size, location and friendly feel make Bishop a superb base for an extended stay in the Eastern Sierras, an area world famous for its incredible scenery, endless outdoor activities and more aptly rock climbing possibilities. Once the archetypal cowboy town, Bishop (named after one of the first white settlers, Samuel A. Bishop) came into being in the mid 1860’s, and was originally established as a cattle rearing town to supply the increasing needs of the booming mining community of Aurora, Nevada, eighty 80 miles to the north. At the turn of 20th century much of the land in Owens Valley and the surrounding area was bought up by the Los Angeles Water Department. This action was done in a clandestine fashion, as many of the local land owners (predominantly farmers) were duped into believing the land was being purchased to improve local irrigation, when in fact the LA Water Department actual intended to use the areas vast water supplies to feed the increasing populations of downtown LA. Despite this huge blow to the local community the town persevered, and ironically many of the local residents now work for what became the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The modern LADWP is a good steward of the land and offers visitors and locals alike many recreational opportunities including fishing, walking and of course rock climbing. The LADWP also allows unrestricted access to most of its lands, although no camping except in designated campgrounds.

The Climbing

Leaving aside the numerous other activities one can partake of in the area, the nearby tablelands and foothills are a boulderer’s paradise. The town of Bishop is globally known as a superb base for an onslaught of the classic bouldering venues of the Buttermilks to the west, and the Happy & Sad boulders to the north.

Area Locations

The area gives access to more than 2000 problems on variants of two principal rock types – pocketed Bishop tuff (similar to Hueco Tanks), in the Volcanic Tableland, and the much rougher granite-like quartz monzonite of the Buttermilk Country. As such you are offered an almost endless array of possibilities, as states… Climbers here are simply spoiled for choice, not just by the quantity and variety of climbing, but by the radically different environments. The shallow canyons of the Happy and Sad Boulders with their fascinating jumbles of blocks and their long, winding walls and alcoves often have a gym-like feel, totally different to the higher-altitude, more exposed, and sometimes intimidating giant eggs of the spectacular Buttermilks.

The guidebook actually gives details to two other lesser known climbing areas, Rock Creek and The Sherwin Plateau. Rock Creek is a compact area comprising of around 30 high quality lines on Yosemite-esque granite, in a setting not too dissimilar from the Camp 4 circuit. The area is located 4.5 miles off highway 395 and is around a 30minute drive north of Bishop. It is also situated at 8500 feet (2800m) so is can be a good option if it’s a bit warmer on the plains, for the same reason the area can get buried in snow from November onward. The Sherwin Plateau offers over 100 problems on of a volcanic tuff similar to that of the Happy & Sad Boulders, although the formations of this area lend themselves much more to extremely pocketed vertical terrain. This area is also situated just off highway 395, yet a little nearer to Bishop - approximately 25 minutes drive to the north.

Below: Little Forgotten (V9), The Buttermilks

little forgotton v9

Getting there and About

The two best options are to fly to either LA or San Francisco, it’s around a 4 hour drive from San Francisco and 4 ½ hours from LA. If you decide to fly to San Francisco be warned, the mountain passes (Tioga and Sonora) you will encounter via the most direct route can be blocked with snow between November and May, this will make your car journey longer as the alternative routes take you a fair bit out of your way. There is a useful section in the Bishop bouldering guidebook (pages 8 and 9) giving a full breakdown of travel times from various US locations and useful info regarding public transport. If you arrive at the airport late or in the early hours and need to stay the night before cracking on to Bishop, Super8 Motels have premises near both airports, are clean and a good budget option. They can also be pre-booked online (see link below). Hiring a car is the best connotation for getting about, although you can get to Bishop via a train/bus combination journey from both LA and San Francisco. Once in the town both the Buttermilks (9 miles) and Happy & Sad boulders (7 miles) are relatively close to the town centre, so hitching, getting lifts, using buses and a bit of walking should get you about without the need for a car.


Camping: There are a few options when camping. If you plan to centre your trip around the Buttermilks there are numerous designated sites just off Buttermilks Road (the dirt track approach road), from these you can walk to the boulders although there are very few amenities. The camping is free but if you wish to have campfires you need to obtain a fire permit from the Park Office in Bishop. If you plan to climb more at the Happy/Sad boulders or if you are traveling alone and don’t have transport then it’s probably best to camp at BLM Pleasant Valley Climbers Campground – also known as ‘The Pit’. This is located a few miles north of Bishop just off Highway 395. Once here you should be able to hook up with other climbers and cadge lifts to the boulders. Inset: Bishop Main Street. Hotels and Motels: There is a pretty extensive list of motels and guest houses on page 13 of the guide book along with a useful map of the town, marking the locations of the all the sites listed. If you’re not on a tight budget and have access to a car I would strongly recommend this option as it gives you some where warm to recover your tired limbs and worn out skin after a cold session on the rocks – it can get pretty cold at night in Buttermilks Country. On the whole you can get good deals for extended stays in most of the listed accommodation, especially the privately owned establishments – remember climbing season is technically out of season for everyone else.

Below: Two of the Sad Boulders' classics, Rosach Test (V11) and Pow Pow (V8).

pow pow + rosach test

Provisions and Amenities

For all your cooking and general needs there are two decent supermarkets. Joseph’s (Bi-rite) is located in the centre of Bishop on Main Street, and Manor Market is on West Line Street around 1mile west of Bishop town centre. I personally thought Manor Market was a much better store, with more choice, fresher fruit and veg and a really good selection of wines and beers. As far as restaurants, bars and cafes go there is plenty to choose from. There is the usual US tradition of numerous generic fast food outlets as well as some cool local independents. The best café for atmosphere is probably the Kava coffee shop, opposite Joseph’s supermarket. This is reputably the ‘climber’s hangout’ and it has free internet access. I personally thought Schat’s bakery, at the far north end of Main Street, had better coffee, and the scary/cheesy Hansel and Gretel style décor kept us comically amused on each and every visit. If you’re eating out and don’t fancy McDonalds etc. there is a reasonable array of options including Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Italian and Mexican. My personal favorites were Upper Crust Pizza and the Bishop Grill; both were very hospitable and good value. There’s only really one night spot and that’s Rusty’s bar, halfway down Main Street – worth a visit, if only at happy hour. Another classic, The Checkerboard (V8), The Buttermilks - courtesy of If you need to pick up any climbing gear or chalk while you’re in Bishop ‘Wilson’s Eastside Sports’ on Main Street offers a great selection of climbing gear, local guides and maps. The staff are also pretty knowledgeable and should be able to field most climbing queries.

Rest Days

The options for rest day undertakings are copious. There are loads of walking and sightseeing options, the best of which include a visit to Mono Lake and its other worldly rock formations (1.5 hours drive, north), a trek around the ancient Bristlecone Pine forests, above the nearby town of Big Pine, and a dip in one of the numerous nearby hot springs. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, and there’s enough snow on the peaks, the nearby resort of Mammoth Mountain is only 50 minutes drive to the north. Mammoth offers an excellent selection of runs and amenities and discount coupons for ski/board hire are available in many of the hotels/motels in Bishop. This combined with the good exchange rate (as of June 2008) make a day or two on the slopes a much cheaper viability than it would be in Europe. If you do go to Mammoth be sure do drop by Tom’s Place, just off highway 395 and halfway between Bishop and Mammoth. They are super hospitable, offer a variety of great breakfasts and make the best pancakes in California! Inset: An ancient Bristlecone Pine.

Area Summary

A fantastic must visit area for all serious boulderers, featuring hundreds of awe inspiring and easily accessible boulder problems. Lines range from the highball classics and test pieces of the Buttermilks, to the labyrinth like corridors of the Vocanic Tablelands, with its plethora of caves, roofs and walls, and all this set against the superbly serene and picturesque High Sierra mountain range. The incredible climbing on offer, combined with the excellent weather conditions – between mid October and early May – and welcoming nature of Bishop town make this a trip not to miss out on.

Useful Links

Purchase the Bishop Bouldering Guide