Dirt Bag Guide: Skaha

Picture this – easily accessible, beautiful granite rock to climb, gorgeous lake views, warm temperatures and sun, surrounded by orchards and vineyards. Welcome to Skaha Bluffs! Who wouldn’t want to spend time there? This Rockies climbing destination is by far one of my favourite places to visit in the west. It was my first big climbing destination back in 2009, so I may have a biased opinion. After only 8 months of climbing, I drove from Winnipeg, all the way out to BC (20+ hours!!) with friends to climb for a week. Skaha solidified my obsession with getting outside and climbing and staying active. Side note: this year, only 3 weeks after suffering from an avulsion fracture of my right ankle, I still went on May long weekend for my 5th annual camping and climbing weekend with friends — it’s just that good there.

For anyone interested in some details of this popular area, here’s what you need to know:

About/Where it is/How to get there

Skaha Bluffs is located just south of the city of Penticton, British Columbia  — about 8ish hours west of Calgary, Alberta or 4.5ish hours east of Vancouver, BC. Highway driving is very enjoyable from either direction. There also is a small airport in Penticton and a major airport in Kelowna, BC (45 min north). The bluffs are located within a provincial park with an area of approx. 489 Hectares [around 5.5 km long (north-south) and 2.5 km wide (east-west)].  The best part – 988 routes on 66 different rock faces to climb on!

Climate/best time of year to go

The park is closed from November-March so winter access is not allowed.  However, with a warmer, sub-desert climate, Skaha can be visited and climbed in from early April and late into October. The Okanagan area does get its share of rain, but it usually dissipates revealing more sun afterwards.  During the summer months, the temperature can reach over 30 degrees. It’s HOT! So if you’re planning on visiting during July or August – shorter, early morning, days might be better, followed by a dip in the lake in the afternoons. Penticton is also a popular place to visit, so expect it to be busy on warm, long weekends. May long with nice weather may mean that if you want a parking spot at the park entrance, you need to be at the crag by 8 or 9 am. Otherwise, the overflow lot means an extra 2 km walk uphill!

While waiting for it to warm up closer to home, I’ve gone in April and enjoyed the warmer weather. At the end of the season, thought I start craving ice to climb, I’ve been able to extend the rock season by visiting Skaha in October over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.

Best times to go are generally between April-June and September-October.  

Type of Rock and climbing

The 66 cliffs are composed of some awesome, grippy granite! Most range from 15-30m in length, but there are a few that extend over 35m offering some multi-pitch possibilities. Routes can be crimpy, overhanging, slabby or have cracks. There really is something for every skill level scattered throughout the park.  The majority of the routes are sport with well-bolted anchors at the top. The community is great for keeping the anchors in good shape and replaced when needed. Where there are cracks, there are trad routes or mixed routes, but most are spread out in the park. There is also a cave system at the north end of the park.

Where to stay

Where you want to stay all depends on your budget. For those with deeper pockets, there are numerous hotels in and around Penticton. There are also condos, bed and breakfasts and hostels available as well (air bnb, kijiji, etc.). During my first trip to Skaha, my group of friends rented a condo in Okanagan Falls (30 min south – at the bottom of the lake) for the week. We had a full kitchen, beds to sleep seven, a washer and dryer, cable and, most importantly: air conditioning (as we visited the first week of July – never again). For those of us trying to climb and save some money, there are some motels that have kitchen suites – allow for up to 6 individuals to stay in one suite and have access to somewhere to cook. Most of the climbers visiting opt to stay at one of the campgrounds in the area. This is an economical way to stay for a longer time. It does mean you have to bring all of your camping gear, and you may have to fight for spots with motorhomes and trailers. 

Banbury Green (banburygreen.com) is the most popular place and does offer a climbers discounted rate in the off-season. It is on the west side of the lake and is about a 20 min drive to the bluffs. Restrictions on the number of tents and vehicles per site do exist, as some of the sites are not very big. I would highly recommend booking this campground early if it suits what you are looking for.  

My personal favourite camping spot is The Lost Moose Campground. I’ll admit its not the easiest to find online, but its worth it the search. It is family-run on privately owned land high up the mountains overlooking the city on the east side of Penticton. It’s small — there are only 12 campsites — and the facilities are less than spectacular: the bathrooms and showers are nothing but basic concrete buildings, but they work. There’s also no access to electricity on the campsites. If you really need to plug in, there are a few outlets in the bathrooms, or if you’re like Raf, you can plug stuff into your truck:

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Upside: the sites are big, the temperatures are cooler and it’s out of the way and quiet. I’ve been staying there for 5 consecutive years and wouldn’t camp anywhere else. The site I book has enough space, that we’ve had 7-8 tents on it! The camping rates are lower if you’re travelling with a larger group. Lastly, if you’re lucky, you might also catch an amazing sunset. (Check out the cover image.)

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Food and drink

Since Penticton is a major city (pop. 32,000), you can find all of the major grocery stores. Safeway, Superstore, as well as some natural food markets, are all within close driving distance of campgrounds. Being in the Okanagan Valley also means that in the summer there are a number of local fruit stands on the side of the road where you can purchase fresh fruits and veggies from local farmers. There are also numerous liquor stores around to purchase alcoholic beverages – or you can go straight to the winery, cider mill or distillery to pick your drink! Keep in mind that the drinking age in BC is 19 years of age There are the usual restaurants and pubs around, if you’re not keen on cooking. Our personal favourite is to go the The Barley Mill on Main Street and sit in the huge comfy chairs in front of the fireplace (I’ve fallen asleep in them in the past).

Guide Book

Skaha Rock Climbs is the best resource for the area. This guidebook is by far the most useful and user-friendly guidebook I own. It has numerous maps of the hiking trails and crags, great colour photos of the climbs and an easy guide to help you find out all the info you need.  The summary at the front includes the name of the crag, how many routes it has (with a star rating), how far the hike is (km), the elevation gain to get there, and how long the hike may take. Furthermore, it includes a listing of whether the routes are sport, trad or mixed, the grade range, how much sun it gets, the angle of the wall and the page number in the book. There are sections in the book that talk about the history of the area and lots of tips for your trip. Its too bad all guidebooks aren’t this awesome. The guidebook is available to purchase at True Outdoors in town or at surrounding MEC stores.  

Essentials for the day

Access to the bluffs is on paved roads and there are two large paved parking lots at the access to the park. Currently, the community is trying to find ways to secure the parking lot as there have been thefts – so don’t leave stuff visible in your vehicle!  There are outhouses in the parking lots (well stocked with essentials) and a few placed within the park (I’d bring your own TP and hand sanitizer). Hikes to the climbs can range from as short as 10 min to over an hour, and could have elevation gain of anywhere from 15m to 270m.  

If it’s summer time, bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen! It does not take very long, even in the month of May, to get sunburnt! Because of its close proximity to the city, you should be able to get cell signal in most areas of the park. Lastly, and most importantly – there is no access to water in the park!  No running water, no taps, no streams. You must bring what you intend on drinking with you.

Things to watch out for

There are a few critters in the park. The usual birds and squirrels are around. Ticks are notorious in the spring, so do thorough checks a few times a day. There are also rattlesnakes that live in the park. They tend to live in cracks and under rocks, but have occasionally been seen on the trail.  If you leave them alone, they leave you alone. There’s a crag called Rattle Snake Ledge – it’s named that for a reason! Last year, at Grassy Glades (one of the crags), we discovered a family of bats in one of the cracks.  Later in the day, we also found a rattlesnake in one that we were climbing (yikes!). The area also is home to cougars, though I have never seen or heard of anyone running into one at the crag.  

Rainy/Rest day activities

One of the best reasons to come to the Okanagan Valley is for the wine touring.  When the weather goes south, it’s too wet to climb, or your muscles need a break, there are numerous vineyards and wineries around, all with tasting rooms and wine available for purchase. Naramata is one of my favourite areas.  (naramatabench.com) On the north east side of Penticton, the winding roads showcase some of the best wine country in the valley (and by virtue of this, also all of Canada!). Some wineries have free tastings, some charge a small fee, others charge a small fee – but will put it towards the purchase of a bottle of wine. A few of them also have delicious restaurants as part of their location.

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There are also rest day activities within the park. Playing in the cave system near the north side of the bluffs can be fun – if you’re ok with small spaces. There are also lots of people who simply hike through the park.  

If it’s too hot, you can take a day and spend it at the beach and in the water! There is also an amusement park with go-carts and mini-golf to kill a few hours.  

Gear

The main gear shop in town is True Outdoors, (trueoutdoors.ca) They have everything from ropes, draws, trad gear, shoes, harnesses, helmets, guide books, jackets and clothes, and an array of camping gear to replace anything broken or lost, or just plain forgotten at home. If there’s something more specific that you’re looking for, Mountain Equipment Coop is a scenic 45 min drive away in Kelowna.  

Hopefully that’s enough info to get you interested in visiting this amazing place!

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