The Only Way is UP

Learn the ropes of outdoor rock climbing and explore Maine’s craggy beauty up close.

The rugged beauty of Maine’s landscape offers a generous and diverse array of climbing opportunities, from coastal crags to granite slabs. Don’t let the gear, jargon, or even heights intimidate you. With the right guidance and preparation, outdoor rock climbing can be an accessible and exhilarating experience for family members of every skill level. In return, you’ll discover a sport that offers a hugely rewarding physical and mental workout that also happens to bring you face-to-face with the wild beauty of Maine without disrupting its wildlife or natural ecosystem. 

Whether you’re a total beginner or a seasoned indoor climbing enthusiast, the rock gym is the first step in your climbing journey. EVO Rock Gym and Fitness Center, located on Warren Avenue in Portland, opened in 2015 as an evolution of the former Maine Rock Gym organization. Its knowledgeable staff can introduce you to the gear and how to keep safe. First-timers will have to complete an introductory course and pass a belay test to learn how to safely secure a climbing harness and keep a partner safe on a top rope. With the right experience under your belt (or harness), you can sign up for EVO’s Gym-to-Crag courses, specifically designed to transition indoor climbers to outdoor settings. From top-rope anchors to rappelling, students can gain confidence in essential skills. 

According to EVO, “Climbing outside is an amazing, expanding experience and is highly recommended for all climbers. Gym-to-Crag sessions focus on moving from the gym to the outdoor realm.” 

Equinox Guiding Service unites a collection of passionate local guides with a wealth of experience to lead climbers of all abilities on adventures in Camden, “where the mountains meet the sea,” and in areas of Acadia National Park. The full- and half-day excursions are pitched at all levels, including beginner’s classes, guided tours for visiting climbers, and even ice climbing in the winter. Camden Hills State Park offers a friendly introduction to the sport just a couple of miles from downtown, making it a unique and accessible day trip activity. In addition, young enthusiasts can take advantage of the summer climbing program to immerse themselves in the sport and local climbing community. “This year we’re offering a summer camp for kids,” says Equinox Guide Noah Kleiner. “Running five afternoons a week through July, it’s a great opportunity for kids to experience climbing first-hand.” 

Further Downeast, Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School is the one-stop destination for all aspects of climbing, from learning the ropes to avalanche education and wilderness medicine. Founded in 1993, the school is run by Jon Tierney, Maine’s only fully-credentialed rock climbing, alpine, and ski mountaineering guide. The school runs two offices in Bar Harbor and Orono, but its fully trained guides travel around Acadia and across the state to lead climbing and wilderness excursions throughout the year. First-timers are welcome and well-catered to by Tierney’s team of skilled staff. “Anybody can climb!” he says. “It’s our job to find the terrain where everyone can be successful, where a whole family can have a good time. We work hard to find those spots that offer a great experience for everyone.”  Classes might begin from the base of the cliff or with a rappel, all essential skills students will practice with their guides in advance. With the support of your guide and their instruction, even the wariest beginner can thrive on the rocks. “There’s risk in climbing, but there’s risk in everything,” says Tierney. “People generally fear things they don’t understand – but a little education dispels that.” 

If you’re in Acadia this summer, AMGCS offers half-day adventures on the island’s coastal cliffs, where every climbing hold offers a postcard-perfect view. Full-day classes can be booked at sites across the state, in locations such as Bethel, Greenville, and The Forks. You don’t even have to venture too far off the beaten path with climbing opportunities in North Conway, Camden, and Clifton. 

“Most people don’t realize there’s great climbing only 20 minutes outside of Bangor,” says Tierney. The guides ensure each participant is outfitted out with the right gear before getting started, including a hard helmet, a fitted harness, and climbing shoes. 

Your instructor will familiarize you with the ropes and belay devices that will keep you safe. “We take a holistic approach to climbing,” says Tierney. “It’s about more than just getting up the rocks. We teach students how belay and rappelling work so they can take the skills home with them.” Your day will be spent up close and personal with the rugged splendor of nature and Maine’s breathtaking scenery – each new hold rewarding you with a higher vantage. Even better, climbing is a low-impact sport that can be enjoyed in relative harmony with nature.

The world of outdoor climbing is a dizzying one, filled with technical terms and gear used by passionate people who travel the world for the sport. But it’s also a welcoming and supportive community where families can start at the bottom as beginners and bond on the journey to the top. 

Story by Saisie Moore. Saisie is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Maine.

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