Ice Climbing in California

California has the best and most consistent ice climbing on the West coast. A bold statement, but of course there isn’t a lot of competition! While it doesn’t quite compare to Colorado, Wyoming or Canada, California has a lot of what water ice climbers are looking for: long water ice flows that last for months. But where do you find these Golden State gems? Following is a sampling of California's water ice climbs.

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Eastern Sierra
The cold, shady canyons of Lee Vining and June Lake hold some high quality ice flows from around mid-December till mid-March. In Lee Vining canyon you have two flows that are consistently formed each year, Chouinard Falls and Main Wall.

Chouinard Falls is about 110 ft high and is mostly rated Water Ice 3 which makes it a great beginner to intermediate top rope flow and good for intermediate climbers to test their lead skills. About 100 ft away is the Main Wall and is about 200 ft in height and has some great climbs from WI3 to WI5. Advanced ice climbing leaders can test their skill on classics such as Cave Man and the mixed classic Heal Toe.

The June Lake Loop area has two areas that are just perfect for beginners. The Roadside area known as, well, Roadside is the perfect angle of about 65 degrees for first timers. Farther up the mountainside you’ll find Horsetail Falls, which is much longer, up to 200 ft, and right about 60 degrees also. Both are great areas to try out the sport of ice climbing.

Lee Vining and June Lake is where you will find guided beginner ice climbing courses in California.

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Sequoia National Park
While the Eastern Sierra has most of the water ice climbing in California, and certainly the most consistent, there are some other areas worth mentioning. Down to the South in Sequoia National Park near Lodgepole you’ll find Tokopah Falls, which makes for great top-roping. Near Tokopah is the Watch Tower, an impressive 1100ft ice WI4 ice climb. Both of these areas may not hold good ice all winter though so you have to hit it when it’s in.

Lake Tahoe Area
To the North in the Lake Tahoe area there can be good ice climbing in the Emerald Bay area such as at Eagle Lake. Near Truckee, Ca. you’ll find Coldstream Canyon with good ice flows on some years but it does have a long approach. Lake Tahoe ice can be good, but on mild winters it can also be non-existent.

Yosemite Valley
And then there’s the grand dame of them all, The Widow’s Tears in Yosemite Valley. Said by some to be the longest water ice climb in North America, Widows Tears is approx. 2000ft of some thin, some fat, and sometimes some very scary climbing. It doesn’t form often, maybe every 3-5 years or so, but when it does it can cause quite the stir in the local ice climbing community.

So in a state known mostly for beaches, movie stars and big cities, it is possible to find some amazingly good ice climbing. California is quite the Dichotomy.

Check out our winter 2016/2017 ice climbing & winter mountaineering courses in the Eastern Sierra! 

Dave Miller
IAG/CAG owner/director
IFMGA internationally licensed mountain guide