Trip Report: Columns of the Giants

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California’s Highway 108 winds steadily through the Stanislaus National Forest until it ascends steeply to the 9,623-foot summit of Sonora Pass. Just below the steepest part, charming log cabins sit at the edge of a surreal sub-alpine meadow that makes up the small town of Dardanelle. Here, the banks of the Middle Fork Stanislaus River and the picturesque pine forests of Sonora Pass stretch on for miles. Above this scenic landscape, the striking basalt cave known as Columns of the Giants rises for hundreds of feet from an enormous talus field.


Columns of the Giants is geologically significant for its strange hexagonal basalt rock formations, but the area is equally well-known to local climbers for hosting some of the steepest clip-ups in North America. The main cave feature at Columns boasts the aptly named Delirious (5.12a) which has been hailed as the steepest route of its grade in California. After a head-spinning lap on Delirious, many visiting climbers move to the neighboring route Spin Doctor (5.12d): a spectacular line of in-cut jugs that traverses the largest and steepest part of the main cave.

Among the first to venture up to Columns of the Giants was the avid Jailhouse climber and well-known California route developer Tommy Herbert. Because the shaded cave at Columns offers pleasant summer climbing temperatures at roughly 7,000 feet in elevation, Herbert began developing the steepest part of the main cave during the summer months.


Although a handful of new routes have been established in the Columns’ cave feature over the past decade, the most obvious lines were plucked by Tommy Herbert and friends in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, the greater formation varies in both style of climbing and quality of rock. It’s a landscape that can often be misleading at first glance, providing great discoveries to future groups of adventurous climbers.

To the north of the main cave, the Columns of the Giants talus field wraps around a giant buttress of chossy rock and leads east along the south bank of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. It was here that Twain Harte resident and local guidebook author Brad Young first climbed the arête of an anomalous stack of hexagonal columns. At 5.7, the climb Hexcentric was among the first moderate routes on the main formation.


Almost 10 years after the first ascent of Hexcentric, regular Sonora Pass route developer Jerry Dodrill walked a few hundred yards farther up the talus field to discover a high-quality wall of moderate columns. This 100-foot-tall wall of organ pipes was dubbed Pygmy Pillars and now provides a nice selection of naturally protected routes from 5.4 to 5.9.

Today the greater Columns of the Giants formation hosts routes from 5.4 to 5.14, and can easily accommodate climbers of all styles, interests and physical abilities. With ideal high elevation climbing temperatures, the crag is a welcome retreat during the hottest summer months.

Driving Directions:
From the city of Sonora, take Highway 108 for 51 miles to Dardanelle. Just over one mile east of Dardanelle, look for the well-marked interest sign that reads “Columns of the Giants.” Park here and cross a bridge over the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. At the end of a paved trail, hike up talus to the base of the obvious cave.

Hexcentric (5.7)
Delirious (5.12a)
Brown Sugar (5.12a)
Spin Doctor (5.12d)

Where to Stay:
An abundance of excellent and free camping is available along the Sonora Pass Highway. There are established campsites very close to the Columns of the Giants parking area, but more secluded camping can also be found east of the town of Dardanelle.

A Climber’s Guide to the Sonora Pass Highway, 2nd Edition, by Brad Young and Steve Dawson is available at Touchstone Pro-Shops.

Trip Report by Dean Fleming