New Jack City–aka Sawtooth Canyon–is a veritable outdoor climbing playground.
By Rebecca Rubinstein
Leading up to the final weekend of February, my determination to climb in New Jack was nearly matched by my friends’ unwillingness to commit. Yes, the likelihood of rain and even snow was pretty high, but then so was the opportunity for flexing that esoteric muscle I like to call resiliency, and what climber doesn’t love a good challenge? Luckily I can be quite convincing, and was able to gather a small crew, who then brought a few of their own, and so our family of 11 prepared to gather in Sawtooth Canyon just outside of Barstow.
You may be wondering, why bother? Well, let me break down the awesomeness that is New Jack for you. I like to refer to this gem as an outdoor gym, with over 450 sport climbs that range from 5.4 to 5.13, there really is something for everyone. The approach is minimal at best, making trips back to the campsite for snacks totally feasible.
With steep, diverse routes offering a variety of holds to keep every climber on their toes, this magical land can satiate even the Alex Honnolds of our community. The metamorphic rocks push up from a desert-like landscape seem almost otherworldly. The bowl-shaped canyon creates a perspective that makes you wonder why anyone ever thought the world was flat, and the feeling of being trapped in a snow globe was the running joke for a night.
Now that you’re convinced, let me get you there. “New Jack” is more of a nickname used by the climbing community; the official name is Sawtooth Canyon. Located about 3 miles west of California Highway 247 and 20 miles south of Barstow, the drive from San Diego took me about 3 hours.
Sawtooth Canyon is BLM land and has 13 campsites–all available on a first come, first serve basis. Legally you can stay here for up to 2 weeks, completely free. The sites are well maintained with fire pits, shaded picnic tables, barbecue grills and toilets. Most people I’ve met here are climbers, but there will be a random family every now and again.
You’ll notice a lot of broken glass all over the canyon, and my first reaction was somewhere along the lines of “gosh darn humans…”, but on this past trip I was graciously informed that this site actually used to be a dump and was cleared out and preserved by the city. Faith in humanity restored, I’m also elated to learn that the local government saw the value in this gem of a place and spent the resources to to restore it for our pleasure.
Half of us arrived Friday morning to find patches of snow on the ground, some of which remained throughout the entire weekend. The grounds were relatively full and we soon learned it was due to Red Rocks getting snowed out, so most changed course and headed to New Jack.
Given the cold, we all set our sights on Sunnyside wall and to start warming up. This wall not only offers direct sunlight for most of the day, but also has routes ranging from 5.4 all the way to 5.12a. This was my first time leading outdoors, so I made myself nice and comfy on Cheap Lipstick rated at 5.7. All the “moves” are straightforward and could be likened to climbing a ladder, however the added responsibility of clipping in and setting up an anchor gave this route just enough oomph to get this weekend started right.
Luckily my peers are a bit more experienced, setting up ropes on the higher grades for us to play around on.
Feeling warm and a little braver, we made our way over to the Boy Scout Wall, boasting 19 climbs ranging from 5.5 to 5.11c. This wall is extremely popular, with a hefty amount of super fun, mid-range climbs. Because of the cold–and this wall being shaded most of the day–it was easier to hop on when we wanted, however there is usually quite a crowd so I recommend coming early. I led a 5.7 called Green Eggs and Ham, which was super accessible and relaxed, bolstering my confidence to finally upgrade to a 5.8 on the next wall.
And that brings me to Raven Rocks where I discovered my favorite climb of the weekend: Step Across rated 5.10a (Raven Rocks West). This climb starts with a tricky and powerful bouldering move to the first bolt. A second bouldering problem gets you to the second bolt and from there you step across a decent gap to complete the final 50 feet of climbing. This climb has loads of variety; it almost feels like three different climbs rolled into one. The whole group was pretty stoked on it.
After 3 days of climbing in 40-degree temps, we agreed to head out a little early Sunday and grab dinner in Barstow. We invited along a group of Canadians we met the first night and exchanged stories and climbing destination beta that left us all dreaming of our next trip.
I’ll be hitting the road in 2 months with an open-ended timeline and a laundry list of destinations to explore, so if you see me around the gym or in my Bowspring class, please feel free to share your favorite destinations and travel stories. I’m all ears.