How Local Climbers Transformed the Mad River Gorge

Photo: Clark County Park District/Rod Hatfield

For years, it was illegal to climb at Ohio’s premier climbing destination. Then local climbers stepped in.

Over 125,000 pounds of trash. Two hundred abandoned tires. A car. Whole refrigerators. Buckets and buckets of broken glass. That’s what accumulated in the Mad River Gorge, Ohio’s premier climbing destination, during the 20-plus years it was closed to climbers.

“There was an old trailer park that was located at the top of the cliffs,” explains Carol Kennard, executive director of the Clark County Park District, which now manages the area. For years, the trailer park used the gorge as its dumping grounds. And there was nothing climbers could do about it: Local private landowners had banned access in the ’90s after a fatal accident ignited liability concerns. The move cut off climbers from hundreds of high-quality limestone routes of all styles and grades.

Then, about five years ago, things started to change. The trailer park was eventually declared a public nuisance and shut down, and the land went up for sale. Clark County snapped it up.

“That purchase didn’t provide the cliffs just yet,” Kennard says. “But it would provide us access.” That was all the spark they needed. The Ohio Climber’s Coalition (OCC), the state’s small but hard-working climbing advocacy organization, had had its eye on the Mad River for years. The OCC knew full well that securing access to the gorge would open up enormous opportunities for Ohio climbers to hone their skills in their own backyards instead of having to drive to West Virginia or Kentucky for good rock.

“Before the Mad opened, we just didn’t have a ton of roped climbing options in Ohio,” explains OCC President Courtney Cutner. “This is probably the area with the most concentrated routes in the state.”

So, the OCC, the Park District, and national climbing advocacy nonprofit Access Fund put their heads together and started applying for grants. In 2017, they succeeded and were able to buy the land outright, securing climbing access for good.

But that was only the first hurdle. The second was the trash.  

“We had a grand opening in May of 2017, and the weekend before, we had a cleanup,” says Kennard. The OCC and Park District put out a call for volunteers and they were overwhelmed by the response. Over 200 people showed up, some of whom had been climbing since the ’90s and had waited for decades for the gorge to reopen.

“We also had a local crane operator business donate his crane and his crane operator for the whole weekend,” Kennard says. It was a massive operation. “We had volunteers loading bags of garbage down in the gorge, and someone would load them onto a rope, and the crane would lift them up out of the gorge.” By the end of the weekend, they’d filled seven 30-yard dumpsters.

But what’s perhaps more impressive is how involved climbers have continued to be after the purchase. The OCC continues to manage all the trail building and infrastructure management in the park, and there have been plenty of volunteer-led cleanup days since that grand opening. Even now, Kennard says, five-gallon buckets are kept at the top of the trail beside a sign. It asks climbers to consider toting down a bucket and hauling it back up with any trash they find. “And they do,” she says. “There’s citizen-led conservation work going on there every day.”

That’s led to even more climbing access wins, says Curtner.

“Seeing how popular the area is and how many people come here specifically for climbing has opened up a lot of our land managers’ eyes,” she says. Since the opening of the Mad River Gorge, “We’ve been able to have access open in other areas of the state that have historically banned climbing."

Now free of most trash (the park district won an award for the cleanup), the gorge has lived up to its promise as a premier Midwest climbing destination. Kennard frequently sees the parking lot packed with both Ohio and out-of-state plates.

However, she says, there’s still one major job left to be done: the construction of a footbridge across the Mad River and a service-access road atop the cliffs on that side. Both would give climbers and emergency personnel access to the abundance of routes on the opposite, river-right (north) side of the gorge. The whole project would take about $800,000, Kennard says, which is why the park district is actively applying for grants and other forms of support.

In the meantime, the Mad River Gorge & Nature Preserve is still an adventure destination in its own right, and a conservation success story happening in real time.

"[Good stewardship] is one of our ways of giving back,” Cutner explains. “The gorge is beautiful, and we’re just so happy to be here.”

If You Go

Your cheat sheet for a trip to the Mad River Gorge and Nature Preserve.

Location 

The Mad River Gorge is a 91-acre preserve located just northeast of Dayton, Ohio, about an hour west of Columbus. Park near the front of the park, at the paved lot on the north side of Dayton Road.  

Approach

The short approach trail follows the path of an old railroad. It extends north from the parking lot down into the gorge. Approaches to all routes are less than a mile.  

Climbing

The MRG is home to boulders ranging from V0 to V8 and roped routes from 5.5 to 5.12c. Most of the routes are 30 to 50 feet tall. 

Camping

There’s nearby camping at Buck Creek State Park and John Bryan State Park, both 15 to 20 minutes away. Right now, there is no camping within the Mad River Gorge and Nature Preserve.

Reminders  

Bolted anchors are available for top roping on many climbs; top roping from trees is not permitted. Please remember to stay on trail and pack out everything you pack in. If you feel like going the extra mile, five-gallon buckets are available at the top of the access trail for litter carryout. 

Find more information about grades by purchasing the area guidebook.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.