Most people assume rock climbing requires bulging arm muscles and a nonchalant attitude toward bodily harm. Neither is true. In reality, climbers need to have the concentration of chess players and, at least initially, to be in moderate physical condition. As for danger, actuarial tables rank rock climbing behind cutting the lawn with a power mower. The best way to ensure your safety, however, is to climb with an experienced guide at a location that's not too steep. Here are four top places to start.
New Paltz, New York
Less than a two-hour drive from Manhattan, this 300-foot-high cliff is the nation's pre-eminent beginner-friendly climbing area. The brilliant white quartzite is layered in strata that guarantee large handholds every few feet and wide ledges every few yards. Climbers look out over the Wallkill Valley from belay ledges on such classic routes as High Exposure, Jackie, and Shockley's Ceiling.
Top guide:Jim Munson (914/687-9643).
Best gear:Rock & Snow (914/255-1311), for any equipment needs.
Stay at:Mohonk Mountain House or 914/255-1000) for turn-of-the-century architecture in the shadow of the cliff's Sky Top section.
Seneca Rocks, West Virginia
With its 360-degree views and gentle routes, Seneca is an excellent destination for novices, just three hours from Washington, D.C. The rock is the same white quartzite found at the Shawangunks, but here it's standing on end (so there are lots of long cracks and ledges). If steep rock isn't a problem, try the Ecstasy route, which follows the south buttress for 200 feet above a rhododendron- and laurel-covered hillside.
Best guide: Tony Barnes, who works out of the Gendarme/Seneca Rocks Climbing School (304/567-2600), where you can also pick up supplies.
Stay at: Smoke Hole Caverns' log cabins (304/257-4442).
Red sandstone spotted with lime-green lichen makes Eldo (as the locals call it) the hands-down winner for sheer visual appeal. Although this area, only 45 minutes from Denver's Stapleton Airport, is a mecca for some of the country's top rock jocks, it's also a great place for novices. If there is one climb to make here, it's the challenging Yellow Spur.
Top guide: Bob Culp at the Bob Culp Climbing School (303/499-1185).
Best gear: Neptune Mountaineering (303/499-8866), which has enough equipment to outfit a Himalayan expedition.
Stay at: Boulderado Hotel (303/ 442-4344), built in 1908.
Joshua Tree National Monument, California
The rock here pops out of the flat desert floor in eroded domes of rough-textured white granite. Yosemite might be more famous, but Joshua Tree is unparalleled for its austere desert setting. (And it's within a 2 1/2-hour drive of Los Angeles.) The climbs are relatively short, which allows for decent rests between ascents. One of the longest routes, Walk on the Wild Side, is easy technically. If time is short, try the spectacular Southwest Corner of Headstone Rock.
Top guide: Bob Gaines (714/854-6250); his 10 years of experience make him the man Hollywood seeks out when it needs a hand.
Best gear: Nomad Ventures (760/366-4684), in Joshua Tree.
Stay at: Yucca Inn (619/365-3311), a funky hotel with a spa.