On the first Saturday of every month, something special happens at the Obed Wild and Scenic River in Eastern Tennessee. People of all ages gather to learn rock climbing as part of the Obed’s one-of-a-kind Coffee and Climb with a Ranger Program.
The program was started by park rangers who wanted to expose visitors to everything the park has to offer, and it has been going strong for more than two years.
Apart from being a great spot for kayaking and rafting, the Obed is one of the Southeast’s premier climbing spots, boasting around 350 permanently bolted sport routes, which range in difficulty from 5.7 to 5.14. There are also good bouldering areas and ample opportunities for traditional climbing.
When I showed up for the program one freezing Saturday morning, I expected to see just a few hardcore climbers at the meeting spot. Instead, I found 60 people gathered around the back of a pickup truck, collecting harnesses and helmets from a smiling park ranger named Matt. There were families, couples, and individuals, ranging in age from around four to 70.
After a brief orientation, we followed the rangers up a steep trail to the day’s climbing spot. The ground was still covered in snow and icicles were dripping down from the rock face. The rangers immediately started to prepare a series of routes, some for kids and some for more experienced climbers. They taught knots and commands and assured climbers that they would be below, acting as belayers.
As the first people started to ascend, the rest of us gathered on the ground, sharing coffee out of thermoses and shouting encouragement to those on the rock face.
Some of the visitors clearly knew each other by name—they had come before and were hoping to attempt more difficult routes that morning. The free program has enabled them to try out a new sport, a prospect that might have been intimidating alone. Now many of them have started volunteering with the program, helping novice climbers and participating in other park activities.
I spoke with one mother who had traveled almost two hours to bring her kids to the Obed after learning about the program online. When the routes were set up, her four-year-old son was among the first to volunteer. Scrunching up his face, he carefully considered his path and worked hard to hoist up his small frame. When he couldn’t find a foothold, one of the rangers gave him a boost. After about 15 minutes, he reached the top, turned, and smiled down at his cheering family, immensely proud of the 20-foot distance he had climbed.
For me, this program represents the best of the national park service—it connects people more deeply with the park and with outdoor experience. It also creates community, connecting visitors with each other. Since I grew up camping, canoeing, and hiking with my family, it is easy to forget that many people have only experienced national parks from the backseat of car, if at all. We need more programs like this one–programs that transform national parks from tourist destinations into a part of people’s lives. The future of wild spaces depends on it.
Gabby Salazar is a conservation photographer and a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee. Follow more of Gabby’s work on Instagram at @gabbyrsalazar.