Travis Perkins is a photographer, marketer, and writer currently exploring the Western United States.
Imagine you're on vacation in a beautiful Colorado mountain town. On your drive through a remote canyon, you see a group of people, young and old, dangling off an exposed cliff face above a raging river... and yet still somehow having a good time?
You've just witnessed your first via ferrata.
Not to be confused with a frittata, which is a whole other experience, a via ferrata is a vertical or traversing route along rock or very steep terrain that allows for verticality in the mountains without the need for Chris Sharma screams or Adam Ondra climbing technique.
The origins of the via ferrata (loosely translated to "Iron Path") date back to early 19th-century alpinism in, you guessed it, the Alps. During World War I, Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops fought deep within the jagged peaks of the Dolomites and used via ferratas to gain high ground and move soldiers efficiently through the steep terrain.
A modern-day via ferrata route leverages steel cabling and rungs (typically made of anodized steel rebar) drilled into the rock wall that allow one to climb vertical and sometimes overhanging terrain in sneakers and a smile. In most cases, climbers clip into a quarter-inch to half-inch steel cable at the waist or chest, with feet and/or hands using steel rungs to move just as one would navigate a ladder.
Long story short, moving through a via ferrata route feels like something between hiking and rock climbing, and it's an increasingly popular adventure offering for mountain towns and summer mountain resorts all over the American West.
This sweet spot of verticality in the mountains has seemed to spark a trend, with several new routes being developed within the past year (thanks, COVID?).
Logan Tyler, the owner of Basecamp Ouray has a theory on why via ferratas have become so popular. "The key with climbing a via ferrata is that it is a human-powered endeavor that results in a sense of thrill or adventure but is also safe for the whole family, regardless of previous climbing experience," he says. This approach has offered a new level of adventure for the folks he and his team guide in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado. "We built our new via ferrata here in Ouray with that in mind along a historic mining operation offering an immersive and earned experience that clients can be proud of and learn from."
Although no previous climbing experience is required, it certainly helps. Many via ferratas are open to public use, while others offer access to routes on private land via guiding companies. If you don't have previous climbing experience, we highly recommend hiring a guide from the local guiding company. Although climbing via ferratas is very safe compared to typical rock climbing, accidents can and do happen.
Via ferratas are often built within existing infrastructure at mountain and ski resorts. Due to the seasonality of these resorts, most via ferratas are only open for public or guided usage within specific timeframes. Be sure to do your research beforehand, to ensure a safe day out!
6 Best Via Ferrata Routes in the USA
Ouray Via Ferrata and Gold Mountain Expedition Via Ferrata — Ouray, CO
There are now two world class via ferratas in the small mountain community of Ouray. The Ouray Ferrata is open to the public and guided parties and can take anywhere from 2-4 hours to complete depending on group size and speed. The majority of this via ferrata consists of traversing, but recent route extensions now include more vertical work (and more fun!). The newer Gold Mountain Expedition Via is the second option in this Colorado town— it opens in spring 2022 and will be accessible only with a guided trip from Basecamp Ouray.
Tahoe Via Ferrata — Palisades Tahoe, CA
Developed and operated by Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions, this newly developed via ferrata sends climbers high above the Olympic Valley floor through the rocky peaks of Palisades Tahoe Resort (formerly Squaw Valley). Climbers can book two, three, or four-hour trips on several different introductory and intermediate routes.
Above Zion Via Ferrata — Zion National Park, UT
A guided-only via ferrata through the north side of Zion National Park, this via gives hikers a whole new perspective on Zion Canyon. Its ledge walk rises above the popular Angels Landing, and is accessible for all with an easy difficulty (the Utah Adventure Center site claims, "If you can climb a ladder and hike two miles, you can do this!") Even though it's only a two-mile journey, hikers should plan for a roughly four-hour trip to allow sufficient time to soak in the views.
Telluride Via Ferrata — Telluride, CO
This publicly accessible via ferrata is unique as it traverses one long section of cliff face (as opposed to a traditional via that involves more vertical movement). This via takes around 2-4 hours to complete and offers some of the best views of Telluride and Bridal Veil Falls. Go on your own or book a guide if you're low on experience.
Jackson Hole Via Ferrata — Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, WY
As a guided experience from the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, this via sends climbers high above the valley floor along granite cliff faces and exposed suspension bridges, cable ladders, and Tyrolean traverses (a method of crossing the space between two high points on a rope or cable). The routes range in difficulty from beginner to advanced, bringing fun for all levels of climbers and allowing for either a quick outing or a full afternoon.
Taos Via Ferrata — Taos Ski Valley, NM
This via sits at 11,500 feet above the Taos Ski Valley Resort and features a 100-foot sky bridge, double-cable catwalk, and stellar views of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness. This via is another that's guide-access-only and takes around three hours to complete.
Essential Gear for Via Ferratas
La Sportiva TX4 Approach Shoes, $140
You don't need climbing shoes to take on a via ferrata, but close-toed shoes are a must. Hiking boots or shoes will work, but approach shoes are ideal with their sticky climbing rubber and nimble design.
Camp USA Energy Climbing Harness, $50
Yes, you'll need a climbing harness to tackle a via ferrata. This one is reliable, comfy, and affordable.
Black Diamond Half Dome Climbing Helmet, $65
A climbing helmet is another crucial piece of via ferrata safety gear that'll protect your noggin from falling debris and other unplanned bonks. This one is light and low-profile.
Camp Kinetic Gyro Rewind Pro Via Ferrata Lanyard, $220
These lanyards are designed specifically for via ferratas, allowing you to easily and safely transition from one section of cabling to another.
CamelBak Mule 12L Backpack, $115
Just as you'd bring on a day hike, a small backpack is ideal for bringing along snacks, extra layers, and water. Opt for a hydration-equipped model for hands-free drinking.
Black Diamond Crag Half-Finger Glove, $18
Gloves are optional, but helpful when dealing with all those steel rungs.