Think of Cathedral Ledge as the Doubleday Field of rock climbing. In 1931, before anyone had set hand or foot on El Capitan's crags, climbing pioneer Robert Underhill made a daring first ascent of New Hampshire's 500-foot granite wall, helping put his fledgling sport on the map. More than 80 years later, the face remains unchanged, and North Conway still reigns as New England's top climbing town. "The granite's as hard as any in the world, full of big roofs with long cracks and absolutely no loose rock," says guide and pro climber Mark Synnott, who's been climbing the region for more than 20 years.
In addition to Cathedral, the surrounding White Mountains are full of notches with more than 50 climbable faces, so no one in the diehard community gets bored. "This morning I climbed a cliff in Franconia Notch that I'd never tried before," says Synnott. But don't come to town looking to bolt new routes; the area's famous for traditional climbing, and the locals, who range from scruffy college grads to weather-beaten 70-year-olds, like to keep the rock face the way Underhill found it.
Autumn is the best time to go. There are fewer climbers around, the buggy summer is long gone, and the view's not bad either. Just ask the leaf peepers who gather in flocks at the top of Cathedral to take in Mount Washington Valley. "When you pull yourself over the lip of the cliff after the final pitch, you pop up in front of the tourists," says Synnott. "Their typical reaction is, 'Holy shit! Where'd you come from?'"
More information: For beginner lessons go with Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School [$250; emsclimb.com]. To explore less-populated notches in the valley, tap Synnott [$220; newhampshireclimbing.com].