Public Bouldering Park Acts As “A Gateway Into Climbing”

Climbing at the Grand Rapids Boulder Project
The Grand Rapids Boulder Project is a volunteer-run, public boulder field funded by the local Parks Department and the Western Michigan Chapter of the AAC, built in hopes of increasing accessibility to the sport. (All photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Boulder Project)

Grand Rapids Boulder Project
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Specs: Grand Rapids Boulder Project (GRBP) is situated within the city of Grand Rapid’s Highland Park, providing free climbing on outdoor public boulders during park hours. Opened in 2022 by long-standing city residents and GRBP founders Charlie Hall and Kyle Heys, the climbing at the park consists of two freestanding 12×24-foot boulders. Heys and Hall started working on GRBP back in 2016, when it was largely a volunteer-led movement with “over 750 climbers, families and local business owners,” Heys said. Heys had been climbing for over a decade and wondered how the duo could “take something that often is hard to get into and make it as accessible as possible.” Eventually the pair looked at Western cities with boulder parks in downtown spaces, like Jackson, WY and Buena Vista, CO, and later met with the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department to discuss the viability of a public bouldering park.

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GRBP is meant to be a pilot project, with its semi-permanent bouldering structures built to last 3-5 years. “We pitched climbing structures to the city as a part of the Grand Rapids Parks’ master planning process,” explained Heys. “They’ve been really fantastic partners to envision this and think about what it could look like.” After seeing the project’s initial success, Heys hopes GRBP can become a larger, permanent fixture in Grand Rapids and even expand throughout the region, serving as an example for other parks in the country. He also hopes to partner with more local organizations, especially those working with youth, to expand the programming at GRBP.

Another climbing session at GRBP
Highland Park has been getting more visitors following the boulders’ installation, a goal shared by both GRBP and the city’s Parks Department.

Because there are several climbing gyms/walls in town already, the focus at GRBP is to welcome new climbers to the sport. “This [was] a way to provide a different avenue into climbing that could be a little more accessible for folks,” Heys described. Highland Park is located near the city center and has plenty of transit options, but the park hadn’t been getting much use before GRBP. “It’s a beautiful and big park,” said Heys. “[Adding the boulders] was a way to bring in a new unique feature that would draw some interested folks to the park, while also being near the population we were hoping to serve…Mostly, it was a way to give back to our home community.”

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In addition to the city’s Parks Department, Heys and Hall also worked with the West Michigan Chapter of the American Alpine Club to build the park, with additional assistance from local construction teams. In terms of operations, GRBP is publicly available and falls under playground liability, so newcomers don’t have to sign waivers but rather observe a “climb at your own risk” sign in the park. The routesetting at GRBP is done by volunteers, with many holds coming from donations. GRBP also hosts publicly available setting clinics and other events throughout the year, such as the recent Highland Boulder Fest competition. Besides paid events, funding for GRBP predominately comes from the area’s aforementioned Parks Department and AAC Chapter.

The GRBP volunteer setting team
The volunteer setting team (pictured) keeps the boulder problems at GRBP fresh for public hours and comps.

Walls: Owner/Contractor
Flooring: Manufactured Wood Fibers
CRM Software: N/A
Instagram: @grandrapidsboulderproject

In Their Words: “The thing that I would recommend to folks is to really build a community to support the project…Really rallying community and getting some community input with data I think helps support working toward this kind of thing. The other thing I would say is I think a project like this really complements gyms in the area. We see this as a gateway into climbing and a way that ultimately brings people to the sport that can support the local economy and local gyms.” – Kyle Heys, co-founder of Grand Rapids Boulder Project