Rock climbing devotees pride themselves on inclusivity and positivity. No one is too old, too big, or too small to try the sport, and there’s no shortage of opportunities for those seeking a fresh perspective on some of Missouri’s most-loved places.

Outdoor climbing provides opportunities to enjoy nature while getting in a workout that challenges mind and body. Writer Mary Andino reaches the top.
Photo by Morgan Miller

By Mary Andino

To fully appreciate a familiar, well-trodden place, sometimes we need to look at it from a fresh perspective and see it from a new point of view. If you’ve visited and hiked Missouri’s beautiful state parks and conservation areas multiple times, discover them all over again from above. Climbing is your passport to a revived admiration of our region’s most inspiring landscapes.

Hidden in plain view at places like St. Francois and Washington State Parks are tall cliffs, fully equipped and beckoning to be climbed. Rock climbing, perhaps once a niche sport considered the territory of vagabonds in Yosemite and Colorado, has gained interest nationwide. By the end of 2022, there were 618 climbing gyms in the US, up from 591 in 2021. Missouri accounted for 22 climbing gyms in 2022, and there’s no indication that this is a passing fad. The proliferation of dedicated climbing gyms and gyms that have installed climbing walls makes it easy for beginners to enter the sport.

Built for the Climb

Rock climbing and its devotees pride themselves on inclusivity and a positive environment. No one is too old, too big, or too small to climb. Most climbing youth teams start at age 6. There are harnesses and shoes designed specifically for young children. While climbing is often viewed as a young person’s sport, recent data suggests that climbers reach peak performance at age 42, and many climbers continue to enjoy the sport well into their 60s and 70s. Whether it’s in the gym or outdoors, climbing belongs to everyone. 

“I love the climbing scene here because of the community,” says Advaith Narayan, a Washington University student and fitness instructor at Climb So iLL in St. Louis. “The many different types of people and personalities that it brings together is so beautiful, and the gyms here continue to provide a supportive environment for new and seasoned climbers.”

3 Kinds of Climbing

The three most popular kinds of climbing are bouldering, top rope, and sport. 

In bouldering, one completes a short series of challenging moves to reach the top of a route. Boulderers are never more than 10 feet off the ground and are not attached to ropes. It is an easy and inexpensive way to begin climbing. 

In top rope, climbers are securely attached, via rope, to a fixed point at the top of a route. They scale the wall while a person on the ground belays them.

In sport, or lead, the rope is attached directly from belayer to climber. As the climber ascends, they clip the rope into carabiners in bolts directly drilled into the rock.  

Climbing sites in Missouri are far more numerous than in some of our neighboring states, which makes Missouri an attractive destination for climbers. On, a website climbers use to find and track climbs, Missouri has 1,774 climbing routes, while the entire state of Nebraska has only 8, Iowa has 645, and Kansas has 329. 

Indoor climbing gyms are great for beginners who enjoy camaraderie as they gain confidence and master their techniques.
Photo by Morgan Miller

Ready to Rock

Whether you’re bouldering or sport climbing, going outdoors can seem daunting to the new climber. But with the right resources, you’ll be armed with the knowledge necessary to make it a safe and fun experience. Many gyms offer classes that teach the basics of outdoor climbing: how to rappel, build and clean anchors, and in general, make the transition from plastic to real rock. Missouri is also home to companies such as Vertical Voyages, where you can book a class from a certified guide, who will teach you the basics of safely climbing outdoors. 

Missouri State Parks runs a free intro program called Learn 2 Climb at Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Another great choice is to connect with your local gym community and go outdoors with experienced climbers you know and trust. Kansas City Climbing Community and the Eastern Missouri Climbers Association organize group trips and welcome people of all skill levels to join.

“The climbing scene is small in Missouri, making the status of ‘climber’ much more distinctive than in other places like Colorado,” says Josh Farmer, an experienced climber from St. Louis. 

All this adventure begins with a single step: visiting a climbing gym or a beginner class. Swing by, get on some routes, and see how it feels, mentally and physically. Embrace the journey of climbing and see where it takes you. 


Experienced climbers agree that these state parks offer excellent routes that appeal to a variety of skill levels.

Elephant Rock State Park, Belleview, Missouri

As kids, many of us visited Elephant Rocks, wandering around, playing make believe, and jumping on and off rocks. Bouldering at Elephant Rocks recaptures that childlike wonder. There is an absolute sea of rocks, all beckoning to be scampered up. This spot is particularly great for a large group because the difficulty level spans from beginner to expert. Get a preview here

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, Middle Brook, Missouri

Two challenging, riverside cliffs are available for climbers at this park. Solo climbing is not allowed, helmets are required, and all climbers must have a permit, which can be obtained by agreeing to the rules and completing the request form here

Lake of the Ozarks State Park, Kaiser, Missouri

There are several areas for climbing in this geologically diverse park, and the rules for climbers vary depending on where they plan to climb. Consult the park website and obtain a permit, if needed for your chosen route.

St. Francois State Park, Bonne Terre, Missouri

This park is a year-round favorite for climbers and features quality limestone and plenty of challenging boulders. A permit is required for climbing in this park, and there are other rules climbers must follow. Stop here first before you head to the park.

Washington State Park, DeSoto, Missouri

This park offers one of the newest climbing experiences in the Missouri State Parks system. The limestone bluffs, streaked with orange, gray, and black, are as beautiful as they are challenging. Rules and permit regulations apply and can be accessed here.

Feature image by Andrea Proiette.


Mo’ Beta, a guidebook to Missouri climbing 

Missouri State Parks Learn 2 Climb 

Eastern Missouri Climbers Association 

Kansas City Climbing Community 

Vertical Voyages

Article originally published in the March/April 2024 issue of Missouri Life