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Parks workers hope crag updates make ‘underrated’ Missouri a climbing haven

A climber scales a large cliff in Missouri's Washington State Park
Beta Fund
A rock climber scales the 50-foot cliff in Washington State Park. Climbing enthusiasts hope updates to routes encourage more to see Missouri as a top climbing destination.

Missouri state parks have been an under-the-radar destination for experienced rock climbers for decades.

Now, a group of conservationists and state park workers are hoping to encourage more beginners to take to the state’s crags.

The state parks department, together with the Beta Fund, a St. Louis-based climbing and environmental nonprofit, have revamped and updated climbing routes in three state parks and have started offering lessons to beginners in Missouri.

“It’s an amazing climbing destination in and of itself, [even] when compared to Western states,” said Beta Fund President and Board Member Kevin McCarthy. “And so to have this unique gem … we really need to protect it, conserve it, but then also help people use it in responsible ways.”

For years the Beta Fund has held gatherings and cleanup events at Elephant Rocks State Park. The Iron County park is a haven for bouldering, a type of climbing in which climbers navigate routes close to the ground without ropes.

The state and the nonprofit started officially working together in 2018.

“It was this idea that just snowballed,” said Rebecca Young, state parks recreation section chief. “When people think rock climbing, they think Colorado; they think out west. But we have some really excellent places to rock climb.”

Climbers with the Beta Fund offered suggestions and advice on how to make rock climbing more accessible and attractive to climbers, Young said. In addition to cleaning up the bouldering area at Elephant Rocks, the state and the Beta Fund have installed new bolts on the huge limestone cliff at Washington State Park in DeSoto and installed top anchors at a climbing area in Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in Reynolds County.

Top anchors help novice climbers to take to walls, McCarthy said. More expert climbers install anchors into rocks as they go. Top anchors let beginners used to indoor rock gyms transition to outdoor climbs.

“It lowers the equipment threshold and also reduces the need to build your own anchor out of webbing and swings and other stuff. You can just go to these anchors, clip them, and they're ready to climb right away."

In November, the parks department offered its first Learn2 Climb events at Johnson’s Shut-Ins.

“Our mission is to create recreational opportunities for people to get outside and use the landscape that we have,” Young said. “Rock climbing is just another area where we’re trying to get people a foothold and teach them a safe way to do it.”

The state parks system has also updated its permit policy — climbers can now complete their permits online before they go to one of the state’s three parks. St. Francois, Washington and Johnson’s Shut-Ins allow the activity. (Elephant Rocks offers bouldering routes only, and a permit isn’t required.)

The two partners are next working on access trails and parking for the new climbing routes at Washington State Park.

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.