Cliff Drive is the shortest scenic byway in the United States.
The 4.5-mile road that runs east of downtown Kansas City was originally built by a settler named Nathan Scarritt as a driveway of sorts. Today, it’s beloved by runners and cyclists for its car-free weekends.
The 35-foot cliffs along Cliff Drive are also the best —and only — place to do serious outdoor rock climbing in the Kansas City area.
In fact, the bluffs are the only place you can do Class 5 free climbing within a two-hour drive. Even though climbers have scaled the limestone bluffs along the scenic byway for decades, it still remains a little-known attraction.
“I don’t think it gets enough attention for what it is,” says Ryan Surface.
Surface, 29, is from Prairie Village. He first heard about the crag of Cliff Drive online in 2008, but it took him a few years to finally get there.
“I don’t think I ever actually went there until 2012,” Surface says. “I’d been climbing for four or five years at that point, and it was a place in my backyard that I hadn’t been to.”
Kansas City has an active indoor climbing scene but Missouri’s outdoor climbing hadn’t been documented until the first complete guide, Mo’ Beta, was published in 2016.
Still, word of the bluffs’ existence has spread by word-of-mouth, and infrastructure has followed.
“Cliff Drive is approachable for new climbers and can help keep veteran climbers in shape if they can’t get down to Arkansas,” says Peter Chollet, president of the Kansas City Climbing Community. “Relatively speaking, it’s not a great crag, but it is outdoor climbing in Kansas City.”
Part of the reason Cliff Drive doesn’t get super high marks is its limestone, which Surface says doesn’t have the friction of the sandstone in popular climbing spots of Arkansas.
Chollet says that serious climbers gravitate to the Overhang for the “business routes” (to take care of your business, as it were.) That’s where you’ll find the grade 5.12a route called Malaria, along with Bovine, Chomping the Bit and Subtle Caress.
(In case you were wondering about the names: In rock climbing culture, the person who puts up the route, installs the bolts and helps clear the first path on the crag gets to name the route.)
A key feature for those wanting to graduate from the climbing gyms that keep popping up around town to technical climbing is that Cliff Drive is well-maintained.
Chollet and his club have worked on upkeep, replacing bolts and fixed anchors along the routes. You only need basic equipment such as quick-draws and rope to climb there.
“Sometimes, when I haven’t been out there for a while, you walk out and see this thing and think, ‘Damn, this is just as tall, no, taller than some of the gym walls at RoKC [Climbing Gym],’” Surface says. “You get out there and say, ‘Whoa, this is in my backyard!’ You forget that once in a while.”
Know if you go
►The best way to get to the crag is to enter Cliff Drive on the west side of the byway from The Paseo. Stay to the left of the road until you see the crag on your right.
►Cliff Drive is closed to vehicles during the weekend, so you’ll need to walk or bike in on Saturday or Sunday.
►Climb according to your ability. While some of the routes along the Overhang are fairly strenuous, there are good moderate routes like Across the Choss (grade 5.7) and Chomping the Bit (grade 5.10). Consult the Mountain Project (mountainproject.com) or the KCCC for more information.