By Jonas Weir
Missouri goes by many names. The official nickname is the Show-Me State. Another is the Ozark State, although Arkansas might challenge that. Many might just know it as Jon Hamm’s home state. However, the state’s coolest nickname—pun intended—is the Cave State.
With more than 6,400 recorded caves, including twenty show caves that are open to the public for guided tours, enthusiasts around the United States know Missouri for its many caverns. Spelunkers, explorers, and geologists come from miles around to search for untouched caves, while vacationers follow roadside billboards from hundreds of miles away to the well-known show caves. Midwestern travelers will surely recognize Meramec Caverns’ iconic old barn marketing campaign.
Most of Missouri’s caves, however, are sealed off from the public, and for good reason: to either protect the natural habitats within or to protect people from the dangerous conditions within. Caves are home to a diverse and obscure set of wildlife that includes bats, Ozarks blindfish, cave-dwelling salamanders, and other species adapted to the lack of sunlight and abundance of moisture. Great archeological finds have also been discovered deep within Missouri’s caverns. Fossilized footprints of extinct species, such as the mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and American lions, have been found in these caves, along with ancient human remains and primitive tools. In 2001, the oldest cave in the state, Riverbluff Cave, was discovered in Springfield, and it has yielded a wealth of fossils. Caves like Riverbluff are integral to continuing geological and archeological studies today.
There are many caves in the state, though, that are open to the public. Known as show caves, these geological wonders have been used by people for decades if not centuries. Some have been in almost continual use by people for shelter since before Europeans settled in the region. Others were more recently discovered but have become tourist attractions because of their geological significance. A visit to any of the state’s show caves is breathtaking, but some stand out. Here’s a survey of the caves you can visit.
Named for Missouri’s literary hero, the Mark Twain Cave Complex holds many distinguished titles. First and foremost, Mark Twain wrote about the original show cave more than five times, so you might call this the most literary cave in the state.
The first documented record of Mark Twain Cave dates back to 1820 when Bill Simms was hunting on a cold winter’s day, and he and his brother followed what they thought were panther tracks to the cave opening. Since that day, the cave has gone by many names—Simms Cave, Panther Cave, Saltpeter Cave, McDowell Cave—until the name Mark Twain Cave was settled upon after the 1880 publication of the iconic novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
A young Samuel Clemens spent his boyhood playing in the cave, which inspired the scene where Tom and Huck find $12,000 worth of gold after overhearing its location. You can see the exact location that inspired the scene in the Treasure Room. Mark Twain wasn’t the only famous Missourian to set foot in the cave, though. The infamous Jesse James used the cave as a hideout in 1879 after he robbed a bank in Saverton. In 1886, the cave opened as a tourist attraction, making it the oldest show cave in the state.
In 1925, the then-owners of the cave discovered another geological wonder on their property. In fact, what the Cameron family stumbled upon was more geologically significant than the original show cave on their property. More than fifty years later, the family opened the cave for tours in 1978.
Now named in honor of the family, Cameron Cave is the newest show cave in Missouri, but it’s not your typical show cave. As the third-largest maze cave in the Northern Hemisphere, the cave has five miles of surveyed passages. To protect its natural beauty, no lights were ever installed, which distinguishes it from Mark Twain Cave. During tours of the cave, visitors carry either a lantern or flashlight.
Together, Mark Twain Cave and Cameron Cave make up the Mark Twain Cave Complex, which also features a restaurant, winery, and campgrounds. Find everything at 300 Cave Hollow Road in Hannibal. Call 573-221-1656 or visit MarkTwainCave.com for more information.
More than five hundred feet beneath the surface of the earth, Marvel Cave at Silver Dollar City near Branson is the deepest cave you can explore in the state.
Tours of Marvel Cave begin three hundred feet beneath the surface in the Cathedral Room. One of the largest cave entrances on the continent, the room measures 204 feet high, 225 feet wide, and 411 feet long, and the views are breathtaking. In fact, the room is so large that hot air balloons have been flown within the Cathedral Room.
The Cathedral Room isn’t the only cool feature, though. The hour-long tour of the cave includes many geologically fascinating formations. The Liberty Bell, for example, is a fifty-five-foot stalagmite that features a crack in its side, hence the name. The Dungeon is another interesting part of the cave as it features iron oxide stained walls that look blood red.
Silver Dollar City offers two different tours. The standard hour-long tour is included with the price of admission. However, cave enthusiasts might want to spring for the more exclusive, ninety-minute lantern tour. Up to twenty park guests at a time can take the lantern tours where the lights are shut off, but an extra service fee applies and reservations are required. For more information, visit SilverDollarCity.com or call 800-475-9370.
Exploring caves is not for the faint of heart. When the first westering settlers started discovering and exploring Missouri’s vast network of caverns, there were no flashlights or modern-day climbing equipment.
In fact, when the first twelve men and women explored Fantastic Caverns back in 1867, they only used ropes, ladders, torches, and lanterns. Today, however, a tour of Fantastic Caverns near Springfield is a totally different experience than those frontier days.
Fantastic Caverns is the only cave in the state to offer a ride-through tour. Visitors can board a jeep-drawn tram for an hour-long tour through the well-lit caverns. It’s perfect for the whole family, from little kids to Grandma and Grandpa.
On the tour, you’ll learn about the cave’s history. It was actually discovered years before it was explored, but the owner did not want it to be exploited by either army in the Civil War. And for a short time in the 1920s, it was a speakeasy. In addition to history, you’ll also learn about the rich diversity of cave wildlife, from the grotto salamander to blind Ozarks cave fish.
Look for the signs for Fantastic Caverns in the Springfield area. In true Ozarks fashion, advertisements cleverly claim the cave is a cool sixty degrees in the summer and a warm sixty degrees in the winter. Find Fantastic Caverns at 4872 North Farm Road 125 near Springfield. Call 417-833-2010 or visit FantasticCaverns.com for more information.
Meramec Caverns are synonymous with Missouri tourism, and it’s been ingrained in the state’s culture for generations.
More than 400 million years old, the cave was first explored by a French miner in 1722. During the Civil War, the Union Army used the cave as a saltpeter mine until Confederate guerrillas destroyed the operation. Supposedly, Jesse James was one of those guerrillas, and he returned to the cave with his brother Frank in the 1870s to use it as a hideout. After that, locals used the cave to throw parties to escape the summer heat.
The 1930s brought a watershed moment in Meramec Caverns’ history. In 1933, Lester Dill bought the cave from Charles Ruepple. That same year, Dill discovered more than four miles of previously unknown cavern. Two years later, in 1935, he opened the entire cave system as a tourist attraction.
Lester Dill is the man who made Meramec Caverns the attraction we know today. He began the marketing campaign of painting the attraction’s iconic logo on old barns across the country, often in exchange for season passes. He also pioneered the use of bumper stickers as advertisements. In fact, he’s even been credited with inventing the bumper sticker, though that’s been disputed. Starting in the 1960s, Dill began attracting Hollywood to the cave, and a few blockbuster films have shot scenes there, including 1972’s Tom Sawyer and 1998’s Deep Impact.
In any case, Dill made Meramec Caverns a seminal tourist attraction that will always be associated with hatchbacks, bumper stickers, and the 1960s. To this day, more than 150,000 people make a pilgrimage annually to 1135 Route W. Visiting this Stanton staple is a right of passage for Missourians and cross-country vacationers alike. Call 573-468-2283 or visit AmericasCave.com for more information.
Not since the ice age has a cave really been thought of as a romantic getaway. Dank, dark caverns and nocturnal creatures aren’t exactly wine and roses. However, more than three thousand couples have tied the knot at Bridal Cave in Camdenton.
The cave has long been associated with the idea of love. The old folk tale says that Conwee, the Osage son of the Chief of the Big Hills, was infatuated with Wasena—the daughter of a Chief of the Little Hills. Alas, the love was unrequited. In a desperate effort, Conwee captured Wasena and her companion, Irona, and brought the two to present-day Bridal Cave.
Wasena escaped the cave, and rather than marry someone she did not love, she jumped to her death at a nearby three-hundred-foot cliff overlooking the Niangua River. Today, locals still refer to the place as Lover’s Leap. Later, Irona married Prince Buffalo, Conwee’s brother, inside the cave, hence the name Bridal Cave.
Nobody knows for sure if the legends are true, but nonetheless, this show cave is still associated with love. Ceremonies take place under the gorgeous stalactite formation known as the chapel. All weddings are open to the public, so even if you’re just visiting, you might catch a couple eloping.
Find the cave at 526 Bridal Cave Road. Call 573-346-2676 or visit BridalCave.com for more information.
Onondaga Cave was almost mined for its onyx.
Leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the Onondaga Mining Company formed. The plan was to mine the cave’s onyx to use when constructing buildings for the World’s Fair. The mining venture failed, however, due to a lack of funds and mining expertise.
To recoup costs, the owners set up a shuttle service to take visitors on an eighty-one-mile trip from the World’s Fair to the cave near Leasburg. Thus, Onondaga Cave will forever be linked to Missouri’s only World’s Fair as it has continued as a show cave ever since.
In the 1960s, though, Onondaga Cave faced a new threat. The US Army Corps of Engineers planned to dam the Meramec River. If that were done, the dam would inundate Onondaga Cave and many of the surrounding caverns. Public outcry from conservationists, cave enthusiasts, and other environmentalists led to the Corps of Engineers abandoning the plan, and the cave was saved.
In 1982, the cave became a part of Missouri’s state park system, and Onondaga State Park has been continually open ever since. Each year, visitors from all over come to see the cave’s abundance of quality cave formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, rimstone dams, flowstones, draperies, soda straws, and cave coral.
Park naturalists give tours May through October, and each October, there is a special day of spooky cave tours at night. Find Onondaga Cave State Park at 7556 Route H near Leasburg. Call 573-245-6576 or visit MoStateParks.com for more information.