“The Most Fun You Can Have in the Dark – Exploring Missouri’s Caves”

I wouldn’t be surprised if some Kansas City gays thought I was referring to the basement of the old Dixie Belle—deep, dark, damp—and, most likely, the scene of more than a few dirty escapades.
The old Dixie Belle is long gone, but, for underground adventures of a different flavor, check out some of Missouri’s caves. We all know of Missouri as the “Show Me State,” but did you know it is also well known across the country as the “Cave State?”
With summer having arrived, beat the heat in the comfort of a stunning subterranean grotto. Consider an excursion to one of these interesting caves. Most are one-tank day trips from Kansas City and each promises a unique experience. And, don’t worry, you won’t break a nail or even soil those new Lucky jeans.
Mark Twain and Cameron Caves – Hannibal, MO (www.marktwaincave.com)
Everyone has read “Tom Sawyer,” and many of us have visited Hannibal, Mark Twain’s boyhood home, perhaps as schoolchildren. Sometime youth is wasted on the young, and that’s the way I felt as we entered the 325 million-year-old cave that inspired one of the most beloved works of children’s literature. I never truly appreciated the cave as a child, but it seemed to come to life for me now as we stopped at the Post Office, a rock formation where Becky and Tom left each other love notes. Our guide turned the lights out for just a moment and I could almost hear the sounds of Injun Joe chasing Tom and Becky deeper into the cavern.
Just across the property is Cameron Cave. Unlike Mark Twain Cave, which has been open to the public for more than a century, Cameron Cave has not been developed to the same degree. It is very similar to Mark Twain Cave in geological respects, but the experience is completely different, as each guest must carry their own lantern. The rock formations seem to come to life as each visitor passes by with the battery-powered lantern.
Meramec Caverns – Stanton,MO (www.americascave.com)
We were warned early in our tour of Missouri caves that the state boasts nearly 100 caves open to the public, and nearly all of them claim to have been hiding places for Jesse James. Located off old Route 66, Meramec Caverns is one of a handful that are documented hideouts for the notorious bandit and his gang. During the Civil War, the cave was the site of a Federal gun powder mill that was blown up by Confederate guerillas, of whom James was a member. In the early 1870’s he returned with his gang on several occasions to hide.
Meramec Caverns also won the award for the campiest cave. Apparently decades ago, one of the state’s Governors hosted a session of the state legislature in the cave. He even invited singer Kate Smith to perform for the assembly. Near the end, we were treated to a special patriotic light show projected on one of the rock formations to a recording of Smith singing, “God Bless America.” I was speechless!
Like many of the caves, Meramec is developed and takes full advantage of the thousands of tourists who visit each year. If time affords, enjoy an 11-mile boat ride on the adjacent Meramec River. The spring-fed river is so clear you can watch the fish swimming along the boat.
Fisher Cave – Sullivan, MO (www.mostateparks.com/meramec/cave.htm)
Fisher Cave, located on Meramec State Park just a few miles down I-44 from Stanton, is very different from Meramec Caverns. While Meramec is designed for tourists, the state has left Fisher largely unimproved. There are no lights and the path is a narrow concrete walkway poured during the Depression by Works Progress Administration workers. Again relying on lantern light, the cave seemed to come alive. Unlike Mark Twain and Cameron Caves, which are by definition “dry caves,” Fisher has brilliant stalactite and stalagmite formations built up from minerals deposited by water over millions of years.
The squeamish will be relieved to know that in most of the caves there was little crawling around other than us. Caves are too cold for snakes and with the human incursions, most of the bats have retreated into the furthest depths of the caves. In Fisher, we did manage to come across several endangered Missouri salamanders. For the more adventurous, our guide, a very, very cute young Parks Naturalist, leads “wild caving” tours. He promised we would get plenty wet, cold and dirty as we probed beyond the public tour areas of the cave. Be sure to call ahead for information about the wild caving tours.
Caveman Bar-B-Que and Steakhouse – Richland, MO (573-765-4554)
Caveman Bar-B-Que, the only restaurant in the country located in a cave, isn’t easy to find and you’ll be winding your way through miles of country gravel roads before arriving at the restaurant, located west of Waynesville and 100 feet above the Gasconade River. The cave was originally used for dances during the hot summer months of the 1950s. It took 10 years for the proprietors, David and Connie Hughes, to turn it into the kitschy eating place it is today. Don’t go for the food, because Gates and Arthur Bryant put them to shame, but go for the experience. Words can’t even begin to describe the place, but go….just to say you did!
Bridal Cave – Camdenton, MO (www.bridalcave.com)
Bridal Cave, located near the Lake of the Ozarks, was perhaps my favorite cave. Upon entering, brilliant flowstone formations created an awesome sight. There are spectacular stalactite and stalagmite curtains and all are located just feet from the entrance. Bridal Cave is Missouri’s underground answer to Las Vegas, having hosted thousands of weddings over the years. It’s almost as entertaining to take a few minutes to thumb through the dozens of albums on display with pictures of the lucky couples. The setting didn’t change much (and hasn’t for millions of years), but oh, did the clothing and hairstyles!
Fantastic Caverns – Springfield, MO (www.fantasticcaverns.com)
If you’ve made the trek down to Branson then you’ve seen the signs for Fantastic Caverns, located just north of Springfield. Now, the billboards for Yakov Smirnov and Darren Romeo may be glitzier, but you just can’t ignore mile after mile of Fantastic Caverns signs.
Fantastic Caverns is not the most spectacular cave you will see in Missouri, but what makes the experience unique is that it is the only cave in America where you can tour on a jeep-drawn wagon. I’m no princess, but after climbing through six caves in three days, I was ready for a ride. On our tour, we were joined by a family with a young child who was confined to a wheelchair. To hear her glee as we rounded a corner and caught view of a spectacular formation, was truly heart-warming.
The history of this cave was interesting because after it was initially discovered, the property owner placed an advertisement in the Springfield newspaper seeking a group to explore and map the cave. Ironically, the only persons to respond were members of the local Women’s Athletic Club. Hmmmm….
A Few Caving Tips
Unless you plan on a Wild Caving expedition, most of the caves described in this article are fairly accessible. Be prepared to do some climbing, but all provide stairs and handrails and if you’re reasonably fit, should pose no physical challenges.
I wouldn’t wear Prada or Gucci (if I had them), but you’re not going to get filthy. Most of the caves average 60 degree temperatures year-round, so dress comfortably and in layers.
Caves are protected natural landmarks and visitors are asked not to touch the formations as oils from the skin actually inhibit the continued growth of the mineral formations. It takes 100 years for these formations to grow one cubic inch. An innocent feel can change the course of history.
And for those of you with dirty minds, when confronted with a mighty stalagmite on the trail….well, don’t!

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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