Missouri is known as the “cave state,” and on our trip down Historic U.S. 66 we passed three well-known show caves – two privately owned and one (formerly privately owned) in a state park.
As cavers, visits to show caves can be fascinating or frustrating. Cave guides can be fountains of scientific knowledge and history OR pseudo-science, legends, and other entertaining BS. Generally publicly owned caves (State and National Parks) try to be scientifically accurate. Private caves vary wildly, going back to the days of extreme hucksterism to attract visitors to your cave and away from other nearby tourist meccas. If you travel I-44 west from St. Louis through the Ozarks you are urged by mammoth billboards to visit Meramec Caverns, Onondaga Cave, and Fantastic Caverns, three of the 17 show caves in Missouri. The state has over 6,600 caves and we have seen wild caves as well as commercial caves where you pay for a tour. You probably wouldn’t like the wild caves — almost all in Missouri have gooey mud or water or both.
If you can only tour one cave in Missouri, we recommend Onondaga Cave in Onondaga State Park. It has the best combination of pretty stalactites, stalagmites, and drapery plus artistically designed cave lighting, and guides who give you a technically accurate interpretive story. The tour is about a mile in length and rambles up and down past scenes of spectacular beauty. As cavers, part of the caving experience is darkness — not just the switching off the lights for two minutes that happens in all caves — but lighting that deliberately hides parts of the cave in shadows and darkness. Aesthetically pleasing cave lighting beats brightly lit subway tunnels, or colored lights, or lights that shine in your face. Exhibits in the Visitor Center are authoritative and informative.
The Onondaga State Park has one of the best campgrounds to be found anywhere, concrete pads, reasonable separation of sites, fine shower and restroom facilities, and a clean dumping and water station. Onondaga State Park is located on SR H, Leasburg, Missouri near Sullivan on I-44.
The next two caves are tied for second place in our opinion. Meramec Caverns is the most famous, a reputed Jesse James hideout. As one of the most highly touted caves in Missouri, it contains beautiful cave formations, and the guides spin yarns of questionable accuracy (holes in the ceiling described as upward-carved by double vortex turbulent mineral water that scientists don’t understand). Near the end of the tour the party is treated to a modern version of the old Kate Smith classic “God Bless America” with suitable visual montages of patriotic and scenic grandeur displayed on a “screen” of flowstone. Meramec Caverns is still owned and operated by the Lester Dill family. Lester Dill was the original developer and owner of both Meramec and Onondaga Cave. Meramec Caverns has a hotel, zip line, canoe rentals, restaurant, giant gift shop, etc. It also has bare bones camp sites (some with electric) next to the placid Meramec River with restrooms/showers. The I-44 exit for Stanton leads three well-marked miles to Meramec Caverns.
Farther southwest on I-44 at Springfield, just north off SR 13, is Fantastic Caverns, one of only six caves in the world (and only one in the U.S.) where you ride through the cave. Propane-powered Jeeps pull trams with seats down both sides through a one-half mile cave. The cave formations are located in large clusters, where the tram stops for explanations and photographs. The lighting is good, somewhere between that of Meramec Caverns and Onondaga Cave as far as aesthetic experience is concerned. The tram ride will appeal to any who don’t wish to walk long distances. A color photo of your party is available with you smiling from your seat in the red tram if you want a souvenir in a tasteful black folder. (We are in the Jeep.)
How do these Missouri caves compare with other famous caves such as Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave, Luray Caverns, Wind Cave, and Jewel Cave? Carlsbad Caverns is the most decorated BIG cave. Jewel Cave is smaller but extremely pretty. Wind Cave has an abundance of white boxwork and crystals. Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest, has 405 miles of big passages and only a few decorated areas. Luray Caverns, the only privately owned cave on this list, has an incredible density of formations and a well designed tour. For Lynn and Roger caves offer discovery, exploring, and enjoyment — somewhat the same sort of appeal that travel in a Class B offers, only in the dark.