Caves: Missouri’s Underground Treasure

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One of the most-loved things about Missouri is its four distinct seasons. At times, it seems like we experience them all in the same day. But we also have the perfect solution for our fluctuating conditions...

go underground.

Missouri caves are known for their beauty, their history – and their consistent 55- to 60-degree temperature all year long.

In addition to our nickname the “Show-Me State,” Missouri is also known as the “Cave State,” and with more than 6,300 recorded caves, it’s an apt title.

The list of ingredients needed to create a cave is short: limestone, water and uneven terrain – pretty much a description of the state, particularly the Ozarks.

Photo: Matthew Smith



Missouri has been giving cave tours for more than a century. Onondaga Cave in Onondaga Cave State Park near Leasburg has been attracting visitors since 1897 and is celebrated for its colorful dripstones, flowstones and spectacular “lily pad” room.


First explored in the 1720s, Meramec Caverns, just south of Stanton, was a saltpeter (an essential ingredient in black powder) mine during the Civil War. Jesses James is believed to have used the cave as a hideout in the 1870s, and local residents later hosted parties there to escape the summer heat. In 1933, Lester Dill bought the cave and opened it to the public. Come marvel at the 70-foot-tall Stage Curtain formation in the cave’s Theatre Room.

Speaking of marvels, the deepest cave in the state is Marvel Cave, located at Silver Dollar City in Branson. Descend nearly 600 stairs into the Cathedral Room, 300 feet below the surface. The tour of this National Natural Landmark is strenuous.

Photo: Silver Dollar City

Discover an easier adventure at Fantastic Caverns in Springfield – the only ride-through cave in America. Board a propane-powered tram to admire soda straws, cave pearls, massive columns, stalactites and stalagmites, all beautifully lighted. By the way, here’s a trick to remember the names of two types of cave formations: stalactites cling TIGHT to the ceiling, while stalagmites MIGHT grow that tall in time.

For a literary twist, visit Hannibal’s Mark Twain Cave complex – made famous in several novels by Missouri’s best-known author. The cave, a National Natural Landmark, has been offering organized tours since 1886. Unlike most caves in Missouri, Mark Twain Cave and several other caves in the Hannibal area are maze caves – a horizontal network of interconnecting passages. Part of the complex, Cameron Cave, is the third largest maze cave in the northern hemisphere.

The Cave You Fear to Enter Holds the Treasure You Seek


Near Ozark, let Smallin Civil War Cave take you back in time. Guides tell stories of Native Americans carving steps into the cave and encampments of Civil War soldiers at the mouth of the cave. Don’t miss the sharks’ teeth and shells embedded in the walls from when the region was covered by a vast ocean. In the fall, special Civil War Cave Tours include a campfire dinner with costumed guides telling stories and cave exploration by lantern light.

We’ve just scratched the surface of what lies beneath the Show-Me State. In addition to more than a dozen “show caves,” Missouri boasts numerous “wild” undeveloped caves. Before you explore, be sure to check the regulations for each cave. Some have bat populations that require protection during winter hibernation and are only open seasonally.

And remember, nothing – not heat or cold, not rain or snow – can keep visitors from a great Missouri adventure – underground.


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