Missouri has thousands of caves and caverns to explore. Here's where to start
Also known as the cave state, Missouri boasts nearly 7,500 caverns including the "Devil's Den" and Crystal Cave.
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Missouri's unofficial sobriquet is the Show-Me State, but it begs a certain question. Allow us to suggest this answer: “Show me some caves!” Also known as the cave state, Missouri boasts nearly 7,500 caverns. That’s more than Arkansas, with 2,000 caves, but less than Tennessee, which has 10,000 caves — the most in the United States.
The country's deepest cave, located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is called Lechuguilla Cave and extends down 1,604 feet. Talk about a descent. Given that limestone is the most common sedimentary rock found in Missouri — and is susceptible to corrosion from slightly acidic water — it makes sense that the state has so many caves.
So, if you’re looking to get spooky this season, and want to get to know the cave state’s many weird and wondrous speleological quirks — that’s the scientific study of caves — consider venturing into one of the caverns (or salt mines) on this list.
Just remember: stalactites have a “C” in the name and taper from the ceiling. Stalagmites come up from the ground.
The Lake of the Ozarks is almost through its busy summer season, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore Stark Caverns, in Eldon, Missouri. Now in its 72nd year of operation, the cave is just a two-hour drive from Kansas City.
Stark contains several shimmering pools of water all flowing into one another, so expect to cross long stretches of boardwalk on your visit. The cave is 90% accessible to wheelchairs, open year-round and mildly temperate at a consistent 57 degrees.
Besides the pools, notable features include large columns in the walls and otherworldly “soda straw” formations, a variety of tubular stalactite. These form when water drips slowly through cracks in rocks, such as those found on the roof of a cave.
Stark Caverns has an intriguing history — Native Americans were the first to call it home, leaving behind terra cotta pottery from the Late Woodland Period, when agricultural technology was becoming more advanced.
The cave has led many lives: resting area for cattle, speakeasy, trout farm and roller-skating rink. You can learn more about the history of the caverns during a daily tour, or — if you're lucky — one of its occasional black light tours.
Considered the deepest cave in Missouri, Marvel Cave was once known as the "Devil’s Den." The entrance to Marvel is connected to Silver Dollar City, which developed around the massive cave after it opened as an Ozark tourist attraction in 1894.
Before that, in the mid-1860s, miners looking for mineral deposits descended into the darkness, led only by lantern light. They returned empty handed, but believed the cave held swaths of marble. Thus, “Marvel” cave stuck — for more than one reason.
Cave tours last about 60 minutes and start with a descent into the Cathedral Room, which sits 300 feet below the Earth’s surface. A series of ramps and stairs sinks another 200 feet, with a return to the top via cable train. On the whole, the surface is a half mile up.
As you may have noticed, caves can go through a series of names, owners and purposes. Hopefully we will continue to protect caves like Marvel, which houses wet limestone formations that are still growing.
A day trip to Crystal Cave, in Springfield, Missouri, will take you southeast for two and a half hours. You may not bring back any crystals, but you will experience the Ghost Room, a chamber with 13 pure white, two-foot-tall stalagmites. Name something cuter than that.
Other rooms include the Concert Hall, which is covered in soda straws — the kind that cling to cave ceilings, not the things you drink through — and the Chimes Room, with a natural dome roof that causes the stalactites within to ring when touched. Who knew a cave could make music?
On the east side of the state, about an hour southwest of St. Louis, lies Meramec Caverns. The cave system stretches 4.6 miles along the Meramec River, near Onondaga Cave, Fisher Cave and the large conservation area there. Perhaps the most well-known cave in Missouri, Meramec is more than 400 years old.
The cave was used as a calcium nitrate mine in the Civil War until Confederate guerrillas destroyed it. Calcium nitrate, when mixed with potassium, creates a substance otherwise known as “saltpeter,” which was used to make gunpowder. Meramec was also a stop on the Underground Railroad and is thought to have harbored enslaved people seeking freedom.
Inside the cave, guided tours take off every 20-30 minutes. You will experience well-lit walkways and strange cave formations. Many of these limestone structures were formed when the area was still underwater. The rarest of all is the Wine Table, an onyx table complete with grape-shaped clusters called botryoides.
If crawling around under the earth gives you the heebie-jeebies, check out the zipline above the cave or the climbing wall, which is open during summer months.