Missouri's geographically diverse treasures include the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the Ozarks, the St. Francois Mountains, and, of course, horizons filled with rolling forest, prairie and soybeans. Yet one of the state's prime natural attractions is a bit more difficult to spot.
Tucked into the eroded walls of sinkholes and along backwoods creeks are the underground formations that give The Cave State its nickname. Missouri is home to over 6,000 caves, which in turn support over 900 animal species. The caves are the result of water trickling through Missouri's limestone bedrock. As the limestone foundation erodes, the landscape becomes karst. Karst, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, is “a landscape characterized by the presence of caves, springs, sinkholes and losing streams.”
A friend told me, “If you grew up in Missouri, at least one of your parents' friends has property with cave entrances on it.” I have absolutely no proof that this is statistically true, but he makes a valuable point. Missouri's grandest caves are publicly or privately owned and attract streams of visitors, but other caves are local treasures accessible only to those who know where to go.
Outdoor enthusiasts who want an authentic caving experience have plenty of options. Tours of Crystal Cave
(at top) are given by owners Loyd and Edith Richardson.
(left) has been a wedding chapel for over 2,000 couples.
At Rock Bridge Memorial State Park
, visitors can peek into two wild caves via the same sinkhole entrance. Connor's Cave extends to the left, and visitors are free to explore at their own risk. (I recommend taking a flashlight!) Devil's Icebox Cave is accessible only on guided spelunking tours. This is partly because of the risk of getting lost in this 7-mile passage, but it is also intended to protect the pink planarian worm, a species that is only found in this cave. Several friends and I used to finish our runs through the park by sitting outside the cave entrance at dusk and watching swarms of bats rush out of the opening.
On the other end of the spectrum are show caves that cater to those who appreciate both stage effects and the great outdoors. These grand caves attract visitors from around the U.S. Visitors willing to forgive the questionable environmental ethics of illuminating caverns with colored lights will see awesome limestone features.
The natural wonders at Meramec Caverns
(above) combine with the remains of a saltpeter mining operation to offer a look at a cave system shaped by geological and human history -- it was once a hideout for Jesse James. In 1933, the enterprising Lester Dill purchased the cave with the intention of making it a commercial show cave. He found cracks leading to caves with still more decadent formations, and knocked down the rock in between. Eventually, a light and sound show was installed in one of the caverns' seven layers. Now, Meramec Caverns gets 150,000 visitors a year.
became so popular that a theme park, Silver Dollar City, sprang up to entertain waiting tourists. Fantastic Caverns
(below) bills itself as “Missouri's only ride thru cave,” a policy that the management says preserves the caverns. But regardless of how one feels about the modern touches, the gimmicky features can't hide the fact that these caves are naturally gorgeous.
For me, however, the caves with the greatest appeal are the wild ones, where no path has been cut to accommodate strollers. In true Missouri tradition, a friend has offered to take me spelunking on a cave whose entrance lies on his parents' friends' property. I'll let you know how the trip goes.