Absolute Darkness



 JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.Absolute darkness! That’s what you find in a cave. No matter how long you stare into the void, your eyes can never adjust to cave darkness; it will always be, well—dark. Does exploring a cave sound exciting? Make no mistake; caves can be exhilarating, entertaining and educational.

caves Missouri is not known as “the cave state” by mistake. The Show-Me State is home to more than 6,400 recorded caves (that number grows each year), the majority of which are not open to the general public. However, there are quite a few “show caves” in Missouri, where you can visit the ‘darkness’ as part of an escorted group. Fortunately, sloshing your way through muddy banks, wading rugged streams and crawling through dank, cramped passages by candle light have been replaced by electric lighting, handrails and paved walkways, Still, some caves do offer wild tours by lantern light. One thing to remember, no matter the type of excursion, caves tend to have constant temperatures of 60 degrees or lower, so take a jacket.

The most unusual cave tour in Missouri can be taken at Fantastic Caverns, in Springfield. This is America’s only ride-thru cave—visitors take the mile-long, 55-minute tour in a Jeep-drawn tram which follows the path of an ancient underground river. Enjoy the beauty of a natural cave without the long walks or steep climbs.

The largest commercial show cave in Missouri, Meramec Caverns, outside of Stanton, is reputed to have been used as a hideout by Jesse James and his gang. Guided tours are conducted along well-lighted walkways. Also, available by reservation, they offer special tours lighted only by hand-held lanterns. After you’ve gone underground at Meramec Caverns, you can soar above the trees, thanks to the on-site facilities that include the Caveman Zipline. A restaurant, canoe and floating outfitters, a gift shop, motel and a campground are also available.

Scuba enthusiasts have a great opportunity at the world-renowned Roubidoux Spring Cave in Waynesville. The spring’s average daily flow is 37 million gallons, with temperatures ranging from the upper 40s in winter to the low 60s in summer and fall. Roubidoux Spring is open to all certified cave divers. You must check-in and present your certification in the ‘911 Emergency Center,’ on top of the hill adjacent to the fire station. There is no fee. Contact the Waynesville Police Department for information: 573-774-2414.

Smallin Civil War Cave, located between Springfield and Branson, was the first documented cave in the Ozarks. The regular, guided tour lasts one hour, traveling one-half mile on trails that are wheelchair and stroller friendly—no stairs. Also, wild cave tours are offered by reservation. These off-the-beaten-path adventures, lit only by the headlamp on your helmet, pass through 54-degree water at least two feet deep, and traverse rugged terrain. Lace-up boots, long pants, headlamps and helmets are required; helmets and headlamps are available for rent.

Marvel Cave, part of the Silver Dollar City theme park in Branson, is the deepest show cave in Missouri, and it contains one of the largest subterranean entry-rooms in the United States. A Registered Natural Landmark, Marvel Cave opened for tours in 1894. Guided tours of the cave, on well lit, paved paths, are included with your admission to Silver Dollar City.

If she, or he, said yes when you popped the big question, why not plan on getting married deep inside of Bridal Cave? More than 2,100 couples from around the world have exchanged their wedding vows in this stalactite adorned, natural chapel (available by reservation). Regular cave tours are conducted over lighted, concrete pathways. The cave, two miles north of Camdenton, is reachable by road and by water at the Lake of the Ozarks.

The Mark Twain Cave Complex, two miles north of Hannibal, includes two very different caves. Mark Twain Cave, first shown in 1886, is a Registered National Natural Landmark. Experienced guides escort tours on walkways that are well lit, level and smooth—no stairs. Also, special lantern tours are offered, which take you off the regular path. It is open year-round. On the other hand, Cameron Cave remains the same as it was when it was discovered in 1925, with the exception of a few required safety features to satisfy Missouri’s show cave regulations. The complex labyrinth of this cave is shown only by lantern-light, Memorial Day-Labor Day, or by special reservation.

Bluff Dwellers Cavern, near Noel in extreme southwest Missouri, includes the Browning Museum, which showcases large rocks, minerals, fossils, arrowheads and antiques. Visitors pan for gemstones and fossils in the stream.

Talking Rocks Cavern, in Branson West, is said to be one of the most amazing and uniquely decorated caves in America. Paths are well lit and easy to walk. Facilities include a gift shop, nature trails, gemstone mining, a lookout tower, picnic areas, and mini-golf.

Four outstanding caves are open for public tours within Missouri’s State Park system. However, besides these four, other caves used by bats in Missouri’s State Parks may be temporarily closed to protect bats from white-nose syndrome, a fungus that is fatal to bats, but does not affect humans.

NOTE: To help reduce the risk of spreading the fungus to bats, do not enter any cave while wearing any clothing, footwear, accessories or carrying any equipment that has been in any other cave.

Onondaga Cave State Park, near Leasburg, offers two cave tours. Onondaga Cave, a National Natural Landmark, has been a tourist attraction since 1897. Trained guides lead you over electrically lighted, paved walkways and provide information about geologic wonders. Also in Onondaga Cave State Park, slightly strenuous, lantern-light tours are given of Cathedral Cave. After a one-third mile walk to the cave’s entrance, the tour of the cave lasts about an hour and 30 minutes. About 1,200 feet into Cathedral Cave, you will encounter a seismic station, which is an underground earthquake monitoring node operated by St. Louis University. The park itself features Meramec River access, floating, camping, scenic hiking trails, a lake, picnic sites and a shelter.

Lantern-light tours are available at Fisher Cave, one of more than 40 caves found in Meramec State Park, off of I-44, south of Sullivan. The park, located beside the Meramec River, is a favorite with canoeists and fishermen. It features a store, a restaurant, a visitor center, hiking and backpacking trails, cabins, a motel with a conference center, canoe and raft rentals and camping.

Also, the tour season is open at Ozark Caverns, where hand-held lanterns are used. In addition to the unique and breathtaking “Angel Showers,” bats, salamanders and interesting cave formations are features of this cave. The cave is situated in Lake of the Ozarks State Park, established in the mid-1930s. Missouri’s largest state park, it includes: 80 miles of shoreline; two swimming beaches; boat-launching areas; marinas; campgrounds and camper-cabins; organized group camps; hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails; fishing and water sports.

Additionally, access to a pair of wild caves at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, west of Camdenton, is available by special permit, subject to the migration of gray bats. Island Cave is an „entry by permit only” cave, while River Cave is a „supervised entry only” cave. Contact the park’s naturalist for details, schedules and reservations.

Operated by the National Park Service, one of the star attractions of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is Round Spring Cavern, 16 miles north of Eminence. Park rangers conduct two-hour tours by lantern light. These somewhat strenuous underground hikes, which are limited to 15 people, are offered daily, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. They take no reservations; tickets go on sale 30 minutes before each tour.

Finding a cave to tour is an easy task in Missouri. As we said at the very beginning, Missouri is not known as “the cave state” by mistake. All show caves, at some time during their tour, turn off the lights so you can experience absolute darkness.

Find listings for thousands of Missouri attractions, events and vacation ideas on VisitMO.com; while there you can order a free copy of the 2011 Official Missouri Travel Guide and use the interactive online edition. Also, the Travel Guide is available by calling 800-519-4800; and by downloading the free iPhone app: “Official Missouri Travel Guide.”

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Related Links:
Onondaga Cave State Park
Onondaga Cave
Cathedral Cave
Fisher Cave
Meramec State Park
Ozark Caverns
Lake of the Ozarks State Park
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Fantastic Caverns
Ozark National Scenic Riverways
Round Spring Cave
Meramec Caverns
Caveman Zipline
Roubidoux Spring Cave
Smallin Civil War Cave
Marvel Cave
Silver Dollar City
Bridal Cave
Mark Twain Cave
Cameron Cave
Bluff Dwellers Cavern
Talking Rocks Cavern