Toeing the line between science and sport, caving is a pastime best suited for curious and devoted explorers. While some cavers do it for the exercise and the chance to spend time outdoors, others may explore caves to study biology, cartography, or photography.
“Like fingerprints, every cave is unique in some way,” said Alex Litsch, vice president of the Missouri Cave & Karst Conservancy (MCKC). “Every cave has an ecosystem, some more diverse and delicate than others.”
No matter the reason for exploring, cavers have a responsibility to reduce the impact of their visit as best they can. This means following the golden role of caving: Take nothing but pictures, leave no trace of your visit, and kill nothing but time.
First Timer? Show Caves are Your Best Bet
With over 7,000 documented caves in Missouri, options for exploring are abundant. Show caves are a great place for fledgling cavers to start. Many show caves provide the necessary safety equipment, a tour guide, and even recommendations on where to stay and what to do nearby. Be sure to call ahead to check for any changes in policy, visitor restrictions, or temporary closures due to COVID-19.
Blanchard Springs Caverns
“Blanchard Springs is a great beginner trip, as they provide pretty much all gear for beginners,” said Seth Colston, president of Kansas City Area Grotto (KCAG).
Blanchard Springs Caverns offers three different cave trails. The easiest trail is the Dripstone Trail, which takes about an hour to complete. Visitors travel through the largest rooms in the living cave, filled with impressive calcite formations like soda straws and stalagmites.
Discovery Trail is a more complex option. It takes about an hour and a half to complete. While it offers fewer rock formations than the previous trail, it provides a look into the past that any hobby historian will love. Visitors will see the campsites and homemade harnesses of early explorers as they follow the stream that runs through the cavern.
The most challenging trail is the Wild Cave Tour, which takes visitors to the undeveloped sections of the cave. Be prepared to climb, crawl, and get dirty on this trip. Bring sturdy boots and Blanchard Springs Cavern will provide the rest — hard hats, headlamps, knee pads, gloves, and belts.
To complete your visit to Blanchard Springs Caverns, hang your hardhat at the Blanchard Springs Campgrounds. With quintessential Ozark landscape and easy access to hiking, biking, fishing, and swimming spots, the campgrounds are a destination in their own rite. Campers are equipped with a table, grill, and campfire ring — plus nearby public restrooms and showers. RV campers should note that the grounds do not have electric hookups.
Onondaga Cave State Park
Colston also recommends Onondaga Cave State Park for beginners. Paved and well-lit walkways run alongside the cave’s flowing river, making an easy tour for visitors of all ages and abilities. Cave tours take just over an hour and cover slightly less than a mile of ground. Be sure to bring comfortable shoes and a jacket to keep you comfy in the cave’s 57-degree Fahrenheit climate.
A tour through the park’s famed Cathedral Cave is also available. This lantern tour takes about two hours and is a bit more strenuous than the main cave tours. It requires stooping and walking across slippery surfaces towards the end. Visitors will walk through rooms with nearly 80-foot-high ceilings, wind-bent soda straws, and other remarkable geologic features. They’ll also encounter the Cathedral Cave Seismic Station, which monitors seismic waves and sends data to the National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colorado.
Onondaga Cave State Park is located at the north edge of the Mark Twain National Forest, which puts plenty of campgrounds at your fingertips. However, the closest campgrounds are at the park itself. The Onondaga Cave State Park Campgrounds have nearly everything campers need, from RV sites with full hookups to classic tent camping sites with fire pits and firewood available for purchase.
Ozark Caverns is another great option for both beginner adult cavers and families. Its tours are highly educational, as guides point out unique cave formations, evidence of extinct animals, and the many species living in the cave today. Ozark Caverns is also home to a rare cave phenomenon called Angel Showers, where water droplets fall from a ceiling of (what looks like) solid rock. Only 14 Angel Showers are known to exist in the world.
There are two versions of the half-mile tour: one for children and one for adults. The adult tour offers a more in-depth discussion of the biology, geology, and history of the cave. Meanwhile, the children’s tour allows kids to explore and learn some of the basic science behind caves.
The closest campsite to Ozark Caverns won’t be hard to find. Lake of the Ozarks State Park is a large encampment that offers a variety of overnighting options. The park boasts standard tent and RV sites and also offers cabins and yurts for those looking for a bit more structure. Ample trees, trails, and shoreline mean that visitors can spend their time above ground hiking, fishing, swimming, and boating — or simply relaxing in nature.
Want to Go Deeper? Explore Wild Caves
If you’ve done a handful of walking tours and feel like you’ve hardly scratched the surface, touring wild caves might be the next step. However, touring privately-owned wild caves requires a significant time investment.
“Cave locations are not divulged easily,” said Litsch. “Most caves are on private property. Those that are not, are on government land and most often require special permits for access. This is for the protection of caves, their inhabitants, and people.”
Joining a grotto, conservancy, society, or other organized caving group is one of the first steps to becoming an intermediate caver.
Organized Caving Groups
“By getting involved in organized caving, people can gain access to many places they otherwise would not, namely on public lands,” said Dan Lamping, president of the Missouri Speleological Survey (MSS). To find and contact grottos in your area, check the National Speleological Society’s website.
“Cavers that establish a relationship through grottos, caving clubs, research organizations like the Cave Research Foundation, conservation groups like MCKC, and other organizations will open doors to exploration through project caving; including research, mapping, biology work, bat counts, finding new caves, cave clean-ups and other cave related adventures,” said Derik Holtmann, secretary of the Meramec Valley Grotto and member of the National Speleological Society.
The camaraderie of cavers is also an appeal. “As a community, we’re very much like a family,” said Lamping. “Within that community are many close groups of friends who learn to count upon and rely on each other given the time spent underground, in sometimes mentally and physically challenging places.”
Grottos will often lead novice trips for little to no cost. KCAG even provides helmets and headlamps for guests, asking only a small fee for the battery fund. “We usually do these about every month, but we’ve only done one very small novice trip since the pandemic started,” said Colston.
While in-person visits to wild caves are on hold, KCAG has been hosting online meetings. “We’ve started a monthly ‘Introduction to Caving’ presentations. They’ve been on Zoom due to social distancing guidelines. We post information about these trips and events on our website and social media,” said Colston.
In addition to KCAG’s meetings, those looking to expand their caving education can check out an “Introduction to Wild Caving” course held through the Perry Park Center in Perryville, Missouri.
“I encourage new people, first-timers, and those that aren’t sure caving is for them, to sign up for his trips,” said Holtmann. The instructor, Josh Cooper, is a member of Southeast Missouri Grotto. His course mixes the classroom and hands-on approach, which increases in difficulty as the course progresses.
Preparing for Your Trip
Visiting any wild cave begins with a permit. Each cave has different requirements and limitations, which a cave manager will share with you.
“Permits are issued at the manager’s discretion. They take into account several factors pertaining to the safety of the permittee and their group, as well as the well-being of the cave,” explained Litsch.
Once you receive a permit, cave managers often provide a map as well.
If it’s your first trip, experts strongly recommend going with a knowledgeable group to learn the ropes.
“The first thing one learns when going through cave rescue training is that you really don’t want to ever have to be rescued from a cave,” said Lamping. “Caves can be in remote locations and traversing through them can be hazardous. Accidents happen. Generally speaking, it’s recommended that people go caving in groups of at least four. In case someone gets hurt, one person can stay with the injured and two can leave together.”
You’ll also want to bring a helmet, knee pads, gloves, three sources of light (head-mountable), extra batteries, food and water, and a backpack to carry it all.
“I suggest first-time explorers wear a hardy pair of boots with thick soles and firm ankle support. They should expect very wet, muddy conditions in some instances, as well as tight passages — some requiring one to belly crawl for some distance,” said Litsch. “As first-time explorers, they should expect that most of their clothes will end up in the trash afterward, as they will be covered in mud and clay and probably have some tears.
“The MCKC owns a handful of caves throughout the state that can be explored recreationally. They all can fulfill the appetite of any person curious to explore a cave and figure out if it’s really something they’re interested in,” said Litsch.
For beginners, he recommends three MCKC owned and/or managed caves: Berome Moore Cave, Perkins Cave, and Skaggs Cave. Prospective visitors will have to visit MCKC’s website to contact the manager for each cave and request a permit.
Berome Moore Cave
“The longest cave we [MCKC] manage is Berome Moore Cave that is over 21 miles long in southeast Missouri,” said Litsch. “It has several large passages and a legacy of cave explorers and mappers. After a short crawl through a cave gate, the cave opens up into large passageways for miles on end.”
If uncommon species interest you, Berome Moore Cave will be an exciting trip. It’s home to several kinds of amphipods and salamanders, as well as footprints from the extinct Pleistocene jaguar that lived nearly 11,000 years ago.
Hawn State Park lies about an hour from Perry County, home to the Berome Moore Cave and countless others. The campgrounds at Hawn State Park have everything a camper needs and then some. The clean, quiet campgrounds offer both tent and RV camping, plus restrooms, showers, firewood, and decent cell phone service. If you can snag a creek-side campsite, all the better. Pickle Creek runs through the grounds, creating small waterfalls and quaint views along the many hikes close by.
Located in Camden County, Missouri, Perkins Cave is over 2,000 feet long. After crawling through the entrance, visitors will find a long and winding main passage, about 7 feet high. From there lie many short side passages to explore, many of which are significantly smaller than the main passage and will require more crawling. Previous cavers have reported deep and muddy passageways, so dress accordingly.
Bennett Spring State Park is a popular stay in Camden County. The typical tent and RV campsites are available, as well as a handful of cabins. Bennett Spring is a haven for anglers, as the clear, cool spring is stocked daily with rainbow trout during the season. It’s also a great place for hiking, boating, and relaxing by a campfire. Showers, Wi-Fi, and a nearby market make camping here all the more convenient.
Just over a mile long, Skaggs Cave in Pulaski County is a well-known favorite among cavers. Its classic, long shape offers plenty of walking room, but crawling is necessary to reach the end. Striking cave formations and an array of cave life should catch the attention of any science enthusiast. It’s also home to Harlen’s Puzzle, a famed maze of crawl ways that — when navigated correctly — will lead visitors to explore most of the cave and easily find the exit.
Just outside of Pulaski County lies Montauk State Park. This shady green campground offers scenic Ozark views and plenty of camping options. Standard tent and RV sites are available, as are cabin rentals. Showers, firewood, and Wi-Fi are also easy to find — among many other modern conveniences.
Trout fishing is a favorite pastime among visitors, but non-anglers will also find plenty to do with hiking, boating, and biking areas located throughout the grounds.
Is Caving for You?
The short answer is yes. Missouri is home to caves of vast shapes, sizes, and difficulty levels. How involved you’d like to be is up to you. Many show cave tours are designed for a wide range of people, so they’re a great option for people of all ages and abilities who are interested in learning about caves. If you’re looking for more than a half-mile tour, many show caves have options for more involved trails. Depending on the cave and the manager, those trails could require special gear, permits, or waivers.
Wild caving is no walk in the park. It’s a hard-hat-and-rubber-boots kind of activity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beginner-friendly. It just means the more time you spend learning to cave safely and ethically, the more rewarding you’ll find the experience.
“Caving has allowed me to see parts of this planet that no other or few other humans had ever seen,” said Lamping. “It allows me to be part of something where I can make a contribution and provides a sense of purpose. It’s also taken me to some of the most beautiful places imaginable, both above ground and below.”
Author: Thea Voutiritsas is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.