As you may have heard six or eight times in the past, Meramec Caverns is my favorite tourist site in all of Missouri, because it has one of everything. Except, as we noted on this last trip, one thing. But here's what it does have: a restaurant, ice cream, a gift shop, a fudge store, a rock shop, panning for gold, digging for fossils, a campground, a motel. aaaaaaaaaaand a zip line. What is it missing? A candle store, like the one at Mark Twain Cave. But that's just my humble tourist trap fangirl opinion.
The entrance to the cave itself also has a collection of old slot machines and kid's rides. They also recently added several exhibit boards about Missouri in the Civil War.
Meramec Caverns commercial activities started under the name Saltpeter Cave back in the 1890s, where it was known for cave picnics. D.N. Gideon and Joseph Schmuke, who organized these cave parties, installed a bar, dance floor, and platform for musicians in the cave.
Saltpeter Cave got its name from the saltpeter mining that went on there from 1720-1760. Saltpeter is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. According to the book Missouri Caves in History and Legend (a great resource, by the way, if you are interested in commercial and wild caves,) there are nineteen caves in Missouri with Saltpeter in the name.
Overheard near this display: "I don't know what that is [the hunk of mineral on the right]. Silver, maybe?" Yeah, they just left an enormous hunk of silver right there in the open.
This little shack at the entrance was not, in fact, Jesse James' hideout, nor is it the type of cabin Jesse James would have lived in. It's just a moonshiner's shack that was found above ground on the property, complete with still.
Say hullo to Pete! Here's where I have to interject a 2013 observation: Don't bother with the Meramec Caverns tour on a holiday weekend. Our recent visit was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and the tours were oversold, they had to have two guides to manage one tour, and honestly, both of them sucked. I would say they skipped MOST of the tour script, and both of them seemed annoyed by small children. If there's not a minimum age for the tour (and there is not) then the guides need to just suck it up and project over the chatter of small children, rather than waiting for complete silence from 50 people. But on the upside, we didn't have to listen to them start every sentence with "Now...." which is my usual complaint with the overly scripted tour at this cave. I still love you, Meramec Caverns, but your guides are not the best show cave guides.
The big room just past the cabin is a huge ballroom-like space that can seat 3,000 people. This was the big room for the cave picnics. To answer the question everyone always asks, no, you can't rent it out for your party or wedding. They use the ballroom twice a year for gospel weekends and will direct you to Bridal Cave for your wedding.
This TINY room just past the ballroom is the Honeymoon Room. In the 1950s, Art Linkletter sent some contestants from his show, People Are Funny, to spend 10 days in the cave for their "honeymoon." They had to perform a caveman and cavewoman routine for the tours that came through, and could leave as soon as they found the gold key... which was not hidden in the room until the 10th day. At the end of the week they won a real vacation and a wad of spending money.
Meramec Caverns is believed to be one of the hideouts used by the James Gang. J Frank Dalton, who you will remember from Jesse James Wax Museum, said it was one of his favorite hideouts.
Some people are skeptical of this claim, but according to Meramec Caverns, the stuff found around Loot Rock, including a strongbox from the Gadshill, MO train robbery, can be traced to the James Gang. The items found at Loot Rock are in glass cases at the entrance to the cave. The same family owns Meramec Caverns and Jesse James Wax Museum, so take that as you will.
A lesson in cave formations: Stalactites hang TIGHTLY to the ceiling, and stalagmites MIGHT poke you in the butt. I mean, they might reach the ceiling. When they grow together, that's called a pillar or a column.
We also came up with a new name for soda straws, or "spaghetti": Biore Strip.
Our 2009 trip had but one mission: to find the Virgin Mary formation. Six years ago, Keith bought me a commemorative Meramec Caverns plate with a depiction of a Virgin Mary cave formation, which is still sold in the gift shop in 2013. The formation is not marked, and only some of the guides I've asked over the years can point it out. Turn around and look behind you right as you enter the Stage Curtain room and you might see it.
Is that amazing or what? Totally natural formation. I'm sure we were an odd sight to the other people on the tour in 2009, this motley crew of black hoodies demanding to see the Virgin Mary.
Onward to the Stage Curtain! This is one of the largest known cave formations IN THE WORLD. So say some internet sources.
I don't know how true it is, but it's pretty impressive, particularly when you add in the light show. The light show is the reason that bringing new people to the cave is one of my favorite things in life. It involves a bank of switches the the tour guide flips rapidly while Kate Smith's rendition of God Bless America plays, and ends with a special American flag light. She actually sang it at Meramec Caverns on that little natural "stage" you can see on the left.
This year we finally took a ride on the Cavern Queen! I had always kind of laughed at the boat in the past, but it turns out that it's perfect for someone like me who likes to admire nature without touching too much of it. "Floating" is not my jam, but I loved this little tour and the "captain" was really great with kids. Check out this amazing view!
Obviously, you need to plan a visit to get the full experience. Meramec Caverns is the oldest attraction on Route 66 and you can see their distinctive painted barn advertising, I've heard, as far away as Ohio. They are open year round (always 60 degrees!) and you can find a full list of prices for all the various activities on their website.