Fall Underground Hikes: Springfield Caves

Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark, Missouri, just south of Springfield.
Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark, Missouri, just south of Springfield.

Missouri is known for many different things – great lakes and rivers for summer float trips and boat outings, picturesque wine trails with award-winning wine, and sports teams with fans that put others to shame. But one of the most interesting things about the Show-Me State is its abundance of caves.

With 17 show caves and more than 6,500 more you can either stumble upon or secure a permit to go in, it’s amazing that Missouri isn’t more widely known as “The Cave State.” Recent visits to two Springfield caves provide all the evidence necessary to put Missouri caves on the map.

Smallin Civil War Cave and Fantastic Caverns are on the opposite ends of town, but they might as well be on opposite ends of the planet. Besides being cavernous and adventure-worth, their only other similarity is that they are show caves, meaning guided groups of visitors are able to enter the cave and enjoy the splendor.

Fantastic Caverns in northern Springfield.
Fantastic Caverns in northern Springfield.

Fantastic Caverns is on the northwest end of the Springfield area, tucked behind rolling farm land. This expansive cave is known as “America’s Only Ride-Through Cave” since it is the only cave on the northern hemisphere that you can ride through. Yes my first question was, “doesn’t the exhaust from the Jeeps and pulled carts harm the cave?”

Nope. They run on propane which emits carbon dioxide that does not harm the cave itself, or the people.

Riding through the cave certainly spoils you, as you don’t have to worry about your footing. Also, it stays a constant 60 degrees year round, so you are comfortable and able to take in everything around you instead of worrying about the cold. Stage lighting accentuates the rock around you, making everything very easy to see. As you pass stalactites and stalagmites, tiny soda straws, cave pearls, massive columns and flowstones your guide tells stories about the cave, including one about the 12 women who were the first known explorers.

At the very back of the cave is the theater room where you stop to watch a video on a large projection screen, detailing the story of the rock surrounding you. As you pass huge expanses of rock, you feel as if you are transported back in time when the cave was a speakeasy and everyone was having the time of their life underground.

Just south of Springfield in Ozark, Missouri, is Smallin Civil War Cave. There is no hiding this cave. Once you walk down the trail through the woods and you get the first glimpse of the enormous mouth of the cave, there is no turning back. The cave draws you in with its beauty; you just have to see more.

Smallin Cave Photos-9Listening to the enthusiastic and witty guide, Kevin, you hear amazing stories of Native Americans who carved the steps into the cave and the encampments of Civil War soldiers that took place right at the mouth of the cave. As he takes you further into the cave he points out shark teeth and shells from when North America was under an ocean. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to see a very rare Bristly Cave Crayfish.

Another unique feature of Smallin is the constant flow of water underneath the walk way. Unlike Fantastic Caverns, Smallin is a live cave, constantly changing for centuries and becoming more complex. If the raised pathway had not been built, it would be impossible to walk through the cave after a heavy rain.

Smallin Civil War Cave is known for its Historic Civil War Cave Tours every Saturday in October, which includes a campfire side dinner where you listen to costumed guides tell stories around the fire. After night has fallen, you explore the cave by lantern light with your guide. It truly is a unique experience.

These are just two of the numerous caves to discover. Luckily, most or all are open year-round. Get out there and enjoy the wonder of Missouri’s natural treasures.

Written by Elise Eimer, content management assistant for the Missouri Division of Tourism. 

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