ST. LOUIS — Missouri is honeycombed with more than 7,300 documented caves — nationally second only to Tennessee — that are deep and long enough to warrant exploration. Explorers find more every year. And who knows how many private land owners are secretly sitting on caves in order to avoid traffic, trespassing and liability, experts say.
Illinois has very few, and they tend to be in state parks named for the caves, and none ample enough to warrant amusement park amenities.
No one hears much about most caves in Missouri because their caretakers and advocates don’t want the public to mess them up, spread disease or get lost — yes, there are cave rescues in Missouri.
That doesn’t mean that if you have the urge to burrow, you can’t get into cave exploration, experts say. It just means no pretenders allowed.
“We’re a protective lot,” said Joe Light, vice president of the Meramec Valley Grotto, the St. Louis-based caving organization. “We’re people who have a passion for caves. Some people love the history, the geology, the adventure … I go into the cave to explore the cave and experience it. There’s no buried treasure or anything.
“We have cavers in our club who spend days underground,” he said. “Just trying to get to the end of it. The biggest cave in Missouri is 30 miles long, down in Perry County.”
What does it take? “You can’t be scared of getting dirty; Missouri caves are known for their mud and clay and average about 50 degrees year round,” he said. And you’ll need a comfort level to enjoy being sometimes miles into a cave and several hundred feet from the Earth’s surface.
Light says interested people are invited to attend meetings and look into caving as a hobby or passion. His group finds caves, maps them, explores and still finds virgin rooms even miles below the surface.
Dan Lamping, head of the Missouri Speleological Survey, which keeps track of Missouri caves and caving groups, says people who are genuinely interested in caving, or spelunking, should check into a local caving club, or grotto, before risking a hands-and-knees crawl through a dark, deep hole.
“We want people to join a local grotto and learn how to safely enter caves,” Lamping said. “We don’t want people doing caves that are very sensitive.”
The damage can range from marring sensitive geology to spreading a disease that could wipe out the state’s bat population. In addition, he said, working through a group heads off spreading a bad reputation of cave explorers among landowners. In fact, most of the state’s caves are on private land.
The caving groups that find caves on private lands first get permission from land owners to explore and map them, Lamping said.
Experts say the same process that resulted in Ozark mountain range over hundreds of millions of years, resulted in the perforation of caves: packed earth pushed up to become mountains resulted in stone being compressed below ground. Then springs over eons cut swatches through the sandstone and dolomite creating holes and formations.
Jeffrey Crews, a geologist with the Missouri Geological Survey, says the caves here come from the compressed sandstone and dolomite stone beneath much of the state. Streams trickled water through cracks and eroded the stone into the caves of today.
A popular public cave, Meramec Caverns is known to be long and deep. But the landowner limits access to the depth. So past that point remains a mystery, Lamping said.
Cavers suggested that to get a look at a less commercialized, but public, cave, Fisher Cave is near Meramec Caverns and allows daily walks through. But expect a nature walk rather than a walk similar to the more commercialized Meramec walk. Most walks in commercial caves are a quarter to a half-mile out and back.
You want more than that, join a club, experts say.
For example, “It’s like walking, but if you fall and you’re underground, there’s a whole different factor of (problems),” Light said. “We know how to do it, we have the gear, we can show you some neat caves.”
Caves dating to prehistoric America have been homes to individuals, families and entire villages. They’ve been shelter for soldiers during the conflicts that have raged across the state, criminals such as Jesse James. Infrequently, cavers run into evidence of primitive civilizations — writing, arrowheads and tools.
Then there’s the geology and science. The state’s caves evolve animals unique to one or several caves and the rock formations are the ultimate art of nature.
Caves are everywhere, including St. Louis, St. Louis County and every other urban center as well as rural area, Light said. In fact, brewery caves beneath the city stored beer and other beverages and supplies, sometimes directly beneath the tavern. The temperature, even in shallow caves, stays about 50 degrees year round. The city has 38 caves and St. Louis County about 140, Light said.
Currently the Missouri Department of Conservation doesn’t tout its caves for the public except for those where a conservation area is named for a cave: Onondaga, Meramec and the like. Even then, many are closed or have limited times available to the public.
Caves on federal land are closed indefinitely, primarily to prevent contamination with white nose syndrome, which is devastating the state’s bat population.
The disease, says Lamping, causes bats to awaken in the winter from hibernation. There’s no food, so they starve. People can carry the disease on their boots, clothing and skin, so officials ask they not wear clothing that’s been in other caves.
Light says you should be ready to be addicted. The Meramec Valley Grotto has about 75 to 100 members, including men and women, professionals and blue collar.
But caving isn’t like a walk in a forest, Light said, planning a weekend with the family on a trail. But, “If the caving bug bites you, the adventure, that’s a lot of it,” Light said. “Going around that next curve, going into a place where no other human being has been into, there aren’t many places on the planet you can still do that.”