The Bad: Inarticulate guides, Very commercial feel
The Basics: Meramec Caverns is a good cave, but the experience of visiting it may be undermined some by the commercialism of the park, which is dominated by gift shops, etc.
While I was traveling across the country earlier this month with my wife, she had one rule for me: no reviews! That rather irksome demand has led to a huge backlog now that we have returned. To be fair to her, I can understand her desire to have her partner be there in the moment with her, but given how few notes I have on many things we did and saw, many of my reviews for travel are based more on her photographs and my memories. And while it might seem like I am griping about my wife wanting to have a fun trip for her first cross-country adventure, I am was so happy to offer her the opportunity to do some things she has never done, but has wanted to. In addition to never having been on a cross-country trip before, she had never been to caves before, which is pretty lamentable for someone who loves bats as much as she does. We rectified that by visiting the Meramec Caverns in Missouri.
Unlike my wife, I have visited caves before. Two years back, I helped my mother fulfill her lifelong dream of going to Carlsbad Caverns (reviewed here!). While there is arguably no comparison to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Meramec Caverns was a bit more commercial than I would have liked, though it was relatively inexpensive and made for a fun, safe first cave experience for my partner.
Often misspelled, Meramec Caverns are located surprisingly close to St. Louis, Missouri. Just south of the major east-west arterial, Route 70, is Route 44, which cuts diagonally through Missouri south of St. Louis. The Meramec Caverns are located off route 44 via exit 230. This was very convenient for my partner and I as we drove down from northern Michigan to our hotel in Sullivan, Missouri and there were so many signs for Meramec Caverns that we couldn't have missed the theme park if we tried. If it seems odd that I call it a "theme park," it is because of how commercial the setting is (see below).
From exit 230, the Meramec Caverns are about seven miles away and entirely possible to find via road signs. In fact, the only way I have to say to get to the Meramec Caverns from exit 230 is via the signs coming off the Interstate. As soon as one drives off the Interstate, they enter a dead-end street (the dead end is seven miles away, but there is no outlet) which takes the visitor directly to the Meramec Caverns.
Ease Of Local Transport/Parking
Transport into and around the park is very easy as: 1. There is one semi-paved road leading to the main parking lot, and 2. There is nowhere else to go once you are at the parking lot. The parking lot had at least three hundred parking spots, and it is past a bunch of campgrounds on the property that are part of the Meramec Caverns experience. The Meramec Caverns are down a hill from where one comes off the Interstate, as a result, the park is harder to get out of for vehicles with low horsepower. The road also becomes a dirt road going down the hill and into the Meramec Caverns parking lot, so those towing heavy loads or who have trouble in winter or rain with mud, I'd recommend taking that into account when visiting Meramec Caverns.
Essentially, Meramec Caverns is a big cave out in the middle of the hills of Missouri. We arrived there at 11:00 a.m. local time and it was already 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's not like this is a wonderful place to linger and have a good, fun time outdoors at. Fortunately, one may enter the lobby building built into the hill that the caverns are under and the temperature is 60 degrees year round.
The whole point of Meramec Caverns is to come see caves. In order to see the caverns, one needs to pay $18.00 (for adults) and it was only when comparing this to Carlsbad Caverns that I truly gagged. The national park is a third of the price of this private enterprise! I suppose Missouri needs the money more than New Mexico or the federal government, but given the apparent advertising budget of this cave, I can't imagine that they don't make money hand over fist her.
The $18.00 gets the visitor access to a guided tour of Meramec Caverns that supposedly lasts only an hour (ours lasted an hour twenty minutes). There is only one tour package for Meramec Caverns, so it makes it easy to do everything in the park in a single day. Tours begin every twenty minutes from 9 a.m. to 4 - 7:30 (depending on the month) p.m. and the caves are open every day, save Christmas and Thanksgiving. The Meramec Caverns have a fully comprehensive website that includes contact numbers and current tour schedules.
The tour of Meramec Caverns is a tour guided by two park rangers - one who does the talking, the other who takes up the rear and makes sure no one gets lost in the dark - where the history and geological phenomenon are detailed by the guide. At least, I think that's what happened. The tour guide on our visit was an annoyingly inarticulate young man who seemed unable to enunciate and all I caught were "Jesse James," Lassie and some lame joke about a Chicago baseball team. The Meramec Caverns was a hide-out for Jesse James at one point, a scene from Lassie was filmed in the caves and the joke had something to do with rust and the corrosive nature of the liquids dripping from the cavern walls.
Geologically, Meramec Caverns is a very average cave system. There are minimal lights through most of the caves - my partner had a bear of a time getting any photographs, even when she opened the aperture on her camera and adjusted f-stop to maximum - and the tour guide seemed content to talk more about the way the caves were exploited, as opposed to the formations and geological marvels we saw.
For a little over an hour, we walked around the minimal lighting of the caves and looked at stalactites and stalagmites and the caves have a few big chambers. The largest was the Stage Curtain, a seven-story mineral deposit upon which a light show is projected at the end of the tour. The light show was campy, but the geological formation was incredible to sit and contemplate. Over millions of years, this formation was made and sitting in the presence of something that old and large is humbling, even to the most jaded visitors.
Also wonderful was the impressive Mirror River. For a large portion of the caverns, there is a shallow, almost unmoving river. The clarity of the river is so incredible that when light hits it, it actually reflects everything above it. As a result, for one massive chamber, it appears that one is looking down into a chamber filled with stalagmites, but it is in fact the reflection of the cavern ceiling's stalactites! The optical illusion is incredible and wonderful to witness.
Out of an hour and a half underground, this is largely what I remember and I think it is appropriate for the purpose of the review to make note of that. There were other chambers, but most of the conversation the guide had about what we were witnessing had to do with famous movies, television programs and historical personas that had used Meramec Caverns for their own uses. I suppose this is to be expected of a place where one has to pass through the gift shop and cafeteria to enter the main attraction, but the sense of commercialism was overwhelming and unpleasant, at least to someone who has seen one of the most incredible caves on Earth.
That said, my wife enjoyed the caves and for a first cave, this is a very unintimidating way to go. She, however, thought it was going to be a very different experience (she thought there would be fewer lights and more wildlife), but she enjoyed herself, too. As well, the rear guard ranger seemed very accommodating about letting my wife and I lag behind to get photographs (she's still irked that so few came out). Mostly, though, it seems the Meramec Caverns are trading on the legend of Jesse James and the fact that he used the caves as a hide-out. For those uninterested in such things, the best one may hope for is lagging back and marveling at the nature independent of the commercialism.
At the top entrance to Meramec Caverns, there is a cafeteria with basic fast food cuisine at reasonable prices. My partner and I had just come from our continental breakfast at our hotel, so we did not partake. In addition to the cafeteria, there was a fudge stand and ice cream shop.
There is a fairly large gift shop in the main lobby as well. There, they sell sweatshirts, post cards and various Meramec Caverns merchandise, like commemorative spoons and hats. There is nothing one cannot live without, but there are the fairly typical and obvious souvenirs for those who want such things. And to commemorate our visit, I bought my wife a stuffed bat (reviewed here!), which I promptly named Fernando and she seems quite attached to. Sigh.
Meramec Caverns is a touristy cave experience and given that the staff is friendly enough to let visitors fall behind to take photographs, the high ticket price and low comprehensibility of the guides is made up for by memories that will last a lifetime!
For other reviews of destinations in Missouri, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Comfort Inn Warrenton, MO
Comfort Inn Worlds Of Fun Kansas City, MO
Quality Inn & Suites Historic Saint Charles, MO
For other travel reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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