Spelunking at Onondaga Cave State Park

Occasionally all the parts come together in the right order and the right amounts and make something next to wonderful. Just one little alteration would change the composition and you would have a different outcome. I am not sure how, we certainly experienced more than our fair share of challenges, but our trip to Onondaga Cave State Park came together and will go down in history as one of our most favorite camping trips. We had a steady supply of laughter to balance out the frustration. We were just far enough from home that we felt like we were on a real adventure but close enough to make it home within a few hours. We had just the right mix of friends. We balanced a good dose of adventure out with some rest and relaxation. What more could you ask for in a camping trip?

Onondaga Cave State Park is located just southeast corner of the central region of Missouri. It is right off I-44 south of St. Louis and North of Rolla. From Kansas City it is 275 miles one way. We first heard about Onondaga Cave State Park from a RV friend, Jenni, who showed us breathtaking photos of Onondaga Cave. The state park has a campground with 68 camping spots (less than 50 with water and electric). We secured our reservations for this trip a long while ago, when most of you were out taking advantage of Black Friday shopping.

IMG_6854The camping pads were concrete. We had water and electricity for $22.00 a night.  We had sites 61-64 and in our opinion they were the best sites in the entire park. We had a wooded ridge on one side of us and behind our sites was a lovely tree lined creek.  Our girls spent hours splashing in the creek. On the opposite side of the creek was a large greenway that made a perfect dog-walking area. Except the traffic on the road in front of us, it felt like we were secluded in our private area of the campground. IMG_6856There was no cell service in the park but they did have wifi. I will not say it was the best wifi available but we were able to connect and be connected for periods of time.

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We have continued to teach ourselves how to geocache and by late Saturday afternoon we were ready to try and find one of the five geocaches located within the park. Out of the thirteen of us only four had even heard about this activity and half of those are still traumatized by the first attempt at geocaching. We set out to find the cache in the park amphitheater. Finding the first cache was challenging but once we found it several members of our group were immediately determined to go out and search for the next cache, even if it meant hiking steep hills and navigating some rocky terrain.  We never did find the second cache but we sure did put in the effort. We talked about that hike for the rest of the weekend!



We originally desired to come to this park for one thing: spelunking or the exploration of caves. Missouri has over 6,000 caves and easily earns the title as The Cave State (hum, maybe we should be changing our tag line from The Show Me State to The Cave State).  On our second full day in the park, we made plans to tour both; Cathedral Cave and Onondaga Cave. Due to the size of our group, we were able to arrange group discounts to each cave; bringing the price down to $10.00 per adult for Onondaga and $6.00 per adult for Cathedral. I should mention that if you scoff at the cave tours and desire for something wilder, you can do that at Cathedral Cave. A group called Onondaga Friends Association offers Off Trail Wild Caving  a few times a year to small groups. If this interest you, be prepared to get wet and crawl around in parts of the cave not normally open to the public.I love spelunking but I am going to stick with the organized tours.


Park staff lead flashlight tours of Cathedral Cave on the weekends; the tours require a short 1/3 mile hike to the cave. We had the most amazing tour guide who was informative as well as entertaining. Our guide checked for “critters” before allowing us into the cave; I did not realize at the time she was looking for snakes. Ignorance really is bliss! As we entered the cave, we were ushered into an air lock room, a large concrete room that allowed us to close the door to the outside before opening the door to the cave. This minimizes the amount of air allowed into the cave, therefore protecting the delicate ecosystem of the cave. We were greeted by “locals” in the air lock room; three rather large wolf spiders! Thankfully for us, they were skittish and kept their distance during our short time in the room.



As we climbed the stairs down into the cave, another cave dweller waited to greet us, a cave salamander. Using flashlights, because the cave is not lit, you will see stalagmites, stalactites, columns, soda straws, Stromatolites (fossilized algal beds), and great amounts of cave coral.  We were lucky enough to spot two grotto salamanders in the creek that runs through the cave. Unlike cave salamanders, grotto salamanders never leave the cave. They are born sited and with pigment but as they age, their eyes seal shut and they lose their skin pigment (who needs skin color or eye site in a dark cave?).  By the time they are adults they are blind and colorless almost translucent.



Deep into Cathedral Cave is a Seismic Station that is constantly gathering earthquake measurements and sending them to the Earthquake Center in Colorado.. Right after the Seismic Station, we went down a 65 foot switchback taking us to the curtain the cave is named after Cathedral Curtain.  We traveled approximately 260 feet below the surface during our tour of Cathedral Cave. My overall impressions of this cave is just how big it is. I never felt confined during any part of this tour. During the tour, the guide had us turn our lights off to experience the darkness of the cave. The depth of darkness is beyond any words I can find to describe it. If I had not been touching my daughters shoulders I would never have known she was standing right in front of me.



After touring Cathedral Cave a lunch break was needed. It is down right amazing how hungry you can get hiking around in the Ozarks! I also needed time to recharge my camera battery as I ran out of camera juice in the first thirty minutes of being in the cave.


The entrance to Onondaga Cave is  located at the Visitor Center. Out of the two cave systems in this park, Onondaga is the more visited, more commercial cave. Flashlights are not needed when visiting as the pathways are lit. I also noticed baby strollers on the paths, so I would say there is some accessibility but I also noticed part of the tour the path gets tight and involves a large incline/decline. There is a waiting area for those who do not want to go onto this part of the path, so I would say you could make your own decisions about accessibility. We had a 90 something year old man on our tour (he had previously visited the cave in the early 1940’s when he was a young teen) , walking the entire time.



Just like Cathedral Cave, you have to enter an air lock room before entering the cave. The one at Onondaga is much cleaner than Cathedral (we were not greeted by wolf spiders) and it is equipped with red lights to help our eyes get use to the dimmer light conditions. Onondaga Cave is beautiful, you will still see the same cave features as Cathedral, but our overall impression is we enjoyed our time in Cathedral Cave more so than Onondaga.  Onondaga does have a lost river running through out it. The 90 year old gentleman on our tour told us he remembers his first visit (around 1942) he entered the cave by boat. At times the water seems stagnate but it is in fact running; a former cave owner even built a small waterfall to prove to the public that it was indeed running.




Onondaga Cave has a few mentionable features: The Twins are duo stalagmites, The Rock of Ages, the King’s Canopy, The Queen’s Canopy, and the Big Room. Just in case you wondered we did learn some cave lingo: Stalagmites grow from the ground  and might reach the ceiling one day where Stalactites hang tight from the ceiling. When the two of those meet they create a column. Our favorite mentionable feature of Onondaga Cave was the Lily Pad Room; a room full of speleothems and water.


During our tour of Onondaga Cave, we met a very nice lady from Rhode Island who was visiting Missouri with her husband. Their 21 year old son is currently stationed here and they came to celebrate his 21st birthday with him. We invited them back to our campsite after the cave tour to celebrate his birthday with an adult beverage and ended up getting a great lesson in how to play Bocci Ball from some folks who were really good. It was great to meet new friends while we travel and I do believe we are all addicted to the game of Bocci.
In a recent study it was found that in the last year campers preferred public campgrounds to private campgrounds two to one (this has increased from the previous year). Onondaga Cave State Park is a perfect example of why state parks are becoming more popular. Besides hiking, visitors to this park can explore two cave systems, or spend their time playing in the Merrimac River either fishing, floating, splashing, or swimming. The camping pads are top notch and you get water and electric for $22.00 a night. If you are needing a summer weekend get away, we would highly recommend giving Onondaga State Park a try.

Want some more, check out our video!


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