Monday, April 13, 2015


Missouri’s topography is karst.

Long ago, what we know as Missouri was covered by seawater. That sea deposited some of Missouri’s oldest cavernous rocks and limestone. Limestone accumulates on calm, shallow sea floors. Limestone is made up of sedimentary rock composed of calcium carbonate. It is this limestone that created a karst landscape in Missouri.

A karst landscape is characterized by the presence of caves, natural bridges, springs, sinkholes and losing streams—that’s where the surface stream loses a significant amount of its water flow below ground through bedrock openings. There can be, more or less, as much water below ground as there is above.

Section of Meremac Show caverns
Missouri is known as The Cave State because of its large number of caves. There are 6,900 known caves and more than 6,000 caves recorded in the Missouri Speleological Survey's files in Rolla, with more being discovered every year. In the nation, only Tennessee has more caves.

Our caves are among the largest and most impressive in the nation. There are caves in 78 of our 114 counties, mostly in the Ozarks. We have 20 show caves through out the state. Our show caves are open for public tour and governed by strict safety codes and are inspected at least once or twice a year. Show caves are great for those who don’t feel comfortable in exploring a cave on their own so they are in a tour group. Many of these caves are well lit with created paths, stairs, and railings—while maintaining and preserving the ecology of the cave.

The largest continuous karst terrain is in south-central Missouri. I live in the Missouri highlands on the Salem Plateau.  One of the largest cave systems is within the Salem Plateau. It’s like the cave factory with some of the oldest caves with Paleocene components in the Gasconade and Eminence dolomites. It dates back millions of years.

Our largest is Crevice Cave and is the longest in the state with over 30 plus miles of it having been surveyed and more to go. This surveying and exploration is made by trained cavers and further explored and cataloged by the members of the scientific community
An entrance to Crevice cave system
as well. We also have many visiting scientist from all over the world because the caves have some very unique features and some rare cave dwellers not to mention fossils. Because our caves have some very fragile resources they are protected (both those on private and public land) by some tough rules and regulations and some caves are only open to the scientific community.

A section of Berome-Moore cave stalactites
“Next door” to Crevice is Berome-Moore Cave. It's actually a series of caves. It was discovered in 1961 as a result of cavers finding breathing hole. Once they got that hole (only about 12 by 6 inches) expanded enough to crawl in they eventually came upon a cavern so vast their lights could not penetrate the darkness. Berome-Moore is an extensive system in which ancient cat tracks, an extinct Pleistocene Jaguar, have been found. There are so many tracks in one section they’ve named it Cat Track Passage.

Pleistocene Jaguar tracks
Missouri’s caves have been in use since ancient times. The Native American cultures have used hundreds of our caves for shelter, burial and other religious ceremonies, as well as for a source of water, clay, flint, and minerals. Human burials, artifacts and rock art still bear silent witness to the way the Indians used Missouri caves over a period of some 10,000 years.

Missourians have used caves more than 200 years. People have used Missouri caves as taverns, barns, spring houses, beer and wine cellars and sites for social gatherings, political events and religious services. This was because the caves were available and conveniently warm in winter and cool in the summer (temperatures range from 58-60 degrees year round). Settlers harnessed spring-fed cave streams to provide power for paper mills, woolen mills, sawmills and gristmills.

Our rich karst landscape has created some fabulous attractions and given rise to a substantial tourism trade, both above and below ground. Visitors come for our fishing and hunting, to explore our vast waterways, to hike and camp, and of course, for our extensive cave systems. 

Missouri truly is a beautiful state with much to explore and do. 

Photographs: Missouri Department of Conservation, MSS Cavers Reports