Onondaga Cave

Missouri is home to many caves (and there will be a map at the end of this post to prove it), and there are several that are open to the public. A few summers back my wife and I visited Meramec Caverns, and last month we went to another that's just an hour or so from home: Onondaga.

There's not too much narrative to this post, although we did learn a few interesting things about the cave that I'll add here and there. (This post took forever to write!)


The first difference to note between Meramec (highly marketed on billboards and barn roofs for a hundred miles or more) and Onondaga is that Meramec Caverns are privately owned. Onondaga is found in a state park. (Missouri has an excellent state park system!)

Lots of creepy cave water (of course!)...

...which we learned is still very slowly flowing through here. A photo a little later on shows (as best as it can) how we know this.

One thing I know for certain: Onondaga is quite a large cave! Or more correctly, it contains one very large room: about 70 ft tall and over 300 ft long! So much more impressive than Meramec was.

The guide knew the basics, like the different colors are formed when water drips through different mineral deposits (or ground containing tannins).

Okay, this is how we know that the water is still flowing. See that big "curtain" of rock in the image below?

It's over the water (visible below and to the left), and at some point in the cave's history somebody build a tiny dam there just a few inches tall to let visitors know (by sound) that the water is actually moving. It's dead calm otherwise, not a ripple to be seen.

What I really appreciated here was there were no colored lights or movies projected as there were at Meramec Caverns -- just the natural beauty of the formations (with a bit of artificial light of course).

Incidentally, the lights are kept off when a tour group is not in the area -- you've probably seen that same thing at caves you might have visited. Our guide said that was a heat issue, as the lights would warm things up too much if left on all the time, and algae would grow. (I don't know if that's totally accurate, but I get his point.) They'll be switching to LED lighting in the next few years -- but I hope it's warm light, not that cold bluish hue most commonly seen in LED lighting.

Another thing I learned: Onondaga was once owned by the same man (Lester B. Dill) who owned Meramec Caverns and according to our guide was responsible for putting in the concrete walkways and reflecting pools. You can read more about the history of the cave here. Some of what our guide told us is suspect.

The reflecting pools were a nice touch I have to admit.

And I appreciated not having to walk on sticky cave mud.

Pro tip: when they turn the lights off to show everybody what complete total darkness looks like, putting your lit phone into your pocket is not good enough. Turn the damn thing off!

I think the guide said that when the state park service took over operation of the cave (in the early 1980's) they added railings, but that's about it.

I also learned that this cave has a flat roof -- as opposed to a "vaulted" one -- which makes it more susceptible to collapse. Not the best sort of fact to offer in the middle of a 90-minute tour. Just saying.

Is that a crack up there?!

You may think you've seen this next image already... and you sort of have! The tour loops back and we see this feature twice. I photographed it again because this time we were walking toward it -- totally different.

That staircase seen in the upper right of that last photo takes you up to the "Lily Pad Room", which is notable for a few reasons. First, it's a bit cramped up there. Second, it's a lot warmer than the 57ºF (14ºC) temperature of the rest of the cave. That's because it's only 20' (6m) below the surface, and there's a small opening that lets in the warm surface air. (I suppose in the winter it's actually colder up there than in the rest of the cave, but the guide didn't say that.)

Thirdly and most importantly, that "Lily Pad Room" is quite beautiful!

This looks a lot like some creature I've seen in Doctor Who I think:

Ack, a snake!

Ah no, that's just part of a wildlife display in a case outside the cave exit. (You can see a frog and crayfish there too.)

Upon leaving the cave we had to walk on a decontamination mat. Since the fungus responsible for white nose syndrome is found here, our shoes needed to be cleaned in order to prevent the spread to other caves. I wondered why we didn't need to do this upon entering the cave, but our young guide just said that the fungus was already here. (My thinking was: what other fungus that's on my shoes might cause problems next?)

I didn't really absorb too much of what was in the display cases, but there was this impressive replica of a giant extinct cat (think saber-toothed tiger) which must have once been found here (TLDR).

This map of the geologic makeup of the state though was quite interesting:

If you enlarge that you can see that we have a lot of shale, limestone, and dolomite. Very little granite (I didn't even know we had any!) but more interesting are the red dots: those indicate the known cave systems in the state!

Overall I was very impressed by this cave -- it was a nice way to spend a Sunday!


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Kathy G  – (August 17, 2018 at 4:07 PM)  

When I was a kid they used to have commercials for Onondaga Cave. All I can remember is the name chanted in a syncopated manner, with Indian drums in the background. Very politically incorrect.

chavliness  – (August 18, 2018 at 10:33 AM)  

Gorgeous place. The Lily Pad Room is massive and impressive. I wish the Saber-Toothed kitty was fully reconstructed, not just his paw.
(How does one privately own a cave like this? Do they explore a mysterious opening in the back yard?)

Salty Pumpkin Art  – (August 19, 2018 at 8:05 AM)  

Great photos! Scary and beautiful at the same time caves are.

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