But about an hour outside the city is a really fun stop for kids and their families, especially if you want to get out of the summer heat and have an experience you certainly can’t have in Champaign-Urbana: Meramec Caverns.
You’ve probably seen the billboards on the interstate (heck there’s one outside of St. Joseph, I believe). But in case you aren’t familiar, Meramec Caverns is a natural wonder, a cave with rock formations that go back millions of years. It is well preserved, and visitors are constantly reminded not to touch things, because of the environmental impact.
The caverns’ known history goes back to the Civil War, when it was used by Union soldiers as a spot to make gunpowder. It also was the hideout of famous outlaw Jesse James, which is a consistent theme in the area. In the 20th century, the cavern was a popular on-location destination for television of the 50s and 60s; an episode of Lassie was filmed there.
The cheesy factor is pretty high in some areas of the tour, but if you love kitsch, you’ll enjoy it. Or you can ignore it. Our tour guide was well prepared, answering questions knowledgeably and patiently.
The one drawback for families is that you can’t push a stroller through the cavern. The tour is about 80 minutes long, and there’s a lot of walking. But my more-toddler-than-preschooler 3-year-old made it through with flying colors, even if I had to carry her at the very end. The cave claims to be wheelchair-accessible, but there are a couple of tour stops where stairs are required to see the formations.
Overall, the stop was a good way to burn off some pent-up road trip energy and learn a little – both history and some science as well. It’s also kind of a hoot.
If you go: Meramec Caverns is located off of I-44 West. Take Exit 230. (There are plenty of SIGNS!) Meramec Caverns tour isn’t cheap, but we did find a coupon online that they honored from my phone without having to print it out. As of July 2015, entrance fee was:
$21.00 – Adults
$11.00 – Children ages 5-11
Children 4 and under are free.
Where to Stay: We stayed in the Baymont Inn in Sullivan, a highway exit away. There are other chain hotels around the area. Meramec State Park has cabins you can rent and plenty of camping around.
What else to do: hiking, tubing, fishing, zip lining, camping, and more.
Where to Eat: We didn’t eat there, but there is a restaurant/snack bar on-site.
Have you been to Meramec Caverns?