Deep below the Earth's surface, a church stands silently. You won't find parishioners, altars, or pews. There aren't any deacons, offering plates, or organs. But the air hangs thick with a sense of reverence.
This is Cathedral Cave, one of two spectacular underground sanctuaries in mid-Missouri’s Crawford County. A short 20-minute drive from St. James, the cave is one of two crown jewels at Onondaga Cave State Park, and a prime of example of why Missouri has earned the moniker of The Cave State.
Cathedral Cave boasts all the trappings of thousands of other caves across the state – stalactites, stalagmites, and plenty of dark nooks and crannies. But beyond those features, Cathedral Cave boasts a massive chamber deep underground which granted it its name: a Cathedral-like room with massive formations that looks straight out of a house of worship.
Although not the namesake of the State Park, the cave is an impressive three miles in length, first entered in 1919 (although some claim to have entered it much earlier). By the 1970s, concrete walkways were poured, laying the foundation for modern-day tourism. And the tour is worth the $6 entry fee. Accessed through a third of a mile hike through typical Missouri forest, the cave is lantern-lit only, giving tourgoers a sense of timelessness inside the cave. This cave isn’t a tourist trap – seasoned guides give useful and interesting information about the formations in the cave, the biology of the creatures that inhabit it, and the importance of preserving such pristine ecosystems.
Of note, the U.S. Geological Service maintains equipment in the cave that can detect the strength of earthquakes that occur hundreds of miles away, monitored by scientists at Saint Louis University. On off-trail excursions, a guide might suggest you jump up and down near the equipment to “have a little bit of fun” with seismologists.
A tour through Cathedral Cave lasts about two hours, including the hike in and out of the cave entrance.
But for the rough-and-tumble, a more involved option exists. Throughout the summer, exclusive tours take the more adventuresome spelunkers off the typical trail, over mounds of slippery mud, to see parts of the cave not generally seen by the public.
Just beyond Cathedral Cave, special tours take hikers along an underground river channel, necessitating crouching, and eventually, a fairly strenuous belly crawl to the exit. This tour lasts up to six hours and is only available on certain weekends throughout the summer.
But if crawling along the rocky cave floor and certainly muddying your clothes isn’t appealing, the commercial trail ending at the Cathedral Bell is worth a day trip.
The final destination of this hike is the Bell, which towers 25 feet tall, 15 feet wide and 10 feet thick. After taking a selfie with the extraordinary formation, turn off your light to experience one of the few true pitch-black experiences.
While much emphasis is given to leaving the cave ecosystem undisturbed, that wasn’t always the case.
According to the Missouri State Parks system, “Sometime between the time the cave closed and when the property was acquired as a state park in 1981… the cave was broken into and vandalized, apparently to collect scrap copper from the wiring of the lighting system.”