A fun fact that most people don’t know: Missouri is FULL of caves. Over 6,000 of them, to be more specific. Only 16 offer tours, and one of those, Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, Missouri, offers a ride-through tour on a tram.
Fantastic Caverns is America’s only ride-through cave. This is a BIG deal – there are only a handful of ride-through caves in the entire world! I love exploring caves but most require visitors to be in pretty good shape physically, since you’re likely to be stooping down to fit through low passages, climbing stairs and inclines, and generally on your feet for around an hour. The pathways are sometimes narrow, low, and inclined in order to preserve as much of the natural environment as possible, but this makes them inaccessible to a lot of people – those with mobility disabilities, elderly visitors, small children who can’t walk through on their own, etc. So while I totally understand why not every cave can offer a more accessible tour, it’s awesome that there’s at least one cave that pretty much anyone can visit comfortably!
As you guys might have noticed, I always try to include as much info as possible to help travelers with disabilities or other special circumstances plan their trips, since I know that can be hard to find. If you have any questions that I don’t cover, feel free to reach out in the comments or email! (And yes, the trams have ramps so they’re wheelchair accessible! You may want to check with them if you have a chair that’s especially wide or tall, though.) I just learned while browsing their Facebook that the tour is even dog-friendly, so this is also a perfect choice for anyone with a service dog or even just a well-behaved furry traveling companion!
As you might remember from my summer posts, this spring and summer have been SO HOT, so I started looking around for local attractions that doubled as a great place to cool off. The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau was kind enough to send me a press pass that allowed me to visit Fantastic Caverns so I could report back to you guys with some honest feedback and tips for visiting.
Getting To Fantastic Caverns:
Ignore what Siri is telling you to do. She doesn’t know your life. Follow the signs instead. (Basically, if GPS tries to send you on a weird loop to the west of town, ignore that and either take Kansas Expressway up past the fairgrounds or use I-44 exit 77. ALL of the Fantastic Caverns signs say exit 77, so of course my phone yelled at me when I didn’t take exit 75 like it wanted me to.) Just be prepared for the fact that you’re going to feel like you’re heading out into the middle of nowhere and driving a few miles down farm roads. Caves don’t really keep visitor convenience in mind when they’re forming. 😂
🎶 I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes… 🎶
Fantastic Caverns Tours:
The cave is open almost every day of the year (closed Thanksgiving and December 24th & 25th) from 8 a.m. until around dusk (so 4 p.m. in the winter and 8 p.m. in the summer) and tours go out about every 20-30 minutes, so you can arrive whenever you’d like and you probably won’t have much of a wait before your tour departs. I had about 15 minutes, which gave me time to use the restroom, browse the gift shop, and check out some of the educational material in the waiting area. (They have some really cool books that you can flip through!) There’s also a vending machine with bottled soda, tea, lemonade, and water available at really reasonable prices (as in $1 – $1.50). In fact, all of the gift shop prices seemed really reasonable. They had baseball caps for $5, and lots of cool gemstones for around $1-2 each.
These agate pieces were $1.50. They also had turquoise and rose quartz (among others) for 99 cents.
When tour time rolls around, everyone boards a tram that holds around 30 people. Here’s a peek at what those look like:
The tour guide is also your driver, so sitting towards the front can make it easier to hear, but the cave acoustics are pretty good so I don’t think sitting towards the back will affect the ability to hear what’s being said much, if at all. I sat at the front of the large part of the tram, and I did notice a bit of a fuel smell up there. (The trams are powered by clean-burning propane in an attempt to preserve the cave as much as possible.)
The tour travels a path carved out by an ancient river and makes a loop that goes about half a mile into the cave and then back out in a sort of horseshoe shape. The lower part of the cave system, which is much larger and contains creatures like cave crayfish and tri-colored bats, is not visited during the tour.
A Bit of Fantastic Caverns History:
Although the cave was discovered in 1862 by a farmer and his dog, it wasn’t explored until 1867 when twelve women answered an ad seeking people to investigate the cave. Can we pause and acknowledge how badass those women were? Can you imagine going into a big dark cave with only candlelight and NO idea what you might find in there? The women wrote their names on the cave walls, and those were eventually traced over to preserve them. You’ll see them on the tour!
The caverns served as a speakeasy during prohibition, and in the 50s it became a popular concert hall due to the awesome acoustics. The room pictured below is known as the Auditorium, and was the site of countless concerts.
The jeep-driven tours began in 1961, and have been going strong ever since. I visited once on a school trip in the late 80s or early 90s, but didn’t remember much from that visit , so I was excited to see what was waiting below ground.
The cave tour takes approximately one hour and is a fantastic introduction to caves. I thought they did a great job of teaching about caves – how different formations grow, the history, etc – without overwhelming visitors with too much info.
One amusing note: You’re welcome to take as many photos as you like, and the guide mentioned that flash photos are allowed. I tried that in one spot, but I should’ve known better! If you’ve ever tried to take a flash photo in a super humid place, you already know what happened.
Majestic, isn’t it? 😂
Here’s almost the same photo without the flash:
The lighting in the cave is designed to illuminate the cool formations (In 2017 they replaced their incandescent bulbs with LEDs for environmental reasons), so you’re likely to get pretty good photos without the flash, especially when the tram is stopped, which is often. However, the mix of dark cave and lighted formations probably isn’t going to result in phenomenal photos if you’re using your phone or a basic point-and-shoot camera. The pics in this post were taken with my dinosaur of an iPhone 5s. I didn’t get any amazing shots, but overall the quality was pretty decent given that I was photographing things that were usually 20+ feet away in weird light. Also on that note, if you don’t know, caves are wet. Don’t bring in a camera that you’re not ok with an occasional large drop of water falling on.
Take a look at those formations above and then consider this: they grow at an average rate of one cubic inch per 100 years. And those guys above? They’re pretty big. For scale:
Tour guide near formations for scale.
There is one formation that they know the exact age of! Back in 1941, this concrete cylinder was added to the cave. (We were told why, but I’ve completely forgotten.) Since it reaches through the roof of the cave and allows water in, formations started to grow around it. Sorry for the bad photo, but again, caves aren’t awesome lighting for pics! But the little formations that reach out from the pole are now 3/4 inch long. After 77 years. Just something to keep in mind when looking at the huge ones in other photos!
Here’s one more to give you the scope of how old some of these cave formations are:
The smaller stalactites seem unremarkable until you think about how it took them almost a millennia to get THAT big. It was also fascinating to learn that we were 90-120 feet below ground! It never felt like we were descending much, but the entrance to the cave is set into a hill, so you’re a good 30-ish feet? (I’m estimating) underground from the beginning.
Although you’re WAY underground, the cave is high and wide enough in most places that I doubt anyone would experience claustrophobia. You do go under a few low ceilings where taller people need to watch their heads, but there are no tight, enclosed spaces on the tour. (Passages can often be cramped on walk-through tours, so again, this is a great option for those worried about doing a cave tour for that reason.)
While we’re talking about possible worries, there is one brief part where the tour guide turns off the lights so that you can experience total darkness. There’s so much ambient light now that the only places you can truly experience total darkness with ZERO light is deep within a cave or way down in the ocean. The darkness is maybe 10-15 seconds? There were some small children in our group and they seemed to handle it well (The guide had them count down 3…2…1… to the lights going out, which I think helps), but if you’re traveling with kids you know them best – if they’re hardcore afraid of the dark, just keep this in mind. There are also brief demonstrations of what exploring by candlelight would have looked like, but otherwise the tour has plenty of lighting.
(I’m trying co cover all of the bases for anxious adventurers, but if I’ve left anything out feel free to ask!)
It’s about 60 degrees inside Fantastic Caverns year-round, so keep that in mind when planning your visit! It’s a perfect way to cool off a bit on a super hot summer day. I wore jeans and a 3/4-sleeve top and was perfectly comfortable. I almost brought a jacket since I worried I’d be cold, but it never felt chilly in there – just pleasantly cool. (Maybe the lack of wind helps?)
This was one of my favorite spots. It’s called the Breakdown Room, because the ceiling has fallen in several times. It looks pretty sound now- look at that super sturdy column holding things up on the left! 😂
Souvenir photos of your tour group are taken inside the cave, and are available at the end of the tour for $12. (I believe they were 5×7’s in a cardboard folder-style frame.) Afterwards, you’re free to wander the visitor’s center, and there’s even a 1/2 mile trail down to a spring that I really wish I’d had time to check out! (There was a huge storm rolling in around the time my tour ended, so I was hoping to make the hour drive home before it hit. I totally failed at that!)
As you’re leaving, there are again signs to point you back towards I-44 and Kansas Expressway, which I appreciated since you really are kind of in the middle of nowhere. There’s also a really nice park called Ritter Springs Park just down the road. I stopped for a few minutes and found that there’s some great playground equipment and what looked like a gorgeous trail that I sadly didn’t have time to explore due to the aforementioned impending storm.
A little extra info: Tickets are $24 for adults, $17 for children, and kids under 5 are free. This is a little higher than most other local caves I’m familiar with (Talking Rocks in Branson West is $19 for adults, Onyx Cave in Arkansas is $8, and Cosmic Cavern in Arkansas is $16), but the perk of getting to ride through is worth the extra cost, if you ask me, especially if it means your whole travel group gets to do something together vs. some family members or friends having to sit it out.
Fantastic Caverns is just a few minutes from Dickerson Park Zoo, which I wrote about a little over a year ago (that post is here!) so if you’re visiting Springfield, the two would be a perfect combination for a day of educational fun!
Feel free to ask me any questions that I missed answering down in the comments I’m planning to write about some other caves in the Ozarks soon, so if there’s anything you’d like to know, just ask!