The best stop along old Route 66’s trek across Missouri, and one of the most enjoyable and charming roadside attractions along the entire Mother Road, Meramec Caverns (573/468-2283, daily, $20) is a set of limestone caves advertised by signs on barns and buildings all along the route, and all over the Midwest. First developed during the Civil War, when the natural saltpeter was mined for use in manufacturing gunpowder, the caves were later popularized as a place for local farmers to get together for dances. The largest room in the caves is still used for Easter services, arts and crafts shows, and even the occasional chamber of commerce meeting. An hour west of St. Louis, Meramec Caverns was opened as a tourist attraction in 1935 by Lester Dill, who guided visitors through the elaborate chambers and, more importantly, was a true master of the art of garnering cheap but effective publicity for his tourist attraction. An example: After World War II, Dill sent his son-in-law to the top of the Empire State Building dressed up as a caveman and had him threaten to jump off unless everyone in the world visited Meramec Caverns.
Fact and fiction mix freely at Meramec Caverns, adding to the pleasures of seeing the massive caves. Jesse James used these caverns as a hideout, and at least once took advantage of the underground river to escape through the secret “back door.” Though Meramec is not huge compared to other caves, the natural formations are among the most sculptural and delicate of any cave you can visit, and the man-made additions are all low-tech and kitschy enough to be charming. The hand-operated sound-and-light show ends with a grand finale of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” while the red, white, and blue of Old Glory is projected onto a limestone curtain. For the full Meramec experience, add in a canoe ride or a zip-wire ride, or stay the night in the pleasant riverside campground.
Meramec Caverns is near the town of Stanton, 55 miles west of St. Louis, 3 miles south of I-44 exit 230. There’s a small café and a motel on the grounds, which spread along the banks of the Meramec River. At the I-44 exit, the odd little Jesse James Wax Museum (573/927-5233, daily June-Aug., weekends only Apr.-May and Sept.-Oct., closed Nov.-Mar., $7) insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that a 100-year-old man who turned up in Stanton in 1948 was in fact Jesse James.