Caves, Wine and Kaleidoscopes!

The caves are named after Mark Twain because as a boy he spent so much time exploring them and later incorporated them into his stories. But the stories about the caves go much further back and are fantastic in their own right. Come tour the caves with us and hear the tales!


The Original Cave Discovery Entrance blends in with the trees on the hillside. If not for Jack Simms out on a hunting trip for panther, who knows how much longer the caves would have gone unnoticed. As the story goes, Jack was hunting one cold snowy day around 1819-1820 when he spotted what he believed to be panther tracks. The dogs were sent in first and as their barks became fainter and fainter, the boys decided to go in with torches.  From the flickering light of their torches they were amazed to see high ceilings and many branching passages.  The cave temperature is always about 51 degrees  so much to their amazement, the inside of the cave was so much warmer than the outside temperature on that cold snowy day. 

Over the years the cave took on many names and many owners. The cave was mapped and a much larger opening was created in 1890 because of the crowds that came from all over the country to see the infamous caves!

In 1848, Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell purchased the cave. He was a brilliant surgeon, who needed the quiet solitude of the cave for experimentation on dead bodies.  Dr McDowell was experimenting with trying to petrify dead bodies. When no one would offer their newly deceased family members for his experiments, he left town. Six months later his own daughter died of pneumonia and he came back and placed her body in a copper and glass tub to petrify.


This is when young Samuel Clemens, now 13 years old and a frequent visitor inside the cave, came upon the body. Many years later Mark Twain would draw upon this memory for the graveyard scene in his  book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. McDowell’s Cave became McDugal’s Cave in the famous book.  The slate that you were to write your name on as a way of keeping track of who went in and who came out, became the Post Office in the story. The drop off made a good place to encounter Injun Joe.

Treasure Room

The Treasure Room, of course, is where Tom and Huck found $12,000 in gold after hearing about its location from Injun Joe and his old “pardoner”.

Every cave in Missouri likes to lay claim to Jesse James hiding out in their cave. In fact, they say it is a Missouri State Law to make this claim about your cave. But the Mark Twain Cave does have Jesse James signature on a wall deep inside the cave. Experts have analyzed it and believe it to be his signature. It wouldn’t be surprising that Jesse James spent some time in this cave back in 1879. It is a maze of tunnels and would be a perfect place to hide if you were an outlaw!


As we work our way deeper into the cave we come to a “large room”. On the ceiling of the cave are black spots. “Does anyone know what causes these black spots?” our guide Alan asks. Bats! The bats hang from the ceiling all bunched together using each others body heat for warmth while they hibernate. The bats exhale warm, carbon dioxide rich air, which rises and encounters the cooler cave walls, creating condensation. The chemical reaction between water and carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid, which erodes the limestone leaving the black marks. Holy Bat Breath!

It is also in this room that our guide asks us to turn off all devices that emit light and stand next to someone your trust! He then turns off his lantern and we experience “Total Darkness” for the first time ever! You literally can not see the hand in front of your face! It sounds normal but until you experience it, it’s just a saying you have heard somewhere. It is truly pitch black!!

Now the lights come dimly back on and we proceed onward through the cave. From total darkness to beautiful colors. What a contrast! Several small areas of the cave have 3-4 inches of water that remains constant, never much more or less than that. The Rainbow Grotto and Aladdin’s Palace are beautifully lit with different colored lights so you can see the layers and depth of the openings.


Crystal rock formations can be found here and there along the cave walls. These are formed when rainwater seeps through cracks in the limestone. As it passes through organic material, it picks up carbon dioxide gas, creating carbonic acid. This weak acid passes through joints and cracks in limestone. The mineral calcite is dissolved from the limestone rock in which a cave is formed. When this water that now holds the dissolved rock is exposed to the air in the cave, it releases the carbon dioxide gas, much like when a bottle of soda is opened. As the carbon dioxide is released, calcite is redeposited on cave walls, ceilings and floors. This is how crystals form in the crevasses of walls and stalactites and stalagmites are formed.


Our tour guide Alan told many rock based jokes along the tour through the cave. Some of them cheesey for sure but he carried them off well. We finally came to the end of the cave and what did we find? Cheese for real!  Mark Twain Cave Aged Cheeses. Cheese is aged in the cave right behind where Dr McDowell did his experiments on petrifying human bodies so many years ago. 

We emerge from the 51 degree chill of the cave into the 92 degree real world and march ourselves over to Cave Hollow West Winery right on the property for a little wine tasting. Cave Hollow West Winery proudly only serves Missouri wines made only from Missouri grapes. Prior to becoming a winemaker, Chris West worked for the University of Missouri. Chris also teaches wine tasting classes across the Midwest.

Just outside the wine tasting room doors is what first appears to be a lovely sculpture. But as we draw nearer we see that it is a set of three kaleidoscopes looking down on a metal bowl of Fall leaves and gourds. Wait ’til you see what we saw!

In 1976 for our Nations Bicentennial, the Missouri Department of Conservation was seeking trees to designate as “Liberty Trees” – a tree that was more than two centuries old. This Burr Oak started as a seedling in 1721 and is included in Famous and Historic Trees of the United States by the Department of Agriculture. You can find it right outside the Mark Twain Caves! We can imagine young Sam Clemens playing around the base of this mighty tree!

The original Liberty Tree was a famous Elm Tree in Boston that was associated with the American Revolution. A decade before the war, colonists in Boston staged the first act of defiance at the tree, which became a rallying point for the growing resistance to Britain’s rule over the colonies.


All of this history and entertainment can be found right at Mark Twain Caves RV Campgrounds! How appropriate for a campground tied to Mark Twain to list a cat in the population count! 🙂


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