Take a Cave Adventure at Meramec State Park
An easy hour drive down I-44 from St. Louis lies Meramec State Park. This lovely Missouri State Park is located along the scenic Meramec River. The park’s claim to fame is that it is the location of over 40 known caves, more than any other park in the state.
Our family has enjoyed visiting over the years to hike Meramec State Park’s kid-friendly trails full of interesting natural features. Below is a round up of our favorite trails to explore as well as the interesting and unique history of the area.
History of the park
The park’s natural resources provided a welcome location for people throughout history. Several of the caves in the park were used by Native Americans before settlers arrived. In the 1800s, the park became the site of the Hamilton Iron Works with a few remnants of that operation still visible today. The early part of the 20th century saw an increase in visitors to the region with the start of tours into Fisher Cave on the property.
Becoming a State Park
The greatest changes to the park began when it officially became Meramec State park in 1926. The Civilian Conservation Corps arrived to the park in the 1930s and established two camps. The CCC constructed trails, roads, and several impressive structures that still stand today.
Meramec Dam Project
The landscape of Meramec State Park could be vastly different today if a proposed dam project in the 1970s had occurred. The planned 180-foot-tall structure would have created a 23,000-acre lake, about 40 percent the size of the Lake of the Ozarks.
Work had already begun on the park complex including most of the land acquisition, visitors’ center, parking lots and camping sites when the voters of a 12-county area voted to terminate the project. Today, the old dam Visitor’s Center is the Hickory Ridge Conference Center. An overlook near the Conference Center and motel was originally constructed to view the dam, but now provides a scenic view of the river valley.
Park Amenities and Activities
Hiking, boating, rafting, and fishing are all popular activities at the park. Swimming in the Meramec River is not recommended due to the current. Sadly, drownings are way too frequent in the Meramec.
The Visitor’s Center is great place to start your visit. You can pick up park maps, use the restroom, and explore the exhibits. There is large aquarium and displays about the natural features of the park. Another exhibit discusses the history of the park and the planned dam project.
Park Stores and Rentals
The Fireside Store provides an assortment of goods including food, snacks, souvenirs, and water and outdoor related gear. In you are hungry, stop at the Fireside Grill to enjoy burgers, hot dogs, and fries. The Riverside Store is located next to the boat ramp and offers rentals of a canoe, raft, or kayak to float down the Meramec River.
Camping and Lodging
The park offers a large campground with sites for both tents and RVs. For those that wish to a little more plush stay, the park offers both cabins and a motel.
The park boasts over 13 miles of hiking trails. Only one of the park’s seven trails is over 1.5 miles, making the hikes short and easy for hiking with little legs.
Natural Wonders Trail
- Distance: 1.25 mile loop
- Difficulty: 2/5. Gentle grades, a few rocky sections.
- Scenic Value: 3/5. Pleasant walk through the woods and past several cave entrances.
The Natural Wonders Trail starts next to the Visitor’s Center. The trail travels a short distance before the loop begins. On our most recent visit we opted to turn left and hike the loop clockwise.
The path travels through the quiet woods before passing alongside the first cave entrance. The entrance is covered with a grate to keep out visitors and protect the bat population. Take a peek inside before continuing along the gentle sloping path.
Near the halfway point of the hike, a side trail branches off to the left into a small ravine. The second cave is located here. This one is much smaller but you can crouch down to take a look inside.
From here the trail continues through the trees, past a small glade, and then past the third cave near a wooden bridge. Next, the trail approaches Elm Spring Creek. Near the end of the loop, a spur leads off to the spring fed creek. Enjoy a quick rest at this scenic stop before passing through a pine tree grove on the way back to the trailhead.
Bluff View and River Trails
- Distance: 1.5 mile loop on Bluff View, optional 0.75 mile extra loop on River
- Difficulty: 3/5. Some moderately steep sections climbing back uphill, trail can also be overgrown in areas.
- Scenic Value: 4/5. Nice river views and CCC era stone shelters along trail.
This hike is a popular one due to the river views and historic CCC shelters along the trail. The trailhead is located near the dining lodge. We like to start the hiking loop at the trail sign behind the parking lot for the dining lodge and hike counter-clockwise.
The trail starts heading downhill through the trees. Wildflowers can be found here in spring and fall brings beautiful colors to the trail.
As you hike along this stretch, keep an eye out for any wild critters.
The trail will pass under a set of power lines twice along the route.
As the trail approaches the river, an octagonal shelter comes into view. This beautiful structure was constructed by the CCC in the 1930s. Unfortunately, it can become a target for vandals.
A side trail heads off to the right from the shelter towards a picnic area. Turn left at the shelter to continue the Bluff View loop.
The path continues downhill again until it reaches close to river level. This section of trail can be overgrown during the summer months. Tick repellant is a must.
The path continues to parallel the river for about a third of the trail distance. Just as the path turns away from the river, a connector provides access to the River Trail at another stone shelter. The River Trail makes a small loop and can be overgrown as well by lush vegetation. Your kids may feel that they are on exploring deep in the jungle along this section of trail!
April can be a great time to hike the River Trail to see an explosion of bluebell blooms. The loop also has a spur to connect to a parking area and the campground. Complete the loop to return to the Bluff View trail.
From the River View connector, it is now time to turn right and head uphill on the Bluff Trail. Sometimes the grade is gradual, other times it is steep enough get your heart pumping.
The trail will follow along behind some cabins and out buildings near the dining lodge. Stay on the main trail, avoiding side spurs to return to the parking area. Reward your hiking efforts with an ice cream or treat from the Dining Lodge.
Walking Fern Trail
- Distance: 0.5 mile loop
- Difficulty: 3/5. Short but rugged with moderate elevation gain and a set of stairs.
- Scenic Value: 4/5. A great bang for buck hike with a fun cave to explore.
Of all the trails at Meramec, I think Walking Fern is my favorite. This trail is short, but exploring Indian Cave is a highlight.
This short loop trail starts next to Fisher Cave and the amphitheater. We went left behind the building next to the cave to hike clockwise.
The trail starts by making a steady climb through the trees.
A side spur on the right offers a view of the campground below.
Ferns and other lush vegetation dot the trail as it begins to wind back down in elevation to run alongside the rugged bluffs.
As early morning hikers, we often have to clear the pathway of industrious spiders and their web creations that cross the trail. This trail in particular was full of them!
As the path winds around the bluff, a set of stairs comes into view. Climb the stairs to see the trail highlight, Indian Cave.
This is a fun cave for all ages. It’s mostly dry and only goes back a short distance. Bring a flashlight to see the cave features.
When you finish exploring, head back down the stairs to continue the loop to the right. The path crosses over a wooden boardwalk along a scenic bluff line before returning to the start point.
- Distance: 0.1 mile each way
- Difficulty: 2/5. Short but rugged with moderate elevation gain and a set of stairs.
- Scenic Value: 5/5. A great bang for buck hike with a fun cave to explore.
Sheep Cave is not an official or marked park trail. A very short walk near the cabins leads to this impressive cave.
To reach Sheep Cave, follow the signs to the park cabins and park in the lot for the Wilderness Hiking Trail. Walk up the paved path towards the cabin. Just off to the right in the trees before you reach the first cabin (Cabin #4) look for an opening in the trees. You will know if when you reach it as you will be able to see the cave.
It is a very short walk up the cave’s opening. Depending on the date of your visit, you can go inside to explore or just view the cave from the opening. The cave is closed inside to visitors from September 30-April 15 to protect the bat population.
This cave is so fun to explore and great for kids. Its quite large and open. Bring a flashlight to view more.
Sayman Hotel Ruins
This one isn’t really a hiking trail, but a path leads from the road to explore the old ruins of a former hotel.
Construction on the hotel began in 1928. There were baths and running water in each room which was a first for the area. The Great Depression forced the contractor into bankruptcy and construction stopped. The site changed hands several times and was never fully completed. However, a family bought the property in the 1940s and lived there for 30 years. When the Meramec Dam project began, the hotel was torn down.
To reach the ruins, follow the road to the Hickory Ridge Conference Center and hotel. Right where there is a turn off to the left towards the store and river, look for a pull out and kiosk sign on your right. Park here to read the information about the history.
To see the ruins, walk back down the road a short distance and you will see them poking up through the trees. They are more easily seen when the leaves are off, but can be explored year round.
More Park Trails
- Deer Hollow Trail – This 1.25 mile trail was one of the first built by the CCC in the early 1930s. The path leads from the dining lodge to Fisher Cave. Deer are commonly seen along the trail. Spring brings an abundance of blooming dogwood while fall color sets the trail ablaze.
- Hamilton Iron Works Trail – A short 0.20 mile walk along this trail passes interpretative stations that explain the historic remains of a blast furnace. This trail is located further away from the rest of the park down Hamilton Hollow Road.
- Wilderness Trail – If you want a bigger adventure, the Wilderness Trail offers a 8.5 mile backcountry trek. The trail offers views of the river from a higher vantage point and a scenic spring. A connector provides an option to cut the route shorter and hike only the lower loop.
- Fisher Cave – Fisher Cave is open seasonally for naturalist-led tours for a fee. Inside the cave are well-preserved bear claw marks, cave wildlife and a vast array of calcite deposits. Tours last about 90 minutes.
Additional Things to Know
- Like all Missouri State Parks, admission to Meramec State Park is free.
- A park map can be found here with detailed trail maps available to view and print here.
- Park hours are April through October: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily. November through March: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily
- The Visitor’s Center is open daily 9-4:30 through October with reduced hours during November. It is closed Dec-Feb.
- Other nearby areas to explore include the cave tour and activities at Meramec Caverns.
- Remember to always leave no trace.