Explore Above and Below Ground at Onondaga Cave State Park
Missouri is known as the cave state due to the large number of caves that can be found all throughout the area. One of those caves is preserved as a National Natural Landmark at Onondaga Cave State Park. Not only can you take a tour through this interesting and beautiful cave, but the park also offers some great hiking trails and other activities.
Onondaga Cave State Park History
Early settlers in the Meramec River Valley used the power of natural springs to power area mills. The spring flowing from Onondaga Cave was dammed to power the Davis Mill. In the 1880s, two men sunk a johnboat under the bluff near the mill site and explored what then came to be called Onondaga Cave.
The cave became a popular attraction for visitor’s coming to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair and continued to be a popular attraction through the 1960s when it became part of the Missouri State Park system.
Park Amenities and Activities
Onondaga offers a campground with reservable basic, electric, and family sites. The campground has a store, amphitheater, and playground.
Fishing is allowed in the Meramec River or in the Blue Heron Millpond. The park has a boat or canoe ramp, but no rentals are available within the park. There are areas people use for swimming in the adjacent Meramec River, however it is at your own risk. Personally, I do not recommend swimming in the Meramec River at all. The current can be unpredictable and drownings occur every year somewhere along the river.
The Visitor’s Center has exhibits about the natural and cultural history of caves in the area. There is also a gift shop, restrooms, and the place to purchase tickets for the cave tour.
The gift shop also sells bags of “pay dirt” for kids to mine for gems or fossils. Our kids always love using sluice pans to see what treasures they can discover.
Onondaga State Park Cave Tours
The cave tours are a real highlight of visiting the park and a great option on a hot summer day. There are actually two caves inside the park that you can tour. The Onondaga Cave is the most popular and involves about a mile walk on a 75 minute tour. The Cathedral Cave tour is more rugged. This 2 hour lantern tour involves a 1/3 mile hike to reach the caves entrance. We have only done the Onondaga Cave tour but hope to check out Cathedral Cave one of these days!
Onondaga Cave Tour
The Onondaga Cave Tour departs from the Visitor’s Center. You can make reservations online in advance or book them at the Visitor’s center. Capacity is limited though so it always helps to book in advance if you can.
Tours run seven days a week from April 1 through October 31. There is a fee of $15 for adults, $9 for kids 6-12, and kids under 6 are free. (We managed to visit the last year that my daughter was free!)
Comfortable shoes and a jacket are recommended as the cave is 57 degrees year round. (We forgot our jackets and it was definitely chilly!)
The cave tour is fantastic. The tour travels past interesting geological formations such as the Queen’s Canopy, the Twins, and the Wall of Jericho.
You can also learn a lot of interesting history about the area and culture during the tour. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but there are quite a few fascinating things to see and learn about this cave’s colorful history.
Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, soda straws, cave coral, and many more types of unique formations decorate the cave. This cave also has a river flowing through it which makes it even more scenic.
Overall, I highly recommend taking this cave tour. There are stairs and some slippery spots, but overall it is an easy walk.
Onondaga Cave State Park Hiking Trails
The caves are not the only attraction here. The park also has some really great hiking trails with views of a beautiful spring or rugged bluff overlooks. We only had time to hike two of the trails at the park, but would love to check out the rest on a return trip.
Blue Heron Trail
- Distance: 0.5 mile each way, out and back
- Difficulty: 1/5. Flat and paved along main trail. Two short unpaved side paths provide views of the spring and an old structure.
- Scenic Value: 5/5. The spring is beautiful to see.
This Trail connects between the Visitor’s Center and the campground. We started our hike at the Visitor’s Center parking lot.
Walking Along the Lake
The path runs along the side of the Spring Lake. Along the wall it crosses over a waterfall which is actually the old mill raceway. The dam and millrace were constructed in 1886 and detain the water from the spring before it flows into Spring Lake.
Viewing the Spring
After crossing over the millrace, you can walk down to see the spring and the turquoise blue water of this upper mill pond. There are benches to take a rest and enjoy the view.
You can also view the blocked off cave entrance at the bluff next to the spring.
Continuing down the path, you will see another side path that leads to the ruins of an old building. I assume this was something associated with the old mill or an old springhouse. The kids enjoyed playing hide and seek around the walls.
The concrete pathway continues to run along the Spring Lake. Near the end of the path as it approaches the campground, towering rock bluffs rise above the path. This a beautiful walk perfect for all ages and abilities.
To complete the hike, retrace your steps back the way you came.
Deer Run Trail
- Distance: 2.5 miles. An optional connector is available to connect to the Oak Ridge Trail for a longer hike.
- Difficulty: 3/5. Several hill climbs. The trail climbs to bluff heights of 100 feet above the river.
- Scenic Value: 4/5. There are some nice river overlook views, but mostly just a pleasant walk in the woods.
Finding the Trailhead
The start of this trail was a little confusing to find at first. Take the park road that travel past the Spring Lake and head towards the campground. Turn right next to the playground and park near the showerhouse. The trail starts just off to the right of the shower house.
Starting the Loop
The trail has a very short spur at the start and then reaches the loop portion. Turning right heads towards the Cathedral Cave entrance. We opted to turn left and hike clockwise to reach the river overlook first as well as get the harder uphill climbing completed first.
The trail starts to slowly wind uphill. It’s nothing very steep, but it is a gradual climb through the woods and across several footbridges. The trail also crosses a service road before climbing more.
Meramec River Overlook
When the trail reaches the highest point, look off to the left for some great views of the river below. Use caution here, but there are some side paths that lead to great overlooks.
After running parallel to the river for a little further, the trail turns right, crosses the forest road again, and bounces up and down the ridge and through the trees.
Keep an eye out for seasonal wildflowers especially along an open glade with a prescribed burn area.
Near the end of the loop if hiking clockwise, you will see a large concrete structure. This is the manmade entrance to Cathedral Cave. You cannot enter unless part of a guided tour.
Continue on down the hill and back to the entrance spur to complete the hike.
Other Onondaga Park Trails
There are several other trails we have yet to explore. The Oak Ridge Trail is a 3.1 mile loop. It passes several wet-weather waterfalls, a glade, and seasonal wildflowers. The Vilander Bluff Trail is located in a separate section of the park. This 1.3 mile loop trail passes along the highest bluff along the Meramec River. However, there are no overlooks along the trail itself. You have to do some off trail scrambling in order to take in that panoramic viewpoint. This must be done with extreme caution and only if you know the way.
Things to Know Before You Go
- The park is open year round for day use and camping.
- The Visitor’s Center and store are open April – October, 9-5 daily.
- Onondaga cave tours run daily April 1- October 31. Cathedral Cave tours run on weekends only Memorial Day – Labor Day.
- You can print a part map HERE.
Other Things to See
Onondaga is located near some other great parks, hikes, and attractions. Meramec State Park offers its own cave tour and great hiking trails. Meramec Conservation Area is a great option if you want a paved nature trail to explore. One of the most popular cave tours in the area can be found at Meramec Caverns. Meramec Spring Park offers a short walk to a stunning blue spring.
If you need a place to eat after your hike, we love Missouri Hick BBQ or Frisco’s Grill, both in Cuba, Missouri. Kids 3 and under eat free at Missouri Hick while Frisco’s has a cool train theme including a screens along the sides of certain booths where it looks like you are traveling on a train.
This is a great post. Onondaga is a very beautiful cave, and it is well worth the tour. The hiking trails look great, too. I also agree with your advice to not swim in the Meramec River. I’m not sure if we would want to tour Cathedral Cave though, but if you take the tour, I would love to read about it! Your cave pictures turned out really well. They really show the beauty of the cave. Thanks for your post!
We may do Cathedral at a later date. Right now I’m afraid it may be a little too rugged and dark for my kids as they do often get a little scared during the more commercial cave tours. Glad you enjoyed the park as well and thanks for the comment! Happy travels!