Destination: Meramec State Park, MO

In summer outdoor enthusiasts flock to Meramec State Park, approximately 60 miles southwest of St. Louis near Interstate 44, to enjoy the Meramec River as it flows through the Ozarks. With 6,896-acres the park offers something for everyone: from rafting to rock climbing and hiking, nature lovers have plenty to do here. Hidden within the expansive forest are several springs and more than 40 caves.

In the late 19th century, several summer resorts were founded on the Meramec River. The resort developers built the Meramec Highlands “Frisco” Railroad Station on the bluffs overlooking the river, then “sold” it to the rail company for $1 in exchange for regularly scheduled service. The railroad began running trains on a regular basis to the resort towns and soon the river attractions became popular destinations for wealthy St Louis families. With the train ticket priced too high for most working class people, the area was kept “exclusive.”

Wealthy St. Louis patrons created a boom of restaurants, grocery stores and other amenities in the area, and eventually the Meramec Highlands Inn and recreation complex opened, offering access to the river on a much grander scale. The Inn had its own depot, swimming beach, boathouse, rental cottages, a Pagoda dance pavilion, tennis courts, stables, croquet courts, and a mineral water bath house. With an excellent view of the Meramec River Valley, the Inn became the crown jewel of the summer resorts.

The exclusively affluent get-away was “breached” in 1896 when streetcars began running out to the resorts for a five cent fare. Fun-seekers could canoe on the river and dance at open-air parties. Ordinary folks flocked to the area, and the wealthy fled. The masses began coming by the thousands during the early 20th century, with Sundays so popular that the streetcar lines couldn’t carry all who wished to board the cars.

The fun ended with the Great Depression, and recreation areas along the Meramec became neglected, overgrown and fell into disrepair.

But the pristine beauty of the Meramec River and its surrounding bluffs, caves and forests were recognized as supreme natural treasures, and the state had already began purchasing land to create a park there. The state parks department replaced the crumbling resorts with campsites, lodges, hiking and biking trails. In 1933, the craftsmen of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began constructing trails and other facilities that blend nicely into the rugged landscape.

The Meramec River meanders through some of the most scenic environments of the Ozarks, featuring steep forested hills full of pine and various hardwoods with limestone outcroppings that rise high above the cool waters. One of the best ways to explore is to rent a canoe or raft for a lazy river float.

Whether you have all day or just a few hours, you can enjoy the bluffs, caves, and bubbling springs that envelope the watery path. The five-mile float is perfect for those seeking a little sun or solitude. The trip can be done in as little as two hours, but if you have more time, take advantage of the many trails along the river’s edge, by planning for a picnic after exploring the rocky bluffs or trekking through a cave.

The Meramec River is a Class I (sometimes II) river that is suitable and safe for all levels of floating experience and expertise.

The park has a system of caves just ripe for exploration. Many of them are in remote areas of the park, but Fisher Cave offers naturalist-led tours on a seasonal basis.

Fisher’s Cave presents an interesting, but safe, adventure for park visitors of all ages. From the low, narrow streamside passages to the huge rooms filled with calcite deposits, there is one outstanding cave scene after another. Inside these rooms and passages are well-preserved bear claw marks, cave wildlife and a vast array of calcite deposits ranging from intricate hellectites to massive columns 30 feet tall. Unlike some highly commercialized caves, Fisher’s offers visitors a more “naturalistic” cave experience during the 90 minute one-mile walking tour. More intrepid explorers can search out one of the 30-something “wild” caves hidden throughout the park.


For more information on things to do at Meramec State Park:

Campsites: Meramec State Park offers all kinds of camping. Families with RV’s have plenty of choices, but there are also nice locations for those who prefer tent camping, including remote primitive backpack sites. With a mix of reservable and first-come-first-serve sites, there is a good chance of finding a site here anytime except, perhaps, on the busiest summer weekends. (also weekdays do offer substantially more solitude than weekends.)

River Floats: available Sunday through Friday (Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend): 9:30 am 10:30 am and 11:30 am. You MUST be signed up 30 minutes before each float time. On the day of your float, you must check-in at the River Stop Store at least 30 minutes before your float time to sign-up!!

Fisher’s Cave: Call to find out when cave tours are scheduled. For other caves a permit may be required. For both Permit and Non-Permit Caves, visitors should check with the Park ahead of time. All caves have special resources and/or special hazards. For example, several caves are closed during the winter due to bat hibernation. For information on which cave will best meet your needs, contact a park naturalist at 573-468-8155.

Leave a Reply