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 (daily; $14; 573/468-2283 or 800/676-6105) 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 Sunrise services and occasional crafts shows and chamber of commerce meetings. 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 and some friends hung from the top of Empire State Building dressed up as cavemen, and threatened to jump off unless everyone in the world visited Meramec Caverns.
Fact and fiction mix freely at Meramac 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.” The natural formations are among the most sculptural and delicate of any cave you can visit, and the manmade additions are all low-tech 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.
Meramec Caverns is near the town of Stanton, 55 miles west of St. Louis, three 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 Museum (daily; $5) 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.