Meramec State Park in Sullivan, MO, has everything one needs for a day trip or weekend getaway in the woods—cheap camping rates, canoes to rent and miles of trails to explore. It also has something other parks don’t have: 49 caves.
Meramec State Park is 42 miles from Eureka, which is an easy 45-minute drive down Interstate 44.
The park has a day-use area with four pavilions that can be rented for special events or can be enjoyed on a first-come, first-served basis.
The camping area, located far from the main entrance, has more than 200 camping sites for basic, electric and recreational vehicle campers. The campsites are well shaded by trees and each has a picnic table, fire ring and lantern stand. More advanced sites have electric, water and sewer. Latrines are located close to the camp sites, and shower houses provide modern bathrooms and running water.
The campsites are packed a little too close together to feel like you’re getting away from it all, especially during summer weekends, so it’s best to reserve a site on the outside edges whenever possible. This may require paying for your site several weeks (or even months if you want to go on a holiday) in advance. The state park system has an online reservation system that is a little clunky, but you also can call 1-877-422-6766 to talk to a real human being. There’s an $8.50 charge to reserve your site, but it’s worth it if you want to guarantee your camp spot. You also can take a gamble, and just take a “first available” camp site to avoid paying the reservation fee.
If you don’t like to rough it, there are several cabins you can rent, starting at $95. Cabins have electric, air conditioning, full size beds and a kitchenette—but no TVs. Small cabins can accommodate four guests and larger duplex units can sleep up to 12.
Next to the campgrounds is Fisher Cave, which is only open for guided tours. The cave is not lit up like nearby Meramec Caverns, but the path has been paved with concrete and dangerous areas have a handrail. These improvements were made in the 1930s as part of a project by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal project that made work for men during the Great Depression. It is not handicapped accessible, and there’s a few places where you’ll have to bend over double or squeeze around stalagmites, but it’s a lot better than slogging through the natural clay floor that earlier cave explorers faced.
The park charges $8 for adults, $7 for teens 13 to 19, and $6 for kids under 12. Children under 6 are free. The tour takes at least 90 minutes and you might want to bring a light jacket—it’s about 57 degrees in the cave year-round.
Only two other caves are open to the public, one of which is Indian Cave, located off the Walking Fern Trail. This trail is accessed from Fisher Cave’s parking lot, and is only a half mile long. You’re on your own if you want to explore it. The remaining wild caves are currently closed to protect the resident bats from a deadly fungus that experts believe to be transferred from park to park on cave explorer’s gear. None of Meramec State Park’s bats are infected, and the park hopes to keep it that way.
The biggest draw to Meramec State Park is the Meramec River, which runs near the camp grounds for easy swimming access. You can rent a canoe, kayak or giant rubber raft from one of the camp stores for a five-mile float. A bus will take you and your gear up river, and you’ll float back to a boat ramp next to the store where you parked your vehicle. Floats normally take two to four hours depending on whether you paddle hard. The river is rated Class 1, which is safe for all levels of experience. There are a few tight spots which might require strong paddling skills to avoid bumping into a fallen tree, but most of the river is wide and easy.
Pack a lunch and a cooler—there are several great rocky beaches along the way to stop and enjoy the scenery. The river banks are largely undeveloped, which lends to the secluded feeling.
Floats leave every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the weekends, and three floats during summer week days. The cost is $25 for a one-person kayak or $40 for two-person canoe. A third person can ride in a canoe for an extra $5. It’s $90 for a 6-person raft and $120 for an 8-person raft during the week and the prices go up to $120 and $160 on the weekends. Float trips run seven days a week, but are most popular on the weekends. You can make reservations by calling the store at 1-888-MERAMEC. You also can bring your own inner tube or boat—they’ll deliver your boat for a $20 portage charge, while people only cost $5 a head to ride the bus.
Meramec has a camp store with a full service grill if you want a burger or snack. The store carries just about any necessity you might have forgotten, as well as souvenirs, candy and a huge assortment of toys. This is also where you can buy ice and firewood. Firewood is $4 for a modest bundle of split wood about eight inches across. If you have the room, and you like a big all night campfire, you’ll save money by bringing your own wood.
Sullivan’s Super Walmart—and several fast food places—are about 10 minutes from the park entrance. If packing space is at a premium you can replenish your food, beer and charcoal with a quick trip to the store. The Sullivan Walmart doesn’t stock wine or hard liquor, but if you forgot your socks or need a new sleeping bag, you’re in luck.