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Onondaga Cave State Park – June 7-9, 2019

Onondaga Cave is one of Missouri’s natural treasures.  The Missouri State Parks website has a lot of great information about the cave, and I’ll just share the links rather than trying to reword it!

You can find the main cave website here, with information on tour times and cost, and there’s a great summary of the history of the cave here.

There’s another cave in the park, Cathedral Cave.  We didn’t take that tour because we were tired!


The campground is pretty typical.  There are several basic sites near the check-in area, then opens into the area designed for RVs with electric hookups and water.  This park doesn’t have sewer hookups.  We, of course, tent camped in basic spot #17.  It’s a nice paved spot, with one big tree that shades the back 1/4 of the site.  It’s right next to a small parking lot that is used for programs at the amphitheater, and also for people who are visiting the Cathedral Cave tour.

The campground has a few different sections, with the lower part near the river being wide open, very few trees.  It looks like it would be a great spot for a group to reserve adjacent sites for a family campout!  There’s a cluster of sites around first shower house, which also has a wood lot, laundry room, and playground.  The playground is a little bit dated and my kids complained about the mulch padding getting into their shoes, but they enjoyed it anyway.  There is another shower house further down the road where the electric and water sites are, along with another wood lot.  There are two campground hosts, both of whom were very friendly!

If you’re in the campground and up for a short walk, there’s a trail that starts at the parking lot and can be followed around a pond to the visitor’s center, where the main cave tour begins.

Onondaga Campground Map
Map from Mo State Parks website

Onondaga Cave

Photo Courtesy of Paul White ©2019

I didn’t personally take the cave tour but the husband and kids did. They enjoyed it quite a bit, and interestingly, they were the only three people on that particular run of the tour! It took about 90 minutes. I enjoyed some free wi-fi in the visitor’s center while they were touring the cave, because our campsite was in a complete dead zone.  Even the moody 12-year-old found the cave tour interesting, and they all told me all about it when they got back to the car.

At the end of the tour, visitors are required to walk through a soapy padded area in order to help protect the bats in other caves, just in case – White Nose Syndrome is affecting Missouri bats, and being certain to clean off shoes before possibly encountering other caves or bats is one of the ways they’re trying to help prevent the spread.  They were told that there used to be thousands of bats in that cave, and now there are fewer than 100.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable camping trip and we had a great time!


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Meramec State Park & Meramec Caverns – April 19-21, 2019

Easter weekend – the kids have spring break, and the husband and I are celebrating our 17th wedding anniversary by going camping!

Meramec State Park

Main Park Road

The park is very pretty, and the road leading to the campground is beautiful.  There were lots of dogwood and redbud trees along the road, but very few pines.  This photo was taken through my windshield, but the real colors are much, much nicer!

Campground Map (from Mo State Parks Website)

I suspect that in later months the campsites are more wooded, but at this time, it was slightly shady but not as much as it will be later in the season.  This image includes our site, #111:

Campground Aerial view (from Bing Maps)

The check-in area is to the top left, the shower house and playground are visible to the left near the river, and our site is the largest pad site to the left of the leg of the triangle.  It was a nice site – but the paths are all one-way, so we had to drive around the entire western loop to get into the spot.

Our tent

It was very wide open during our visit – the RV (electric) area was pretty full, but the tent (non-electric) area was pretty empty.  It was cold – according to our phones, the overnight low was 41 on Friday night and 46 Saturday night, so we were cold, but we have nice warm sleeping bags and decent blankets, so we were comfortable.

Emptyish Basic Camping Area

There’s a very nice playground near the shower house, and the 12-year-old enjoyed that – he’s a little big for it, but there were lots of children there so he found people to play with.

Meramec State Park Campground Playground

Meramec Caverns

Near (in a roundabout way) the campground, Meramec Caverns is a tourist destination.  This commercial cave is actually located very close to the campground, but to access it, it’s about a 1/2 hour drive.

The roof of the cave, just outside the entrance

I didn’t go into the cave, although I was told later that I would’ve been fine in there with my walker.  They don’t allow strollers, so I’m not sure if I really could’ve used it or not. However, I enjoyed sitting outside the cave, along the edge of the river.  The Meramec Caverns area also has a zipline available, and there’s a pavilion for a steamboat, though I never saw one.  These activities all have separate costs.  There is a restaurant and gift shop in there, too.

The Meramec River

Courtesy of my daughter, this photo is the light show during the cave tour.

Meramec Caverns Light Show

The Area

If, like us, you have trouble making meals over a campfire, the town of Sullivan is very, very close by and has most chain restaurants available, and a few local ones, too.  If you’ve forgotten camping necessities, there are several shops including Dollar Tree, Walmart, Orscheln, and a few other outdoorsy stores.  There’s also a Lowe’s.


Meramec Caverns

Meramec State Park or Meramec State Park

Fisher Cave (not open during our visit)

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October 24-25 at Johnson’s Shut-Ins

We took a short trip to Johnson’s Shut-Ins again, and camped one night.  We stayed at the same ADA-accessible walk-in site as we used before.  It was just too cold and rainy to stay two nights like we had planned, but the major complication was that the camp stores weren’t open, and we had forgotten something simple – tools for flipping our planned pancakes and hamburgers.  Plus, we seem to be terrible at starting campfires.

We did end up purchasing a propane stove, though.

I wasn’t impressed by it – the first time we used it, the grate got so hot it was glowing red, which may have been due to it being turned up too high, but it was disconcerting.

For our new camping adventures, we got a new tent!

This thing is awesome.  It’s an Ozark Trail 18×10 tent with integrated LED lights in the top support bars.  It takes 4 D batteries, and we were able to leave the light on for almost 14 hours without any problems. No way would we do that during the summer, though – the bugs would flock to our tent and we would be miserable.

The packaging says “2 minute setup” – not so much, it took us about 20 minutes with the husband and the 15-year-old working on it.  It took us a while to get the rain fly on, because the tent is tall – you can easily walk around inside without having to duck down, even in the corners.  We’re kind of dense, and set it up backwards, so that the D-shaped door was our entry and we couldn’t get to the part with the screen and awning due to the way the pad is aligned at the site we were at.

We also got new cots to sleep on, because we decided that the husband and I are too old for sleeping on the ground.


For each kid, we got these simple Coleman Trailhead cots.  They come with the attached organizer, which is great because both kids wear glasses and need a place to put them.
For me and the husband, we got these Teton Sports cots.  Mine is the XXL because I’m large, and for him, we got the next-smaller model.


This thing is huge – 40×85 inches (hubby’s is 32×85).  Bigger than a twin-sized bed!  It was a major pain in the butt to set up, but this is the truth for all of the cots we got.  Those end bars are horrible.

They don’t have attached organizers like the ones for the kids, so we grabbed these to help out:

They didn’t have an instructions for attaching them to the cots, so we had a little trouble getting them hooked on, but finally figured it out.  (It was cold, we were tired… we weren’t thinking as clearly as we would’ve been otherwise!)

Overall, the scenery at the Shut-Ins is gorgeous, but going in late October isn’t the best idea.  The campground is deserted and the camp store isn’t open the posted hours, so it’s not great if you’ve forgotten something!  We had to get fire wood at a gas station, and it wasn’t even really fire wood.  It looked like cut up 2x4s and there were nails in two of the boards.
BUT, we had fun.  Especially the boy.


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Watkins Mill State Park and Historic Site, June 15-17, 2018

The Campground

We visited Watkins Mill this weekend more for the purposes of saving money, rather than for camping.  We were in the KC area to visit family and we were running low on funds, so we decided to camp out instead of getting a motel room.  It was also my 25th class reunion, but I decided to skip it because it was mostly outside and I didn’t feel like melting.

We reserved site #11, which is handicap accessible (this means the entire pad is paved, while other sites are gravel).  It features a 16′ wide concrete pad, which we used for parking, but our tents were placed on the grass nearby.  Here’s a map of the campground, as published by the state of Missouri.  I have some issues with this map, which I will explain below.

As I said, we were in site 11, which while on the main drag through the campground, appears on the map to be a fair distance from the next two sites.  However, site number 10 is so close that I could’ve probably swung my arms and hit the neighbor.  If you look closely at the small picture of the campsite, you can see what I mean.

Also, originally we didn’t even realize there was a site between us and the campground host site (13).  There just didn’t seem to be much room there, but it worked out.  The resident of that site was very quiet.
Speaking of quiet… this campground is NOT.  The campground has a gate that closes between 10PM and 8AM, however, campers are given a gate code so they can come and go.  This seems to provide access for campers to leave, get drunk, and come back in at all hours.  Given our location, we got to hear them ALL as they came and went.  The camp host also seems to drive around in a golf cart a lot, and that was noisy.
If you’re interested in this location, be aware that there is also a train that goes by several times per night, and it happily blows its whistle.  There was some sort of domestic disturbance occurring at the shower house one night, and the other night there were children playing on the (dark) playground at 2:00 AM.  They had flashlights and there was a little bit of light available from the shower house, but it doesn’t seem intelligent to me to allow children to play on the playground equipment at that time of night.  I blame some of this on the heat – it makes people crazy.  It was still 89 degrees at midnight.

Bugs.  It’s to be expected that there will be bugs at any campsite, but the number of margined leatherwing beetles at this site was beyond ridiculous.  They even got into our car.  When we got up in the mornings there were at least 50 of them on the outside of teach tent, and more between the rain fly and the actual tent itself.  They are harmless, but they are gross.  On the other hand, there were a lot of lightning bugs in the trees, it was quite lovely, and the crickets and other woodsy critters made a pleasant sound.

Something we have definitely learned now after this trip is that camping in 90 degree plus temperatures sucks, and we are never doing it again without electricity.  My mother gave us an extra-tall inflatable queen-size mattress, but without electricity, it was a major hassle to inflate – we had to go to a nearby Walmart and buy a manual pump.  With it, the mattress still wouldn’t inflate all the way, so that was miserable.  Also, I must also have a fan, or I will die.  So from now on, it’s electric sites for us.
The State Park

The Watkins Mill state park has dozens of picnic areas, a nice swimming beach along the lake, and several trails to hike.  It has fishing and boating available, and equestrian trails, as well.

Watkins Woolen Mill Historic Site
There is a very nice visitor’s center at the historic site.  It is handicap accessible via a ramp outside, and inside, the exhibits are all easy to access.  There is a small theater with a 26-minute movie about the history of the site and the woolen mill.
We chose not to visit the Watkins home or the mill, but had I wanted to, they are not ADA accessible, but that’s to be expected because these buildings were at their heyday in the 1870’s, when there really was no such thing as the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Because I grew up in Kansas City north, I have actually been through the mill in the past (pretty sure it’s a school field trip rite of passage) and it is really very interesting, so if you don’t have limitations, I highly suggest it!  The home is lovely, as well.
During our visit they had people in period costumes outside for reenacting 1870’s daily life, and the site also has a nice heirloom garden to look at, and they had chickens and such outside for the kids to play with.
The Area
Around the state park, there are a few other interesting things to see and do. I’ve noticed that as someone who grew up in the area, I actually never really paid attention to what is available there. Because my kids consider themselves to be from St. Louis (though they were both born in KC), visits to Kansas City are like mini-vacations, and it’s fun to try to find things to do.
There are several interesting places to visit, including the Jesse James Farm and Museum, which is just down the road from the state park outside of Kearney.  You can also find the Liberty Jail Historic Site in downtown Liberty, MO.  This is an important site in the history of the LDS church.  The site has been rebuilt to replicate the original.  I have not personally visited this site, but I have heard both good and bad things about it.  I suggest reading reviews online if it’s something you’re interested in, particularly if you’re not of the LDS religion, since it won’t have the same significance to you.
The Hall of Waters in Excelsior Springs is interesting, and so is the Elms Resort and Spa if you’re into that sort of thing!
Here’s a general map of the area, you’ll need to get your own Google thing going, though, since I can’t embed a live map here.


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Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park Campground – June 8-10, 2018

The Campground

The campground at Johnson’s Shut-Ins is very large.  There are five “loops” of campsites, of varying types.  Loop 1 offers equestrian sites (but can also be reserved by those without horses).  Loops 2, 3, and 4 offer electric, some offer water, and there are some “camper cabins” in one of the loops.  We stayed in Loop 5, which is the most primitive and basic of the available options.  This map is from the Missouri State Parks website and shows loops 4 and 5.  We stayed in site 514, which is ADA accessible despite being a walk-in, because the path from the parking lot to this site is paved.  During our stay there was a rather intense rain storm and the path got very muddy in spots, so my walker had some issues navigating, but it was otherwise an easy trip from the lot to the site.  It was also an easy walk to the shower house and bathrooms.


This walk-in site has no electric/water/sewer, but it has a wooden pad, a fire pit, a lantern post, and a picnic table that can be moved around as needed.  There was a hole in the platform which could’ve caused an injury if we hadn’t noticed it, and my foot actually cracked one of the boards when I fell funny on it, so they’re not particularly strong – there was evidence of wood rot, in fact.  The image from the state park website shows it uninhabited.

Here’s how we set up our tents – well, at least a start.  We actually have two tents, which we set up catty-corner to each other on the platform.  There are hooks and loops on the wooden platform that make it easy to attach the tent ropes so it stays down.

I was also impressed with the amount of space around the platform.  Though there are limits on how many people and tents can inhabit a site, we could’ve easily set up 4 more 6-person tents on the flat ground.  There was a bit of a hill leading down to the platform but it could’ve held a tent or two, as well.

We currently have very basic Ozark Trail 6-person tents from Walmart.  We have two of them because we are all space hogs when we sleep, and we wanted ample space.  We’re planning to upgrade to a single 10-person tent, though, because of this situation:

Yep, those are hail stones.  Our tents withstood the onslaught quite well, but during the downpour we were stuck in our separate tents with no way to communicate and nothing to do.  There is no cell service in the campground (on our carrier, anyway) so we couldn’t even text each other to see if the tents were leaking.  We were bored for about 45 minutes during a heavy downpour.  This picture was taken when I unzipped the door briefly to get a look, but we couldn’t leave it open because the hail bounced up into the tent.  One unfortunate thing I noticed after the storm was that water ponded under the platform and never completely dried up, so we ended up with a hefty number of mosquitoes later that evening.
This campsite had its fair share of noise, but it was tolerable – except for the whip-poor-wills. These are extremely annoying birds that are mostly quiet during the day, then wind up to an extremely ear-splitting screech during the night.  During the night, I was certain the one that was in the trees of our campsite was intentionally torturing me, but after the fact I realized that birds likely have no vendetta against me personally.
As I mentioned, the hail and rain messed with our plans.  We are newbie campers, and we didn’t even think to protect our wood pile… so we were unable to start a campfire to cook our food, even using the maxi-pad method I learned at Girl Scout Camp 25 years ago.  We ended up having to drive to the visitor’s center to get cell signal, then hunted down a McDonald’s to get some lunch.
Because of the storm, our plans to walk to the actual Shut-Ins didn’t work out.  We ended up doing a little bit of shopping in nearby towns (Ironton and Arcadia), and we went to Elephant Rocks State Park after things cleared up outside.
Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park
Image from Mo State Parks website

The Visitor’s Center is interesting, and we watched a couple of films about the power of water and about the disaster that hit the Shut-Ins a few years ago (see below).  The Shut-Ins is a naturally formed enclosed area along the Black River where water has played with the rocks for millions of years, creating pools and eddies that create a natural water park.  There is a partially paved, partially wooden trail that leads to the shut-ins, but due to their nature, it isn’t especially easy for disabled persons to access the rocks and shut-ins.  There is a nice overlook, though.

The Disaster
Image from Wikipedia

In 2005, the wall of the nearby Taum Sauk resevoir failed, sending over a billion gallons of water down the side of the mountain into the state park, destroying all of the man-made structures and obliterating all signs of many of the natural features that made the park so special.  The shut-ins themselves weren’t destroyed, but were filled with debris, rocks, and trash.  The deluge also deposited huge boulders all over the place, and they have now been relocated near the visitor’s center.

Nearby Attractions

Elephant Rocks State Park is the closest, most interesting attraction.  It is a fascinating natural arrangement of huge granite boulders.  They are enormous – as you can see by the 15-year-old walking between them.  There is a trail that leads from the parking area to the huge rocks, and it is paved and accessible. However, the huge boulders themselves are not really accessible to those in wheelchairs or with mobility issues.

Also nearby is Taum Sauk Mountain State Park.  Taum Sauk is the highest point in Missouri, part of the St. Francois mountain range.  Now, keep in mind that this “mountain” isn’t even 1/2 a mile high, so it’s really more of a big hill, depending on what you’re comparing it to.  Taum Sauk offers a few very basic campsites for those looking for an escape.  There is no electric, water, or sewer at these sites so you won’t be overrun by the noisy RVs that populate most of the parks.
Here’s a basic screenshot of the Google map of the area, which you’ll obviously want to look up for yourself if you’re in the area, since this one isn’t clickable.