It was 1925, and when Arthur Browning felt cool air welling from a low dark crack on his property, he knew that the bluff masked a cave. Over the next two years, he excavated, laid gravel, installed pale lights, and opened Bluff Dwellers Cavern to the public in 1927.
Named for the paleo Indians who, evidenced by smoke stains on the interior walls, used the cavern for shelter, Bluff Dwellers Cavern is still in operation today. Not much has changed since its original excavation. Having been to several show caves in the Ozarks, this is a good thing. Sure, the flash and appeal of clever lighting and drive-through tours makes for good billboard advertising, but an impressionable cave experience needs more than glamour. It needs mystery. It needs intimacy. Both are where Bluff Dwellers Cavern exceeds expectation.
Cave access requires a guide, but tickets are cheap and the guides are knowledgeable. They follow a script that, I suspect, has been passed along generations. It’s still owned by the Browning family. Descendants of Arthur Browning live in a crooked stone house at the foot of the bluff.
I’ve been to Bluff Dwellers Cavern three times in recent years. It never gets old. I typically bristle at the cheap merits of gushing over nature, but it’s magical. If you can catch them on an off day and reserve a guide for your group alone, there is no better alternative.
If you’re reading this for visitor information, the facts are these: Bluff Dwellers Cavern is about an hour south of Joplin, Missouri, two miles outside of the scenic riverside town of Noel in McDonald County.
Parking is below the bluff; access to the entrance requires scaling a steep set of stone stairs. (Wheelchair access to the top is possible, I’ve heard, with the help of an on-site golf cart, but I don’t know how much deeper the tour can go into the cave after that.)
Tickets are available for purchase at the front desk, which is charmingly built against the bluff walls. It’s only $14 for adults, and includes a 45-minute guided tour plus “museum” access.
The museum is divided between a hodepodge of antiques native to the Ozarks and a global collection of local arrowheads, rock, crystal, and fossil samples from every corner of the world–including a fossilized birds nest with eggs still waiting to hatch.
Reita Browning passed away on September 13th, 2015. She was born in Noel in 1929, and returned to run the cave in 1991. Online condolences can be sent via http://www.ozarkfuneralhome.com
The most fun feature is a small collage of Browning family photos at the entrance–all of whom worked in the cave and/or still manage it to this day. Years ago, on my first visit, my Dad and I were lucky enough to take a tour led by Reita Browning, who knew the cave so well that she could walk backward through it, reaching for light switches by touch memory, pausing to deliver dry, long-known jokes without ever needing to glance at reference cards.
The museum itself is an odd collections of arrowheads, rock, crystal, and fossil samples from every corner of the world, plus a hodgepodge of antiques native to the Ozarks. In one of the end cases, there’s a fossilized birds nest with three eggs nestled cozily within its walls, trapped in waiting. It’s both equally horrifying and moving.
There’s also a surprisingly good little gift shop with trinkets that make for fun stocking stuffers–think gemstone keychains and mood rings–and on the final aisle is a series of Moroccan fossils available for purchase that are priced so cheaply ($12!) that a part of me thinks they have no idea how much these are worth in other parts of the country. (In Lake Arrowhead, CA, for example, I’ve seen Moroccan fish fossils with price tags ranging up to $600.)
The cave’s exit and entrance are marked by enormous black double doors. Their purpose is two-fold: to keep trespassers and neer-do-wells out, and to keep the shadows inside. The great appeal of caves to me is that they’re dark by nature–but when lit with intention, the appeal and mystery of what lies beyond the bend never seems to end.
The beginning of the tour is quite dramatic. Armed with a small flashlight, the guide leads tour groups through a tunnel and into a shadowy room while they explain the history of Arthur Browning’s early excavations. Every time, the moment before they flick on the lights is the same: With great flourish, they announce, “And this is what he saw…”
The remainder of the tour guides groups down several different passageways designed to show different aspects of cave wonders, family jokes, Ozarks lore, and geological history. You’re likely to see bats, cave crickets, and translucent salamanders. It’s cool but dry year-round, though if it’s been particularly wet recently you can expect the occasional “cave kiss” to grace your face and shoulders.
And, of course, the photo opportunities are endless.
The finale of the tour is an underground waterway called Crystal Lake. It’s hard to get the full scope of its size unless you’re willing to drop to your hands and knees, but it extends from nearly the exit to the back of the cave under a low shelf. Dimples in its floor mark Arthur Browning’s undisturbed footsteps from the 20s, when he ventured in, eager to see what lay beyond.
The Ozarks don’t have the drama and scale of the mountains in the western half of the United States. But it’s because they’re old. Like, really old. Contrary to popular knowledge, the Ozarks are older than Appalachia, but nobody knows that. We’re humble people. I guess we just don’t like to brag.
So once upon a time, the Ozarks were huge. Now they’re rippling and quiet. All the action happens along rivers–like those immense, shelved bluffs–and underground. Hence, caves. Whenever I have visitors, I make sure to take them to the Bluff Dwellers Cave.
To be honest, a lot of caves that are open to tourists kind of, well, suck. Like, a lot. They’re packed with tourists and cheesy lighting and you don’t get the full fun sense of being in a cave. It took me cave visits to several other caves to figure out just how special our little unknown cave is.
So I hesitate sharing it, but I must, because if there’s one cave you should visit in the Ozarks and you want to get off the tourist trap trail, go to this one. It’s special. Really darn special.