Spelunkers Crawl Into New Cave Exposed by Drought in Missouri’s Ozarks

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: Merten Snijders

Ongoing droughts in Missouri have allowed spelunkers to explore a new section of a cave in the Ozarks. According to the owner of Smallin Civil War Cave, Kevin Bright, before, a stream flowed through Smallin Cave, carving out tunnels over time and leading out to the massive mouth of the cave.

However, in recent weeks, a lack of precipitation and ongoing drought conditions have led water levels to drop. During the drought, streams within the cavern vanish entirely, receding below the surface of the gravel stream bed until there’s any rainfall.

“This time though, we particularly missed more rain,” Bright said. “With the water levels dropping, then that gives us access to places that we don’t normally get to see.”

To take advantage of the drought, spelunkers are now exploring an exposed tunnel and a new passageway. “We went to where the question mark was on the map,” Bright said. “We crawled around the corner and next thing you know, we walked for another about 1,100 feet.”

According to historians, the Smallin Cave system measures about 5,600 feet. However, only the first 550 feet past the cavern’s mouth have been “readily accessible to humans. Beyond that, it is difficult to navigate through,” the cave’s website adds. The newly-seen tunnel section contains one of the trademarks of the cave system, per Bright.

Smallin Cave has two distinct features. First, the mouth of the cave, likely one of the largest in the state, is between 50 to 60 feet high and 100 feet wide, according to experts on the site.

The second feature, according to Bright, is the rimstone dams seen throughout Smallin Cave. “Rimstone dams form every time the water recedes, they get a little taller. They’re kinda like bathtub rings. They just build up over time.” The largest rimstone dam in Smallin Cave — and possibly in Missouri — is a 14-foot-high dam in the main passageway, said Bright.

Drought allows spelunkers to find ‘treasures’ in Missouri cave system

Bright also said they found a stream and “a series of rimstone dams down the newly mapped passageway.”

In addition, both rising and falling floodwaters can show spelunkers more than just tunnels. Since the cave has a gravel stream bed, “the gravel shifts just like a river on the surface,” Bright explained. “Sometimes things are hidden or revealed, sometimes things that were there are gone so there’s constant changes.”

He continued: “You never know what’s gonna show up after a flood. “(When) the water recedes, we get to go back and there’s almost always several, several treasures.”

Bright said that previous cave finds had included the bones of bison, elk, hogs, and deer teeth. However, Smallin Cave’s water levels have risen but have yet to recover entirely.