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Onondaga offers photo cave tours through October

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By Tom Uhlenbroc

Missouri State Parks

LEASBURG, Mo. – Some of the most beautiful sights in Missouri are underground. Onondaga Cave State Park has a program to let photographers have better access to them.

Missouri is called the Cave State because it boasts of some 6,300 registered caves, most of them in the Ozarks of the southern half of the state, where karst geology is the rule.

Rails, concrete walkways and lighting make Onondaga Cave State Park one of the most accessible of the tour caves. Photo by Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks

Rails, concrete walkways and lighting make Onondaga Cave State Park one of the most accessible of the tour caves. Photo by Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks

Simply put, as mildly acidic groundwater moves through cracks and fissures of the soluble limestone bedrock, it carves out a subterranean maze of caves filled with fantastical deposits.

Onondaga Cave is one of America’s most spectacular, with 1.5 miles of passages decorated with deposits like the Twins, the King’s Canopy and the Rock of Ages. The delicate Lily Pad Room is an eye-opening experience.

Onondaga is one of four “show” caves in state parks, with tours operating from mid-April through mid-October. Like other state caves, Onondaga is closed over the winter when bats use it for hibernation.

The tours are popular, and many visitors come armed with point-and-shoot cameras to record their experience. But monopods and tripods, which are needed for more serious photography, are prohibited because they can block the way of others.

The Onondaga Friends Association has solved that problem by offering special tours for photographers. They are allowed ample time to set up their equipment, and use the wide apertures and slow shutter speeds needed to capture the details and colors of the cave deposits.

The tours include both of the park’s caves, Onondaga and Cathedral, and each tour lasts approximately three hours with a one-hour lunch break in between.

Photographers and videographers can opt for one cave or the other, or do both. The cost is $15 for the Onondaga Cave tour; $10 for Cathedral Cave; or $20 to go on both tours. Photos tours are scheduled for Aug. 30 and Sept. 13.

The tours are limited to 30 people and reservations are required in advance. Make reservations and pay at The association uses revenues from the tours to benefit the state park.

Lily Pad and Cathedral Bell

The tours are led by Terry Pilkenton, an avid photographer and member of the friends association.

“The Lily Pad Room is always the most popular,” Pilkenton said. “We’ll spend 45 minutes in that place alone.”

Onondaga Cave is one of the most accessible of the tour caves. Visitors follow a paved walkway with stainless steel railings and electric lights are switched off and on to illuminate the way.

Cathedral has walkways and railings, but not electric lighting. Tours are done by flashlight which, Pilkenton said, does not deter serious photographers, who have their own flashes and lighting.

“One of the highlights of Cathedral Cave is the Cathedral Bell,” she said. “The cave also has grotto salamanders and spotted cave salamanders, which we don’t often see in Onondaga Cave.”

For the photography tours, Pilkenton recommends tripods, which prevent camera movement and allow for slower shutter speeds. While a direct flash would ruin the colors, Pilkenton said she often uses a bounce flash to soften the light.

“A slower shutter speed gives you a wider aperture, which allows more light to come in for a better image,” she said. “You can set your camera on automatic programming if you have a tripod.”

Surprises Underground

Pilkenton, who manages a convenience store in Cuba and also is a trained master naturalist, said she first came to Onondaga Cave as a fifth grader – and has been coming ever since.

Now she brings her grandson on yearly visits to the caves.

“He used to tell me he could see how much the stalactites and stalagmites had grown,” she said. “I’d say, ‘No, you can’t’ and he said, ‘Yes, I can, Grandma’.”

The reaction from rookie visitors is always the same, she said, when they see the pencil-thin soda straws, flowing drapery and giant columns where stalactites and stalagmites meet.

“They’re surprised at what’s down here, and how long it takes to grow into these deposits,” she said.

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George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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