I-44 serves as a convenient pathway for families planning Missouri road trips
Reunion groups seeking open space and kid-friendly attractions in the St. Louis area consider Interstate 44 their magic carpet to adventure. Known in the region as the I-44 corridor, the environs southwest of St. Louis abound with places sure to please the whole clan.
While the city itself boasts family favorites like the new St. Louis Aquarium and admission-free St. Louis Zoo, the surrounding suburbs and countryside offer plenty of fresh air and outdoor fun—commodities being viewed as more valuable than ever during the current pandemic.
For generations, Meramec Caverns, less than an hour from St. Louis via I-44, has been one of the country’s most hyped roadside attractions since it was opened to the public in 1933 by Lester Dill, whose descendants still own and operate the commercial cave. Motorists over the years have seen “Meramec Caverns” emblazoned on billboards, bumper stickers and barn roofs. Located near Stanton, Missouri, in Franklin County, the quintessential show cave was an early fixture on fabled Route 66, which I-44 replaced long ago. Hundreds of “Route 66 Historic Byway” signs recognizing the original route can be found across Missouri.
While home to one of America’s most visited caves, the site along the Meramec River offers much more than a guided tour through underground rooms decorated with drippy stalactites and stalagmites. Options just outside the cave entrance include panning for gold and gemstones, zip lining and canopy tours, and canoe, kayak and raft rentals for do-it-yourself float trips. The Cavern Queen, a canopy-topped riverboat, does half-hour excursions. Also on the grounds are a 40-unit motel, a camping park and riverside picnic area.
The standard tour of Meramec Caverns takes an hour and 20 minutes and covers about a mile. Groups who want to do less walking can book an abbreviated circuit (45 minutes). Delivering relief from the summer heat, the cave is a constant 60 degrees year-round. A sweatshirt or light jacket is advisable for those leery of the natural air-conditioning.
Tour highlights include a few moments in total darkness and witnessing the Grand Canyon of the Caverns, where lighted ceiling formations reflected in the shallow stream create the illusion of a deep chasm. Guests also learn about the cave’s history as a hideout for outlaw Jesse James and his gang and its role as a shelter and source of saltpeter (a key ingredient in gunpowder) during the Civil War. In a natural theater on the fourth level, the walk-through concludes with a patriotic sound-and-light spectacle projected onto the Stage Curtains, a great sweep of onyx drapery.
At the base of a towering bluff, Meramec Caverns’ visitor facilities—including a restaurant, fudge stand and gift shop—are built right into the mouth of the cave. The restaurant has a private room ideal for family and other groups.
Down on the Farm
Purina Farms in Gray Summit, another family-friendly place in Franklin County, focuses on pets and farm animals. A free attraction courtesy of St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina, the world’s largest pet food manufacturer, it offers interactive pet care exhibits, chances to mingle with barnyard critters and a tractor-pulled wagon ride through the 300-acre estate.
The Incredible Dog Show at Purina Farms stars talented canines adopted from shelters and rescue groups. In an artificial-turf arena with concrete bleachers, trainers lead the performing dogs through obstacle courses and other maneuvers. In the audience favorite, a plastic disc is tossed over the 50-foot-long, in-ground pool as a dog, with a running start, snags it in midair before plunging into the water.
In the barn, kids and parents can pet bunnies, baby chicks, goats and piglets, and perhaps catch a cow-milking demonstration. Informational panels and flip boards provide fun facts on milk, dairy and beef cattle, rabbits and pigs. Did you know that rabbits sleep with their eyes open and their teeth never stop growing?
Everyone likes feeding the Japanese koi fish in the pool between the barn and visitor center. At the Pet Center, visitors meet dogs and cats (some of them up for adoption) and marvel at the 20-foot-tall, Victorian-style cat abode complete with windows, climbing ledges and scratching posts.
Exhibits in the visitor center stress responsible pet care, the benefits of having a pet and the rewards of adoption. You can learn about dog breeds on a touch screen and watch videos that document the life of a service dog. One panel provides the scoop on Purina’s cat litter manufacturing process along with litter box tips.
Purina Farms is open from mid-March through October and currently requires reservations.
Discoveries in Eureka
The I-44 exit east of Purina Farms leads to Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka, in far western St. Louis County. Complete with roller coasters, kiddie rides in Bugs Bunny National Park and live shows, Missouri’s leading theme park is an all-day affair. Its Hurricane Harbor water park, included in the price of admission, has waterslides, a wave pool, lazy river and five-story tree house.
Two exits in Eureka will take you to Route 66 State Park, situated along a stretch of the Meramec River. One exit leads to the visitor center, where museum exhibits tell the stories of Route 66 and Times Beach, a Route 66 community where homes occupied the riverfront site from 1925 until the early 1980s. The town was abandoned after it was learned that dioxins had contaminated the soil; in 1992 the state took title to the property. An environmental cleanup was completed in 1997, and the state park opened two years later.
Features of Route 66 State Park include a boat launch, picnic areas and walking trails along the river, and through meadows and woods where homes once stood. The visitor center gift shop has an extensive variety of Route 66 souvenirs, from games, puzzles and books to videos, T-shirts, metal signs, mugs and magnets.
Robertsville, Don Robinson and Castlewood are other state parks along the I-44 corridor.
A hidden Missouri road trip gem in Eureka is the Endangered Wolf Center, a sanctuary for wolf species from around the world. One-hour walking tours, guided by passionate educators who know the wolves by name, provide glimpses at a handful of the center’s 400 canine residents, which include the critically endangered American red wolf and Mexican gray wolf. (One learns that fewer than 20 American red wolves still live in the wild, and they’re found only in two counties of North Carolina.) Visitors see the wolves sitting, sleeping and moving about in large, wooded enclosures. Observing its 50th year in 2021, the center is part of a 2,000-acre satellite research facility operated by St. Louis’ Washington University.
Feathered Friends, Celebrity Horses and Choo-Choo Trains
Animal lovers also gravitate to the World Bird Sanctuary, a rehabilitation, education and conservation center in Valley Park, a short drive east of Eureka. Occupying 305 acres of hardwood forest next door to Lone Elk County Park, the preserve has large outdoor avian exhibits housing a variety of non-releasable birds, from around the world, including eagles, falcons, vultures, owls and other species, many of them endangered. Its hospital cares for injured raptors. Seasonal bird shows and educational programs are offered, and there are nature trails and picnic pavilions.
More animal encounters, but with an entertainment focus, await families at Grant’s Farm, another popular attraction easily accessible from I-44. Operated by St. Louis brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, the zoo/wildlife park rests on the Busch family’s ancestral estate.
A Grant’s Farm visit starts with a 20-minute, open-air tram ride through wooded pastures inhabited by deer, elk, water buffalo, bison, zebras, yaks and other creatures. Passengers disembark at the zoo area, where they get to pet llamas and alpacas, bottle-feed goats, and ride a carousel or even a camel. Shows in the amphitheater feature trained macaws, ferrets and goats.
In a courtyard reminiscent of a German farmstead, guests enjoy bratwursts, burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, soft pretzels and German potato salad at cafe tables shaded by bright red Budweiser umbrellas. Adults, allowed two free beers, can choose from a variety of Anheuser-Busch products.
A can’t-miss part of Grant’s Farm gives visitors a close-up look at the famous Budweiser Clydesdale in their stables and paddocks. Known for their proud, quick gait and shaggy white tuffs of long hair along the backs of their legs, these muscular Scottish draft horses were developed for work in the fields. There are three Budweiser Clydesdale hitches, each with a team of 10 horses, one Dalmatian and seven handlers. Each hitch travels 300 days a year for parades and other events. For an in-depth peek at the Clydesdales, 90-minute behind-the-scenes tours are available for $25. (Admission to Grant’s Farm is $15 per car, with reservations recommended; there’s a fee for animal feeding and camel and carousel rides.)
Grant’s Farm sits on land once owned by Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general and 18th president of the United States. Called White Haven in Grant’s time, the farm was acquired by August Busch Sr. in the early 1900s. Adjacent to Grant’s Farm, the free-admission Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site offers a 25-minute movie, museum exhibits in the former horse stable and tour of the plantation’s main house. Grant’s original log cabin can be viewed on the Grant’s Farm tram ride.
Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, grew up at White Haven, enjoying a comfortable life made possible by enslaved laborers. The couple married in 1848 and lived there as a young family from 1854-1859 before moving to Galena, Illinois.
Another Missouri road trip gem can also be found in western St. Louis County, not far from the World Bird Sanctuary. It’s all aboard for fun at the National Museum of Transportation, a treasure house of classic cars and vintage railroad equipment on 42 acres of property—complete with a tunnel and tracks—donated by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In the two-level railyard, kids love clambering around the steam locomotives and passenger cars. Visitors can take a whirl on an old St. Louis streetcar and, in the former train depot, and activate model railroad layouts. They also can ride a miniature train that makes a loop through the grounds.
One of the museum’s most impressive artifacts is the 1941 Union Pacific Big Boy, the largest successful steam locomotive ever built; 24 were made for hauling heavy freight trains through the Rockies, but only eight still exist. The coal-burning, 600-ton Big Boy could go 80 mph and pull a train more than five miles long. It was retired in 1958 but has been restored to operating condition. (Other locomotives were bigger but traveled slowly and were costly to maintain.) Another standout on the tracks: a Georgia Railroad steam locomotive, built in 1896 and retired in 1963, painted in a rainbow of colors. It serves as a teaching tool, with each color highlighting moving parts and other features.
For information on St. Louis attractions, visit explorestlouis.com or call 800-916-0092.
By Randy Mink