Bluff Dwellers Cave: A scientific & historical tour

If you haven’t been to Bluff Dwellers Cave, just south of Noel, in a while, or ever, it’s time for a visit. 

I went there a few times as a kid and just recently went back with my own kids and wife. 

Except for a brief three-year period at the start, the show cave has remained in the same family since Arthur Browning discovered (or rediscovered) it in 1925. 

According to one story, he was walking atop the bluff, possibly checking traps, when he felt cold air coming out of a limestone outcrop that he may have thought was simply a fox den. 

He later did some exploring and boy did he get a surprise. He eventually came back to the surface more than nine hours past the time he told people he would return, which I’m sure gave his family a bit of a scare. 

The point where Browning entered is actually reverse from where visitors enter today, and is the tour exit. The cave had been hidden and mostly filled in by a landslide some 2,000 to 3,000 years prior. 

Unlike visitors today, Browning had to crawl through most of the tunnels when he first entered. 

At the time, U.S. Highway 71 (now State Highway 59) was being constructed in front of the cave and Browning enlisted the help of some of the highway department men to assist in moving loose rock and debris so he could explore. 

Wes Franklin

For the next two years Browning and his team excavated the cavern by hand, using shovels and picks, and hauling it out by hand and with teams of draft animals. 

Interestingly, the hill that the present day gift shop and museum and outbuildings sit on, in front of what is now used as the cave entrance, is simply the debris that was dug and hauled out of the tunnels. 

The cave was opened for public tours in 1927, being leased to J.A. Truitt, who would open another show cave up the highway a few years later. 

Truitt had intended on starting a restaurant at the back of the cave, but that didn’t happen and after three years the cave reverted back to the Browning family management, where it has remained ever since. 

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However, skeletal remains were discovered there, as well as grinding stones, and lots of arrowheads, spearheads, and ax heads, which are on display today in the museum. 

I toured the cave a few times when I was a kid, and back then the bones were also displayed. However, my understanding is that the Native remains are currently in Jefferson City going through the proper procedural verification and authorization channels, which I suppose is right. I hope they return to their home, though. 

Although Bluff Dweller’s Cave is no doubt a geologist’s heaven, my personal interest is mostly with the historical, and so my favorite part of the cave is the signs of the Native Americans who were there many thousands of years before. 

This is partly evidenced by the ancient smoke stains from countless fires left forever imprinted on the stone walls. The ancient artifacts left behind are something to see as well. 

One thing that has always fascinated me in these cases is why didn’t the owners return? What happened? 

On another historical sidenote, the big room at the front part of the cave, which is now the last stop of the tour, was designated a fallout shelter during the Cold War in the 1950s and ’60s and the yellow signs with the nuclear symbol are still present. 

The guided tour is about an hour long. Since the cave remains a constant temperature, it’s always cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and it’s a relief from the outdoors the moment you walk in. 

Although my own interest is mainly historical, you’ll see a lot of cool rock formations and gain a wealth of scientific knowledge about caves in general, and about Bluff Dweller’s Cave in particular, of course. 

You rarely have to stoop at all, either. I stand over six feet tall and can walk perfectly erect through most of the tour. Perhaps needless to say, it isn’t handicapped accessible. 

When planning family day trips this summer, you won’t regret including Bluff Dweller’s Cave on the list of things to do. 

They are open seven days a week, all year round. Visit their website at or call 417-475-3666.

(Wes Franklin can be reached by email at, or by USPS mail at 12161 Norway Road, Neosho, MO 64850.)

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