116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
HANNIBAL, Mo. — As the lights illuminate the dark passageways of the winding caves here, it’s hard not to transform back into your 12-year-old self as you excitedly relive “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
The wavy rock formations inside the Mark Twain Cave are fascinating and hypnotic on their own, but it’s the stories about what happened here that spark the imagination. There’s the story about the panther hunt that led to the cave’s discovery in 1819, or the many Hannibal residents who eventually made their way into Twain’s works. Joseph Nash McDowell, the St. Louis doctor who needed the caves to preserve his cadavers for research, or figuring out where outlaw Jesse James hid in the cave.
The Mississippi River town of Hannibal, where Mark Twain lived from age 4 to 17, is just under three hours south of Cedar Rapids and makes for a great weekend trip. Having trekked to St. Louis many times with only a stop for gas, I can admit the error of my ways. It’s truly fun to see the characters from Twain’s writing come alive — both in imagination and in the recreations throughout the town.
For purposes of our trip — made with 10-year-old and 8-year-old girls who didn’t have as much time with Twain as I had — we focused much of our time exploring the Mark Twain Cave. It was a great mix of storytelling and science.
The limestone caves are a chilly 52-degree labyrinth, but the tour guides weave in plenty of lore to keep you warm along the way. You’ll spend a few minutes in the complete dark, getting to experience the cave as the cadavers once stored there by Dr. McDowell, known for his non-traditional practices with exhuming bodies and collecting corpses.
Mark Twain Cave: 300 Cave Hollow Rd. or 7097 County Road 453, Hannibal. (573) 231-1000. Tours and camping available. marktwaincave.com Tours: Mark Twain Cave is open year-round except for Thanksgiving and Christmas; Cameron Cave is open Memorial Day to Labor Day (no electricity, lanterns). Tours prices range by age and type of tour.
Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum: 120 N. Main St., Hannibal. (573) 221-9010, Ext. 401. Tours available. Admission: adults (18+) $12, seniors (60+) $10, children (6-17) $6, under 5 free. Online at: marktwainmuseum.org/; open year-round except major holidays. Note: Hannibal has several properties tied to Twain, and the self-guided tour can help you plan your trek; marktwainmuseum.org/self-guided-visit/
Lover’s Leap (Hannibal): Head south on Missouri 79 (Great River Road) about a mile south of downtown and look for the signs directing you to the top.
Itineraries: The Hannibal Convention & Visitor’s Bureau features several different itineraries: visithannibal.com/trip-ideas/
Before 1972, visitors often used candle smoke, paint, pencils or even berry juice to leave a signature behind. That stopped when the cave became a National Natural Registered Landmark. But the cave features more than 250,000 signatures in more than six miles of underground tunnels. Even Clemens’ signature was found (and authenticated) in the cave in 2019.
The limestone of the Mark Twain Cave — and adjacent Cameron Cave (located at same site but open Memorial Day to Labor Day) — are believed to be about 350 million years old, and the formation is different from nearly every other cave in Missouri. Twain was known to frequent the caves throughout his childhood, and it’s easy to see how they became such important fixtures in his storytelling.
The hourlong general tour is great for families. It is well-lit and easy to navigate inside the cave. (This cave is drier and has way fewer geographic formations than most.) If you crave a bit more adventure, some of the off-trail tours offered periodically throughout the year will get you into the nooks and crannies the general tours — offered here since 1886 — avoid.
There’s plenty of geologic cool factor to make the cave stand on its own, but sprinkling in some of the Mark Twain lore makes this town come alive. (Twain, after all, is one of the authors who made being an English major tolerable.) Discovering the back stories and learning more about the Hannibal residents who became characters in Twain’s work add a truly unique richness to the visit.
A trip up to the Lover’s Leap south of downtown gives a great vista view of town and imagining Twain’s time as a riverboat pilot comes alive as you watch today’s barge traffic along the Mississippi River. It takes less than five minutes by car to drive outside of Hannibal (south on Missouri Route 79) and the view is well marked and worth a quick picnic or just looking from the top.
Back in town, Twain’s boyhood home is one of seven sites comprising the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Steps from the river, it’s a quick jaunt from Becky Thatcher’s house and the law office.
The museum’s interpretive center offers a quick tutorial on the Hannibal residents who became characters in Twain’s writing, while the museum gallery offers scenes from Twain’s books. His writing desk, typewriter and other artifacts also are here. A series of Norman Rockwell paintings, commissioned by Heritage Press to celebrate special editions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, are on permanent display here.
The area has several other nearby attractions — including Rockcliffe Mansion (a 30-room mansion perched atop a bluff finished in 1900) and Memorial Lighthouse or a riverboat ride — that can round out a weekend trip.
Whether you’re there for an afternoon or a weekend, Hannibal has embraced Twain’s penchant for wit and storytelling. No matter which activity you pick, be sure not to leave your imagination at home.