As Tom Sawyer discovered when he ventured into McDougal’s Cave near Hannibal, Missouri, nature’s own cooling system has been offering relief from summer’s suffocating heat since long before the advent of air conditioning. With more than 5,500 caves tipping the mercury at a refreshing 50-odd degrees Fahrenheit, following in Tom’s footsteps is easy. Just wait for the bats to clear out, or you may end up having a Tom Sawyer-style adventure.
Whites Creek Cave, along the 18.6-mile Whites Creek Trail loop in the Irish Wilderness of Mark Twain National Forest, is home to endangered Indiana bats during their winter hibernation (September 15 to May 1, when the cave is closed). But each summer the bats head north, clearing the way for hikers to explore the cave’s cool, massive, 1,600-foot-long, cathedral-like cavern. Pick your way past stalactites, stalagmites, and other subterranean statuary-some as tall as
25 feet-formed by thousands of years of calcium carbonate buildup.
The Whites Creek Trail begins amid tall oaks and pine trees, and undulates through dry creek beds, grasslands, and glades. Two springs en route serve up water so chilly that it tastes like it just came out of the refrigerator. After cooling off in the cave, don’t miss the spur trail at Bliss Springs, which leads to a limestone bluff overlooking the Eleven Point National Scenic River. At dusk, watch for gray bats darting over
the river as they forage for insects, and keep an eye out for Tom and his buddy Huck, passing like a memory on the swirling current.