Every spring and fall, I organize camping trips for my kids, their friends, and their friends’ dads. My two daughters have lived their entire lives in subdivisions in major metropolitan areas, and I want to introduce them to adventures that don’t come on screens.

I want them to push through dense woods, to cook meat on a stick over a fire, to disappear for hours and come back soaking wet or filthy or both for no good reason. Most of all, I want them to … hey, where’d they go?

We were on the Indian Glade Trail in Graham Cave State Park for only 100 yards and already they had run far ahead. A 3-year-old girl and her father brought up the rear with me. She slipped on a rock and said, “I keep falling,” and then added—talking to herself but using words I need to hear on occasion—“just get up if you fall.”

The trail turned left, and I looked to my right into a glade. Bursts of white from cottonwood flowers stood out against the rest of the forest, like fireworks against a green sky. The next turn took us near a babbling stream. At the exact second I thought, “that’s my favorite sound to sleep to,” the 3-year-old said, “that sound makes me tired.”

The trail ended in a field that sits at the front of Graham Cave. The entrance to the cave looks like a band shell, 16 feet tall and 120 feet wide. A fence at the mouth prevents humans from entering.

Foxes have found a way in, and at least two, maybe more, played in the back of the cave, their rust-colored fur blending into the walls. Outside the cave, kids scampered to the top of it, and dads barked at them not to fall off. Inside the cave, the foxes barked at each other, too … if bark is the right word. It sounded like the noise a chicken would make if it tried to bark.

Man and beast have congregated like this at this cave for centuries. Remains found in the cave show humans have used it off and on for 10,000 years. Graham Cave, which sits within the state park’s 356 acres, was the country’s first archaeological site designated as a National Historic Landmark.

A circle of rocks makes anthropologists think a council might have met there. It was a kitchen, too, as bones of cooked animals are among the many there.

Later, I ran into a park ranger, who reached into his pocket and pulled out two spearheads and a pottery shard, each of them at least 1,000 years old. Relics like that have been found all over Graham Cave State Park.

I hollered for the kids to come see them. But they were off in the creek, looking for, and finding, their own artifacts. They came back soaking wet and filthy—and for good reason.

Family and friends at Graham Cave State Park in Missouri
Photo by Matt Crossman

Graham Cave State Park is located on Route TT near Danville, just north of Interstate 70 between New Florence and Williamsburg. The park contains 386 acres and 4.4 miles of trails. Campsites are available for reservation or on a first-come, first-serve basis. To learn more, visit MOStateParks.com.