A look at Hannibal, Mississippi, and the Mississippi River from the top of Lover’s Leap, just south of town. Several cliffs along the river bear the same name and the same story on their name. This one is well marked off Highway 79 at the southern end of Hannibal. (Zack Kucharski / The Gazette)
A look at one of the 260 passages that make up Mark Twain’s Cave in Hannibal, Mo. The caves are filled with different engravings and were the childhood lair of Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. The caves were a source of inspiration for his work The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Zack Kucharski / The Gazette)
A look at one of the 260 passages that make up the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1946. The caves are filled with different engravings and were the childhood lair of Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. The caves were a source of inspiration for his work The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Zack Kucharski / The Gazette)
Bob Coleberd’s name was carved into the wall of the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1946. The caves are filled with various engravings and were the childhood meeting place of Samuel Clemens, also known as the Mark Twain. The caves have 260 different passages and were an inspiration for his work The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Zack Kucharski / The Gazette)
HANNIBAL, Missouri – As the lights illuminate the dark passages of the winding caves here, it’s hard not to transform into the 12-year-old as you relive âThe Adventures of Tom Sawyerâ with enthusiasm.
The undulating rock formations inside Mark Twain Cave are fascinating and hypnotic in themselves, but it’s the stories about what happened here that spark the imagination. There is the story of the panther hunt that led to the discovery of the cave in 1819, or the many inhabitants of Hannibal who eventually made their way into Twain’s works. Joseph Nash McDowell, the doctor from St. Louis who needed the caves to preserve his corpses for research, or to find out where outlaw Jesse James had been hiding in the cave.
The town of Hannibal on the Mississippi River, where Mark Twain lived from ages 4 to 17, is just under three hours south of Cedar Rapids and makes for a great weekend getaway. Having done many hikes in Saint-Louis with only one stop for gas, I can admit the error of my tracks. It’s really fun to see the characters in Twain’s handwriting come to life – both in the imagination and in recreations all over town.
For the purposes of our trip – done with 10 and 8 year old girls who didn’t have as much time with Twain as I did – we spent a lot of our time exploring Mark Twain’s cave. It was a good mix of storytelling and science.
The limestone caves are a cold 52 degree maze, but tour guides weave a lot of knowledge to keep you warm along the way. You will spend a few minutes in total darkness and experience the cave like the corpses once stored by Dr. McDowell, known for his non-traditional practices of exhuming bodies and collecting corpses.
Mark Twain Cave: 300 Cave Hollow Road. or 7097 County Road 453, Hannibal. (573) 231-1000. Tours and camping available. marktwaincave.com Visits: Mark Twain Cave is open year round, except Thanksgiving and Christmas; Cameron Cave is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day (no electricity or lanterns). Tour prices vary according to age and type of tour.
Mark Twain Childhood Home and 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 all year except public holidays. Note: Hannibal has several properties related to Twain, and the self-guided tour can help you plan your hike; marktwainmuseum.org/self-guided-visit/
Lovers’ leap (Hannibal): Head south on Missouri 79 (Great River Road) about a mile south of downtown and look for signs directing you to the top.
Itineraries: The Hannibal Convention & Visitor’s Bureau offers several different itineraries: visithannibal.com/trip-ideas/
Prior to 1972, visitors often used candle smoke, paint, crayons, or even berry juice to leave a signature. It stopped when the cave became a national natural monument. But the cave has 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 from Mark Twain Cave – and adjacent Cameron Cave (located on the same site but open from Memorial Day to Labor Day) – is believed to be around 350 million years old, and the formation is unlike almost any other cave in Missouri. . Twain was known to frequent caves throughout his childhood, and it’s easy to see how they became such an important part of his storytelling.
The one-hour general tour is ideal for families. It is well lit and easy to navigate inside the cave. (This cave is drier and has much less geographic formation than most.) If you’re in the mood for a little more adventure, some of the off-road tours offered periodically throughout the year will take you through the nooks and crannies of general tours – offered here since 1886 – avoid.
There are a lot of interesting geological factors for the cave to stand on its own, but sprinkling a part of Mark Twain’s tradition makes this town come alive. (Twain, after all, is one of the writers who made being a major Englishman tolerable.) Uncover stories from the past and learn about the people of Hannibal who became characters in the work. de Twain add a truly unique richness to the visit.
A trip to the Lover’s Leap south of the city center offers stunning views of the city and imagines Twain’s days as a riverboat pilot come to life as you watch today’s barge traffic along of the Mississippi River. It takes less than five minutes by car to get out of Hannibal (south on Missouri Highway 79) and the views are well signposted and worth a quick picnic or just looking down.
Back in town, Twain’s childhood home is one of seven sites including the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Steps from the river, it’s a quick getaway from Becky Thatcher’s home and law firm.
The museum’s interpretive center offers a quick tutorial on the people of Hannibal who became characters in Twain’s writing, while the museum’s gallery features scenes from Twain’s books. His desk, typewriter, and other artifacts are also here. A series of paintings by Norman Rockwell, commissioned by Heritage Press to celebrate the special editions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, is on permanent display here.
The area has several other nearby attractions, including the Rockcliffe Mansion (a 30-room clifftop mansion completed in 1900) and the Memorial Lighthouse or a river boat ride – which can complement a weekend.
Whether you’re there for an afternoon or a weekend, Hannibal embraced Twain’s penchant for wit and storytelling. Whatever activity you choose, make sure you don’t leave your imagination at home.