When the Bluff Dwellers Cave was discovered by Arthur Browning in 1925, he didn’t know it would become a family legacy.

Browning was in his 40s and checking traps on family property in Noel when he felt a breeze. Upon investigating and after some excavating, he came across a limestone cave that had been hidden by a landslide some 2,000-3,000 years ago.

Just two years later, Browning opened the cave for tours, and visitors have been pouring in since then. Today, Browning’s grandchildren run the family business.

According to Nicole Ridlen, geologist and cave manager, no matter the season, the temperature within the Bluff Dwellers Cave always remains 56 degrees F, which means it attracts visitors all year.

As many as 9,000 people visit the Bluff Dwellers Cave every year. It sits within the four-state area of Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, and travelers from around the country find their way to it.

Cave toursAccording to Ridlen, the cave is named after the Native Americans who used it for food storage and processing, as well as tool-making, 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Artifacts found in the cave include grinding stones, arrowheads, a bed of ashes and a few skeletal remains.

An hour-long guided tour of the 3,268-foot network of passageways informs visitors about the geological, ecological and historic features of the cave. It is a well-lit, easy walk on a path that skirts flowing and dripping streams, Ridlen said.

Other geological features include stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones, draperies, soda straws and fossils inside the rocks from 350 million years ago.

Notable cave formations include the Musical Chimes and the 75-foot Rimstone Dam, according to the website. Ridlen’s favorite part of the cave is the coral.

“It’s this really beautiful area in the cave that is really rich in speleothems. And so it has the water dripping and flowing down off of the drapery, and it drips down into these little pockets of water,” she said.

Most visitors will catch a glimpse of cave wildlife, which include various kinds of salamanders and bats. The cave is also host to pickerel frogs and the elusive bristly cave crayfish.

Interestingly, tourists might come across an antique toy duck, brought to the cave 75 years ago by a tour guide.

Since last summer, events such as Cavern Tavern and Un-corked at the Cave have been arranged to encourage local businesses to offer food, wine and beer and to provide visitors another way to have a good time.

Browning Museum

The Browning Museum has a large room with glass cases full of rocks, minerals, crystals, fossils, antiques and artifacts. The items were gathered from travels around the country by Arthur’s daughter, Kathleen, who oversaw the family business from 1958 to 1991.

According to Ridlen, the museum also has photographs and history of the Browning family, the cave and the area. As part of the family history, antiques for display have been shared by a number of family members.

A self-guided tour of the museum is included in the ticket to the cave. For those who want to take home a souvenir, a gift shop on-site contains crystals, rocks, jewelry, T-shirts, hoodies and caps.

Gemstone panning

Property around the cave has a pond and picnic tables, as well as two fun activities — gemstone panning and a crawl box.

Gemstone panning gear can be purchased at the gift shop. Visitors will pick out a bag for $6.99 to $25.99. There are four types of bags holding gemstones, arrowheads, fossils or a big bag that has it all.

After selecting a bag, visitors can take the materials out to a sluice and can keep anything they find to take home as keepsakes.

For those interested in an immersive experience, Bluff Dwellers also has a crawl box outside the cave where visitors experience life as a caver. A caver herself, Ridlen said it is fun for people especially children, to get a taste of that.

Cavern Inn

For those interested in spending more time in the area, rooms can be rented at the Cavern Inn, the historic Browning family home from the 1920s. According to its website, the inn has four bedrooms, private bathrooms, an open living room and a kitchen, as well as a fireplace and patio. Internet services are also available.

Canoeing, kayaking and river rafting is available on the nearby Elk River. Other nearby attractions include the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, the Neosho National Fish Hatchery and Roaring River State Park.

  • Community reporter, spring 2020. I'm a graduate student studying magazine editing and writing. Reach me at aimanjaved@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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