Bill Bryan hiked to the top of a bluff in Ha Ha Tonka State Park and took in a breathtaking view with timeless appeal.
An endless landscape of green, broken by the glistening water of the Lake of the Ozarks, stretched into the horizon.
Behind him was a reminder that others throughout the ages were enamored by this same view. The ruins of a castle built by a wealthy Kansas City businessman stands as a landmark in the state park — a monument to the phrase “a house with a view.”
“You can see why he wanted to build a retreat up here,” says Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks. “From this view, you can see for miles.” This is just a special place.”
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Robert M. Snyder first visited the site in 1903 and was so fascinated by the scenery that he purchased 5,000 acres of land. He envisioned building a European-style castle, a luxurious mansion with multiple rooms and a center atrium that would rise 3 1/2 stories to a skylight.
Construction began in 1905, but Snyder never got to see his dream house materialize. He was killed in one of Missouri’s first automobile accidents in 1906. But the project renewed when Snyder’s sons finished building the castle in their father’s honor.
At the time, and even now, it was a masterpiece that stood out on the Ozarks landscape. By the 1940s, it was leased out as a hotel, then was gutted by fire in 1942. Today, only the rock ruins remain. Nonetheless, it still stands as a centerpiece in one of America’s most popular state parks. Ha Ha Tonka was voted the fourth-best state park in the nation in a USA Today readers’ poll this spring.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to Bryan. He has long known that Ha Ha Tonka (the American Indians’ phrase for “laughing waters”) combines a rare combination of natural beauty, unique karst topography, hiking trails and history. And the aforementioned timeless appeal.
“In the early 1900s, Gov. (Herbert) Hadley came here and proposed this areas as Missouri’s first state park,” Bryan says. “It didn’t become a state park until many years later (1978), but today it is one of our most fascinating areas.”
One of the highlights of the park is a long boardwalk trail that includes more than 300 steps from the bluff to Ha Ha Tonka Spring, the 12th largest in Missouri. That spring, which originates under a bluff wall, discharges 48 million gallons of water daily.
Bryan got a reminder of why the state park is so popular on a rainy day when he joined Jim Divincen of the Lake of the Ozarks Tri-County Lodging Association and me on a tour of the state park. We hiked a trail that took us under a natural bridge, along sinkholes, through tight passages between rock formations and along bluffs. Later, we paused at the spring and listened to the water rushing into the spring branch that flows into Lake of the Ozarks.
Even in the rain, there was a steady stream of tourists on the trails. And there were also places to get off the beaten path and enjoy nature.
For Divincen, Ha Ha Tonka is a special place. The Turkey Pen Hollow Trail is one of his favorites in the Ozarks. It winds through the Ha Ha Tonka Oak Woodland Natural Area, known for its rugged topography and beautiful views.
The state park includes 14 trails ranging in length from one-quarter of a mile to the 6 1/2 miles of the Turkey Pen Hollow Trail.
“Turkey Pen Hollow is a workout, but it is worth it,” Divincen says. “It’s beautiful, especially in the winter when there’s snow on the ground.”
Other Missouri state park adventures
With 52 state parks and 35 historic sites, Missouri is in the adventure business. Here’s a look at five Missouri state parks worth visiting.
Thousands of visitors flock to this state park in the southeastern part of the state to jump into a unique swimming hole. They can wade or swim in the pools created when the rushing water of the East Fork of the Black River were “shut in” by hard volcanic rock. Visitors will find a series of plunge pools beneath small waterfalls.
The park also includes scenic hiking trails through rugged country, including some into remote wilderness areas — perfect for backpackers and back-country campers.
Taum Sauk Mountains
A hiking trail in this state park leads to Missouri’s tallest point — atop Taum Sauk Mountain, some 1,772 feet above sea level. Visitors to this state park in southeast Missouri also can explore Mina Sauk Falls, which drops 132 feet down a series of volcanic rock ledges.
One of Missouri’s oldest state parks, Bennett opened in 1924. It is best known for its trout fishing, supported by daily stockings by the Department of Conservation. But there is much more to this scenic park in south-central Missouri. There are beautiful campgrounds along the water, trails leading to great views and rock formations, historic structures and day-use areas to just relax along one of the most beautiful streams in the state.
This linear state park is centered on the nation’s longest rails-to-trails conversion projects. It stretches from Machens to Clinton, following the old Katy rail line. Built for cyclists and hikers, it brings visitors past beautiful Missouri River bluffs, through small towns and along a diversity of land types.
This state park in eastern Missouri is advertised by the Missouri State Park System as one of the most beautiful in the state. It centers on Pickle Creek, known for its stream bed filled with exposed rocks. Wild areas with wild orchids, beautiful views and a diversity of birds also draw thousands of visitors to the park.