June 30, 2005
State Parks Offer Trails, Woods, Caves and a Castle
at Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks
LAKE OF THE OZARKS, MO. – With its breathtaking scenery and so much to see and do for visitors of all ages, Central Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks is a fantastic vacation destination. High on visitors' must-see list are the area's two state parks, Ha Ha Tonka in Camdenton and Lake of the Ozarks in Osage
Beach. Both offer natural beauty, hiking trails, boat docks, picnic areas and unique features including castle ruins at Ha Ha Tonka and a fascinating cave at Lake of the Ozarks.
"More than five million people visit the Lake of the Ozarks every year because of our great lake, golf, fishing, special events, lodging, dining and attractions," says Jim Divincen, executive director of the Tri-County Lodging Association. "An impressive percentage of these visitors spend a few hours, a day or more at one or both of our fascinating state parks."
# Ha Ha Tonka State Park
High atop a 250-foot bluff at Ha Ha Tonka State Park are the ruins of an early 20th-century stone castle built by Robert McClure Snyder, a prominent Kansas City businessman. He visited the Ha Ha Tonka area and was so impressed
with its rugged grandeur that he began purchasing much of the surrounding land and eventually acquired more than 5,000 acres.
Snyder imported stonemasons from Scotland and a supervisor from Europe to make sure his private retreat would rival the castles of Europe. Construction began on the three-and-a-half story mansion, designed by Kansas City architect
Adrian Van Brunt, in 1905. It featured a central hallway that rose the entire height of the building. A stone stable, 80-foot-tall water tower and nine greenhouses also were built on the estate. Stone and timber were hauled by mule team from the immediate vicinity.
Tragically, Snyder's dream remained just that. In 1906, he died in an automobile accident in Kansas City (he was one of the first automobile owners in the city). The interior of the castle remained unfinished until 1922 when Snyder's sons completed the upper floors. However, the Snyders struggled to maintain the mansion and keep the property in the family. Finally, they leased it to a hotel operator.
In 1942, sparks from one of the castle's fireplaces ignited the roof. Within hours the building was destroyed. Only the stark ruins remained, mysterious and brooding atop the bluff. The State of Missouri purchased the estate in 1978 and opened it to the public as a state park.
"Most people come here to see ruins of the old castle," says Park Superintendent Nancy Masterson "That draws them here and then we try to provide some education on other interesting things at Ha Ha Tonka," such as its fascinating
natural attractions. The park is Missouri's premier showcase of karst topography - a honeycomb of tunnels, caverns, springs and sinkholes caused by erosion and the collapse of ancient underground caves. Highlights include a 500-foot long by 300-foot wide sinkhole called the Coliseum, and a 70-foot wide natural bridge that spans 60 feet and stands more than 100 feet high. Bluffs more than 250 feet high rise above the gorge through which Ha Ha Tonka Spring
discharges more than 50 million gallons of water a day into the Niangua Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks. The park also has eight caves.
One of Missouri's best examples of a savanna, an area where prairie grasses and wildflowers flourish in open forests of oak and hickory, also can be found at Ha Ha Tonka. The savanna can be explored over a short self-guided nature trail or a seven-mile backpack trail. "The savanna gives us a picture of the original, pre-settlement Missouri landscape," Masterson says. "We own a lot of savanna acreage that's now under management and we're reclaiming that acreage to bring back that native land." In addition, the park has several large glades that contain plants and animals more typically associated with the deserts of the Southwest.
Twelve hiking trails -- including boardwalks, paved walkways and rugged, rocky paths -- offer 16 miles of opportunities to explore the park. The newest trail, the Dolomite Rock Trail, is a half-mile interpretive trail along a stream. A brochure about this trail, available at the visitor center, "describes how what we do above ground affects our underground water resources," Masterson says. "Everything is interrelated." The visitor center is the third most visited center in the Missouri state park system. About a half-million people visit the park annually, Masterson says, making it the 13th most popular.
Ha Ha Tonka also has several picnic areas, fishing, boat docks and interpretive programs throughout the summer.
# Lake of the Ozarks State Park
Missouri's largest state park, dedicated in 1946, covers 17,441 acres and has more than 80 miles of lake frontage. Its log buildings, rustic bridges and stone ditch dams built by the Civilian Conservation Corps have earned Lake of the Ozarks State Park a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. About 1,044,000 people visited in 2004.
But the park also features other historic attractions -- some that are thousands of years old, like Ozark Caverns, a short, spacious cave on the park's south side that opened to the public in 1952. The cave offers two features that are unique to mid-Missouri. "Ozark Caverns is one of the few caves that do a hand-held lantern tour," says Floyd Lee, the park's natural resource manager. "Electricity has not been installed, so you get a better speleology experience." Being light-less also is better for the cave, he adds.
In addition, Ozark Caverns has a deep showerhead bathtub deposit known as "Angels' Showers," an endless flow of water -- up to 7,000 gallons a day -- that seems to fall from the solid rock ceiling into two massive bowl-shaped
stone basins on the cave floor. The water flow also creates flat-bottomed stalactites. Ozark Caverns' showerhead formation is one of only 14 known worldwide.
The basic 45-minute, lantern-lit tour, available for a nominal fee, takes visitors past mysterious claw marks left in sediment fills by animals that found shelter here thousands of years ago. Also available are a shorter children's tour and a longer, highly technical tour. It's also possible to see four species of salamanders (including the blind grotto salamander), four species of bats and 16 species of invertebrates that have adapted to the cave's dark environment. The cave is open from mid-April through mid-October, then closes while the Eastern Pipstrelle bat hibernates. The Ozark Caverns Visitor Center, opened in 1987, offers interpretive exhibits and information about caves and caving.
Twelve trails, from one-half mile to 16 miles long, lead visitors through dense forests, across open glades and along towering bluffs overlooking the Lake. In addition to hiking and backpacking trails, the park has two equestrian trails, and one of those is open to bicyclists.
"Each trail has its own unique feature," Lee says. "With more than 47 miles of trails within the park, you can experience a wide variety of terrain and scenery," including the Coakley Hollow Fen Natural Area, a scenic and naturally diverse area; Patterson Hollow Wild Area, 1,200 undeveloped areas; and Bluestem Knoll, an ecological stewardship management area that features an open woodland and prairie ground cover.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park also offers a unique self-guided aquatic trail designed for boaters interested in learning about features along the shoreline. The trail takes about an hour to tour. It's marked by buoys keyed to information in a free booklet available at the park office. "At certain points you can still see evidence of when the Lake first was developed, such as log flumes where they'd skid the logs down off the bank into the water," Lee says. "You can see different aspects from the water. Things look different there than they do on land."
The park also offers two public swimming beaches with bathhouses, shady picnic areas and playgrounds nearby. Public marinas with fish and ski boat rentals and supplies are located at the public beach areas. Anglers are welcome to fish from a dock with crappie beds. Three paved boat ramps, open year-round, are available to the public for nominal launch fees. Trail rides are offered through the park stables for a nominal fee. And in the summer, park naturalists lead guided nature hikes and lead evening nature programs.
"In the summer Lake of the Ozarks State Park is busy just like the whole Lake area," Lee says. "But people who experience the park during the spring and fall months tend to come back at the same time every year. It's a great
time to lose that hustle and bustle and discover the relaxation that everybody needs from time to time."
For more information about Ha Ha Tonka State Park and Lake of the Ozarks State Park, as well as facts about Lake area lodging, dining, attractions, shopping and more, contact the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau at
800-FUN LAKE or visit www.funlake.com.