A Family Tradition in Lake of the Ozarks
By Michael Cochran
As a child, I enjoyed many a fine summer’s day at Lake of the Ozarks. But my family had another lake tradition I came to appreciate even more, one that started when a relative gave my parents a Pentax 35mm camera. Delighted with their new toy, my family acquired a couple of how-to books and set about seeing what could be done with it. My family’s blossoming interest in photography took us back to the lake the following fall—and many autumns thereafter—as we visited one campground, trail and scenic vista after another in search of the next perfect shot. And now, every year around mid-September, a feeling comes over me—an internal yearning that heralds the change of seasons. Like the geese homing south, I know where I’ll be going before October’s end.
The 17,000 acres that comprise Lake of the Ozarks State Park offer a multitude of hiking, biking and horseback trails. With mom and dad leading the charge, my brother and I grew up exploring them over the span of at least a dozen autumns. As we all grew older, these outings became less about photography and more about just being together in the sanctuary of nature. I can’t tell you how many cannonballs I made into the Lake of the Ozarks, today the Best Recreational Lake in the country. Crisp evenings stargazing around the campfire before crawling into our camping tents and cozy sleeping bags, pancakes cooked on an old Coleman stove for breakfast, exploring the hills and inlets along the lake’s seemingly endless shoreline by day—these are the memories that continue to nourish and sustain me as an adult, and I love looking back on the photos we snapped from those times.
Ha Ha Tonka
Of all the memorable places we discovered, our perennial favorite was Ha Ha Tonka, located on the lake’s Niangua arm. Now a state park, this geologically unique wonderland centers on the exotic ruins of an early 1900s castle and estate. In 2015, it was voted the fourth-best state park in the country by USA TODAY and 10Best. Conceived and funded by wealthy Kansas City businessman Robert M. Snyder, the enormous mansion was built by Scottish stonemasons from a design patterned after European castles. Due to Snyder’s untimely death in 1906, it was never completed, and what had been accomplished was destroyed by fire in 1942. Visiting the resulting ruins, floorless stone walls that tower above the Ozark landscape, never fails to provoke a sense of wonder. Mom insisted on snapping photos of us next to the walls every year.
While the dramatic castle is a focal point, Ha Ha Tonka also features remnants of a prehistoric cave system, including a number of geologic anomalies. One rare formation, the standing roof of a collapsed cavern, is called Natural Bridge. With an opening that measures 70 feet wide by 60 feet long and an arch rising to a height of nearly 100 feet, it’s one of the park’s most popular sites. A trail network, each emphasizing different aspects of the park’s flora and topography, leads to sinkholes, caves, underground streams, a natural amphitheater and Ha Ha Tonka Spring, one of Missouri’s largest springs. There’s more than one way to get there. You can park your car and hike up to the castle or park at the castle area and walk down to the spring. Another option is to arrive by boat at a courtesy dock where the Lake Trail connects with the rest of the park’s trail complex.
All of the trails offer a rich variety of views, but my personal favorite for taking in the glory of fall is Castle Trail, where I snapped many a pic long before Instagram was popular. Paved and handicap-accessible, it’s where we always went after Mom and Dad became less mobile. Benches placed along the way offer comfortable opportunities to contemplate the lake below and hills beyond. From its ridgetop vantage point, the ancient Ozark Mountains roll to the horizon in a cascade of flaming reds, bright russets and brilliant golds, reflecting the variety of trees that have flourished here for centuries. During the continuum of literally picture-perfect days that are part of every Ozarks fall, the autumn sun’s lower angle illuminates the air with an indescribable quality that inspires you to breathe deep and savor every fleeting moment.
My folks are gone now and one of my most cherished possessions is the album Mom kept of their photographs. Only the very best images made it into the book. That was the rule and I honor it still. There were unfilled pages in the back and now I’m slowly filling them with pictures of my own family’s adventures, many of them in the same places where my parents took my brother and me. Every fall when we return, memories come calling like old friends. My young ones love to hear the stories about what we did when I was their age and their happy voices resounding along the trail confirm that they will have their own stories to tell when the family album is again passed on. The haunting autumn splendor at Lake of the Ozarks provides a kind of nourishment for the soul, a blessed respite from the rush of today’s complicated world. It’s so beautiful it hurts. But come fall, there’s no better place to be. Give it a try, and don’t forget your camera.
Discover more great trails in the Lake of the Ozarks to make your own perfect fall getaway.