Family Adventure at One of the Top Four State Parks in the Nation
Exploring Ha Ha Tonka State Park and Castle in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
By: Hilary Stunda
To me, bringing my kids on hikes is an obligation. It’s one that I inherited from my parents who spent practically every weekend on a trail. It wasn’t always easy (for them or for me): there were heavy baby backpacks, the application/battle of sunblock, the numerous diaper-changing stops, the boxes of animal crackers to quell any sniveling. But I knew that one day my kids would thank me—just as I had thanked my parents.
But today, it’s time to explore Ha Ha Tonka State Park with Sam, 12, and August, 10. The park has 3,600 acres, 16 miles of spectacular scenery and plenty of scope for exploration—from paved walkways to caves to more rugged, challenging hiking trails.
We were hiking to Ha Ha Tonka’s most famous attraction, the remains of a turn-of-the-century mansion built by visionary businessman Robert Snyder.
One of my favorite things about hiking with Sam and August is getting to listen in on their conversations. They were chatting about school (both what was going on inside the classroom and out of it) when Sam caught his first glimpse of the castle.
“Wow! That’s… epic!” he exclaimed.
Up, up, until we finally reached the castle ruins—on top of a cliff overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks. Sam was right. Epic in design, the mansion had 28 rooms, a center atrium that rose 3 ½ stories into a skylight, nine greenhouses, a carriage house and an 80-foot private water tower.
“Twenty-eight rooms?!” August said, shocked. “I’d have one filled with trampolines.”
Unfortunately, Snyder never got the chance to see his dream realized. He died in a 1906 car accident before construction was completed. His sons finished the castle in the 1920s, but it burned to the ground in 1942. All that remains is the stone facade and the water tower. Luckily for visitors, the State of Missouri purchased the estate in 1978 and opened it to the public as a state park—very appropriate to hike during the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
Maybe it was the combination of aesthetics, adventure, mythic lore and history, but everywhere we looked unveiled something unique and memorable. We couldn’t wait to see more.
Snyder’s glorious vision
My boys and I stood before the partial glory of the ruins, walking along a wall that rimmed a cliff with an expansive view of the Lake of the Ozarks below. From up here, the water looked like a sparkling sapphire.
Lake of the Ozarks runs 92 miles end to end with more than 1,150 miles of unobstructed tributaries. There is more shoreline than the Pacific Coast of California to explore. USA TODAY recently chose Ha Ha Tonka State Park in the top four state parks in the nation—can’t argue with that.
What Snyder envisioned was what my boys soon discovered: a world of adventure. Miles of trails, a subterranean world of sinks, caves, underground streams and a natural bridge made the castle one of many highlights of the park.
Hiking amid natural wonders
Sam, August and I continued on the Colosseum trail until we reached a massive stone arch spanning 60 feet and reaching 100 feet high. The natural bridge was Mr. Snyder’s route to the castle. Our path continued beneath the arch—through a pocket that looked like it had been dug by a rather large dog (well, that’s what Sam imagined anyway).
Our destination: a large, theater-like 150 foot deep sinkhole known as the “Colosseum.” When we arrived, it was surrounded by wildflowers.
Then, we hopped on the Spring Trail, walking 200 vertical feet down a trail of 316 wooden stairs to a spring bubbling below. As stunning as the castle ruins were, the park’s natural wonders trumped all.
We stood gazing upon the aqua water, one of Missouri's largest springs and the source for an average of 48 million gallons of water a day into the Niangua Arm of the lake.
We took a quick picnic lunch on the shore, savoring our bread and cheese. For the first time, our group was quiet. “You know, your grandma and grandpa took me here when I was around your age,” I said, interrupting the silence.
“Really?” Sam said. “Maybe I’ll come back here with my kids one day.”
“Gross, Sam.” August said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
I leaned back against a rock and smiled. It wasn’t a thank you, yet—but it was more than enough.
Learn more about state parks in Lake of the Ozarks.