Where do you start when you talk about Ha Ha Tonka State Park? This park presents a real contrast, a man-made wonder like no other in Missouri, and a plethora of geological wonders. This area is probably the best example of karst topography (caves, sinkholes, etc.) in the state.
The idea of building Ha Ha Tonka mansion was conceived in 1903 by Robert M. Snyder on a visit to the Ha Ha Tonka area. He fell in love with the spectacular scenery and by 1905, he had purchased 3,500 acres of the surrounding area and began to hire stone masons from Scotland to work on his dream mansion. Unfortunately, he died in a car accident, and didn’t live to see it completed. After sitting abandoned for many years, his son completed the work on the mansion and rented it as a summer resort hotel. In 1942, wooden shingles on the roof caught fire and the castle burnt, leaving nothing but the impressive ruins. The area was eventually acquired by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and the castle ruins atop the 250 foot cliff overlooking Lake of the Ozarks, is the center-piece for this park.
Located near the castle are the stables and water tower, both built with the same stone work. A short 1/4 mile hike will also take you to the quarry where the stone was removed to build the castle. I love going to Ha Ha Tonka for many reasons but, the castle has to be my favorite. I may never get to go to Europe but, at least I can say that I have been to a castle.
There are many natural wonders to see at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, I will try to highlight my favorites and some others of interest:
- Natural Bridge – This natural bridge has a ceiling height of 13 feet, a width of 70 feet, and a span of 60 feet. It was once used as a road to the castle. The bridge appears to have once been part of a cavern and a trip under the bridge will put you in a very large sink with steep sides. The Osage Indians used this sink for Pow-wows and gatherings.
- Ha Ha Tonka Spring – Formerly known as Gunter Spring, it has an average daily flow of 48,000,000 gallons. The hike to the spring is about 1/2 a mile and is paved most of the way, with the last part being a boardwalk. The spring rises up from underneath a limestone bluff and flows along beside the hiking trail until it empties into the Niangua arm of the Lake of the Ozarks. The spectacular scenery and a view of the castle ruins 250 feet up on the bluff, makes this one of the best hikes in the Ha Ha Tonka Park.
- The Devil’s Promenade and The Devil’s Kitchen – The Devil’s Promenade is a large sink with very steep walls on all sides. The walkway around the sink is quite scenic and easily traversable. The Devil’s Kitchen is a small cave formed by a vertical slot in the limestone wall of the sink.
- Island Cave and Balancing Rock – We have not visited Island Cave but, we did make the hike to see balancing rock. At the base of the bluff, below the castle, is a very steep island that the flow from the spring surrounds. If you are ready for a short strenuous hike, this is the place. If you are really energetic you can carry a two-year-old child to the top (believe me it adds a whole new meaning to the word “hike”). Once reaching the top, I found the view more impressive than the rock.
- Robbers and Counterfeiters Caves – I have not visited these caves but, they are supposed to be located at the bottom of a sinkhole.
- River Cave – Is short walk from the parking area, and it has an impressive view from a landing built at the top of the sinkhole. River Cave is gated, and access has to be obtained from the park staff. There are stairs that lead down to the cave and the cool air at the bottom of the sinkhole is well worth the effort, after a long hot day of hiking the trails.
- Red Sink – This large sinkhole is reported to have been used as a corral for horses at one time.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park can be reached either by the boat dock on the Niangua Arm of The Lake of the Ozarks or go 2 miles southwest of Camdenton to the junction of Highways D and 54, then take Highway D about 2 miles to the park entrance.
The park is a wonderful place to visit any time of year. A trip in the spring or summer will allow you to see the spectacular wildflowers, many of which are found nowhere else in Missouri.
To appreciate the geological formations, I suggest the winter when the foliage is at a minimum. The Ozark trees put on their colorful display in the fall, and this is my favorite time to go hiking.