October, the pinnacle of autumn, is probably the best month of the year to go outside and poke around in nature: The weather is great, the landscape breathtaking. A close runner-up for the award might be April, but for hiking October edges ahead because of the drier weather and superior trail conditions.
On September 26, our excursion was to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, arguably the crown jewel of the state park system. It “has it all,” and in an oversized way: Interesting human history ranging from aboriginal up to modern times; natural communities and a host of remarkable organisms; broad, wondrous views; hidden alcoves; and a range of options for accessibility and strenuousness.
Underlying its skin of soil and vegetation, this land offers a living encyclopedia of geologic wonders, a textbook of karst topography. A few miles of hiking can show you at least one example of just about every single type of karst feature: Caves (nineteen have been found so far within its borders), sinkholes, dramatic 250-foot bluffs, a chasm, a tremendous natural bridge, a pirated stream, fins and pinnacles, a balanced rock, and the state’s twelfth largest spring (48 million gallons a day), flowing into a gorgeous turquoise pool.
Formerly, there was a pleasant forty-acre fishing lake downstream of the spring, with rental cabins, boating, and bathing, but in 1931 the newly impounded Lake of the Ozarks swallowed it up.
The entire landscape is shaped by the partial collapse of an enormous cave system; all—including the original cave itself—sculpted over eons by the slow, steady rotting or dissolution of sedimentary, carbonate rock by mildly acidic groundwater seeping through its fissures. This is karst.
By now, you’ve probably guessed—correctly—that this is a large tract of land. The state park includes 3,709 acres; 953 acres of it has been designated as Ha Ha Tonka Oak Woodland Natural Area, which showcases and preserves a remarkable blend of prairie and forest—an open woodland—with gnarled oaks scattered over wild grasses and prairie forbs such as coneflowers, asters, sunflowers, milkweeds, and blazing star. (Formerly called a “savanna” landscape, apparently now it’s called “woodland”—I suppose to distinguish it from the savannas of Africa. I hope someone will let me know if I’m wrong on this point.)
Another natural community type is maintained at Ha Ha Tonka: dolomite glade. Glades in Missouri are like a little touch of the desert Southwest. Sunbaked, rocky outcrops on the tops of bluffs and ridges, thin soils, with few trees—inhabited by prickly pears, lizards, tarantulas, and other xeric specialists.
Ha Ha Tonka’s human history is rich, beginning with the Native peoples who settled here, hunted, and used the then free-flowing Osage River and its tributaries as transportation routes.
White Americans came to the area and were understandably impressed; these included Nathan Boone and his dad, Daniel, Meriwether Lewis (apparently), and James B. Wilkinson of the Pike Expedition, as well as less famous, even notorious individuals—outlaws and counterfeiters—who utilized the area’s many hidey-holes for their covert operations.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, there was tremendous interest in this part of the Ozarks as a vacation retreat. At that time, the go-getters in the cities were discovering they needed solitude, quiet land, and clean air. At least on the weekends. To stay sane.
At about the same time, state parks were being established throughout the nation. In Missouri, Ha Ha Tonka was at the top of just about everyone’s list. Governor Hadley recommended it to the legislature in 1909 as the first Missouri state park; the bill passed in the Senate, but it failed by a single vote in the House. But it remained at the top of the state’s “beauty spots.”
Meanwhile, a developer showed up. A wealthy businessman in Kansas City, Robert M. Snyder, discovered the land and in 1903 bought up more than five thousand acres. The following year, construction began on this clubman’s massive private retreat: A three-story, twenty-eight-room mansion built of stone in the style of an English-Renaissance castle, perched high on a bluff overlooking Ha Ha Tonka Spring. To support his retreat, Snyder also built an eight-hundred-foot water tower made of stone, and a carriage house, greenhouses, stables, and homes for his various servants. Plus roadways for all this, of course.
To build the castle, twenty stonemasons were “imported” from Scotland. The rock was quarried on the property; today, one of the trails provides views of some of the quarries.
Only about three years into his project—and no doubt relishing his prospects for hiking, fishing, hunting, and hobhobbing with his political, banker, and gas company cronies (and his sons, too), in the upper-class hunting-lodge fashion—Snyder was killed in an automobile accident in 1906. (In 1906, there were hardly any cars then. It was one of the state’s first automobile accidents.)
Construction was halted. But by 1922, the mansion had been completed through the efforts of Snyder’s sons. The Snyder family apparently didn’t spend a lot of time at Ha Ha Tonka, however, and by the forties or so, it had become a resort hotel. In 1942, the stone mansion burned.
It wasn’t supposed to burn, but it did. And after that, the ruins just stood there.
Over the years, the Snyders had made a number of attempts to sell the property to the state, but the price was always too high for the legislators. The land was purchased by others, who then tried to resell it, and vandalism took a toll on the structures. Eventually, though, the state was finally able to acquire the land in 1978. Thus it was seventy years before what “should” have been Missouri’s first state park to actually become one.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which administrates the land, has worked hard and successfully to restore and maintain the delicate natural communities at Ha Ha Tonka, as well as curate the stark stone remnants of the mansion. Those intriguing walls, arches, and gables would certainly have tumbled down by now if not for the cleverly camouflaged reinforcing of the stones, and blending of new mortar with old.
The ruins are nifty-cool. Make sure you bring a camera.
The most popular trails have been converted in large part to wooden “boardwalks,” improving accessibility while also keeping the herds of visitors from trampling the vegetation.
Probably the most popular hike is the one that leads from the “castle” past the water tower, then around “Whispering Dell” (an enormous sinkhole), then down three hundred steps to get to the spring. (The sign says 316, but sixteen steps go upward as the boardwalk negotiates a stone outcropping. Yes, I counted.)
Though the spring is gushing at a staggering rate, the overall look is tranquil. You just can’t beat the color of springwater.
From there, the boardwalk follows the flow of the water toward its connection with the Niangua Branch of the Lake of the Ozarks. Accessibility note: There is one place where the boardwalk ends and the visitor must walk through a cleft in a huge boulder; for about two feet, the path narrows to a chute less than a foot wide. But it’s level. You just have to go single-file and watch where you step.
This trail connects with the short loop trail that traces the island (yes, there’s an island), and that’s where you can see the balanced rock.
I could go on and on about Ha Ha Tonka, but I’d better lay off, so we all can get back to the work of the day. So we can finish earlier. So we can have more time for hiking.
It’s October, you know.
Buy This Book
If you liked the kind of information in this post, I encourage you to purchase a copy of this book, which tells the story of each of Missouri’s State Parks and Historic Sites. The text is superb, and the photography magnificent. It looks like a coffee-table book, but it reads like the best history professor you ever had. Great for planning your next outing!
Exploring Missouri’s Legacy: State Parks and Historic Sites, ed. Susan Flader. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.
And . . . there’s more to the story: In my next post, I examine the etymology of the name Ha Ha Tonka. Click here.