First Ha Ha Hike of 2020
Updated: Jul 29
Ha Ha Tonka State Park has been a favorite hiking place of ours since we were young twenty-somethings with wanderlust in our hearts. It’s a place to get lost, to feel disconnected from the busy bustle of the world, and has so much deeply-rooted history it’s hard not to get goosebumps just thinking about it.
With a name that means “Smiling Waters,” this place is a serious playground for even the most casual hiker. It’s home to caves, gorges, natural bridges, Missouri’s 12th largest spring, and the ruins of a castle.
Yes. you read that right.
In 1903, a man named Robert M. Snyder fell in love with the land in this area, and began his mission to live here. He purchased the land and began putting together plans for a European-Style castle and several other structures, including a Water Tower and a greenhouse (source: Missouri State Parks). All would be built with large sandstone rocks carved from the land.
Unfortunately, Snyder died in a car accident before he could realize his dream. Instead, his sons finished the job, and leased the castle out to someone who turned it into a hotel. Not long after, the structure burned down due to a chimney fire. Other structures on the land also burned, some during the castle fire, and others later on (source: Missouri State Parks).
It’s hard not to wonder if the Snyders’ consistent bad luck was a result of something…otherwordly. Perhaps the Osage Indians who lived and died at Ha Ha Tonka are still protecting their sacred land. I do love a good ghost story.
Today the ruins haunt the cliffside at Ha Ha Tonka, and I can’t help but feel goosebumps as we walk the trails. The stories embedded in this land are almost deafening. Which is what makes it one of my favorite hiking spots.
So, when my birthday came around, I told Husband and Goo that a hike at Ha Ha would be one of my gifts to myself. And, as luck would have it, the following Sunday was going to be a sunny and gorgeous 64-degree day. Perfection.
What creative supplies did I bring?
“Woodlands” palette by Prima Watercolor Confections
“Currents” palette by Prima Watercolor Confections
“Vintage Pastels” palette by Prima Watercolor Confections
Assorted water brushes, freshly filled
A small book of Khadi paper
My ginormous Instax Wide camera and an extra pack of color film.
Who came along for the hike?
Husband and Goo, of course, and also Howl the ornery husky. He loves Ha Ha and I think he’s even started to recognize when we’re near the area, because he begins to voice his excitement with a bunch of whines and barks and squeals.
Goo is also a huge fan of Ha Ha. She has a blast at the castle ruins, but favors the cave beneath the Natural Bridge. Both hikes are quite visual, as is the Quarry trail, because Ha Ha is not just home to all the awesome mentioned above, but it’s also the best place to see some seriously cool Karst Topography.
The Castle Trail
The name of this trail is a dead giveway to what you’ll see during this particular stretch. You can park at the bottom, or at the top—though there are never any spaces open at the top—and then walk a paved trail past the Carriage House and the Castle. Here you’ll be on the top of the world it seems, and will have the best views from the many lookout points.
One of my favorite views is of the spring below. When things aren’t flooded—and when it hasn’t rained recently—it’s a beautiful greenish blue nestled within the greens and browns of the land, a turquoise eye reflecting on the pupils of the hawks that glide by the many onlookers.
Turn around at the end of this trail to head past the Water Tower, or veer onto the Quarry trail, which is what we did.
The Quarry Trail
The quarry trail is one of my favorite trails because of all the incredible rock formations. Layers upon layers of thin rock, created by water, have made something truly otherworldly.
After trekking up to our favorite place—a quiet little spot within the most interesting rock layers, with a view of the Lake of the Ozarks—we sat down to a snack of jerky, almonds, granola bars, and a can of wet dog food for Howl. It was a nice quiet area, and the glorious breeze that often comes with a 72-degree day, smelled of winter, and earth, and of weathered stone.
A steep climb leads the trail into a glade, with tall wispy grasses that hiss in the wind, followed by a wooded hike with lots of mud for the kids to enjoy. Goo wore her rain boots for exactly this purpose.
Eventually, the Quarry trail merges back with the Castle trail, and it was here that we returned to our car so we could drive to the next hiking area.
The Colosseum Trail
After a brief drive, complete with husband and wife passing the map back and forth and disagreeing over where the trail head is, we finally arrived at our next destination. Colosseum trail is a family favorite. With more of that Karst topography, complete with a natural bridge, and a stunning gorge with amazing views from both sides, this place is unforgettable.
Thick, soft moss grows on every stone. A rock wall on one side and a high hill on the other both work together to keep the area quiet and still. Birds dart from tree to tree between the cliffsides. I’ll say it again. Unforgettable.
At some point, this trail begins to climb. You have to use the big boulders all over to sort of get your footing. It was the biggest workout out of all the trails so far, but the view from the top is oh so very worth it. Not only do you get to see from the top of the gorge, but make your way around the bend and you get a stunning view of the castle from across the valley. The water tower is also in view, but I personally think the best view of the water tower is from the spring trail, which we did not get a chance to trek this time-around.
Below: despite my best attempts, I couldn’t get a decent shot of the castle view with my Instax.
It’s here, at this glorious view-side of the trail, that you’ll get a chance to take the stairs down to the spring. Just remember…what goes down, must come up, and those seventy-five stairs are a beast on the thighs. If you’re a badass who just had his green smoothie, I say go for it. If you’re hiking with an ornery husky and a 7-year-old however, you may want to drive down to the other end of the Spring trail and go that way.
We did neither, as we’d decided to take on the Colosseum trail instead of the spring and we were all getting pretty hangry at this point. Still, I hadn’t gotten to paint yet! So Goo and I set ourselves up on a bench at both heads of the trail (it’s a loop). While Husband and Howl enjoyed the view and had a seat on the wooden walkway, Goo and I got our art on. She used her Zelda Triforce journal and the colored pencils I brought, and I used my Woodlands palette (big surprise) and a small water brush.
I wasn’t thinking much about ghosts until I took the following picture. Husband thinks it’s a sun flare, but I prefer to believe otherwise. It makes life—and our hiking experience—far more interesting. What do you think? Are you a skeptic? Or a believer?
Regardless if you believe in ghosts or not, Ha Ha Tonka State Park is one of the coolest places to visit in Missouri. With over 3700 acres and over 17 miles in trails, it would be pretty tough to hike the whole place in one day. Which is why they have camping options!
Camping at Ha Ha is so on our bucket list.
Despite our many visits over the years, we still haven’t seen every trail. Our next trip will be about seeing some brand-new sites, trekking down a few trails we either know we haven’t hiked, or hiked a long time ago and have since forgotten about it. Personally, I’ve had my eye on the Dolomite trail. It sounds like a great place to see some more Karst topography and maybe even add a few more rocks to our collection.
I leave you now with a video that I made about our hike. It’s a compilation of small clips I took while we were hiking, as well as a few of me talking about the castle itself (at the castle). I hope you will take a look. And maybe…just maybe…it will convince you to go on a road trip to Camdenton, Missouri.
Until then, may your dreams be built and your springs be extra blue.