Ha Ha Tonka

High on a bluff above the Lake of the Ozarks, the tall, white stone skeleton of a fire-ruined, 60-room mansion stands as a lonely reminder of an earlier age. Missouri’s Ha Ha Tonka State Park preserves the remains of this grandiose turn-of-the-20th-century project, along with some of the finest karst topography nature has assembled in a single Midwestern place.

In the heart of the park stands the remains of the Snyder mansion, a castle with a commanding view of the valley below and the rolling Ozarks all around. The mansion was begun in 1905 by Kansas City businessman Robert Snyder, who had purchased 5,400 acres in the Ozarks as a vacation getaway. But a year after beginning construction, Snyder was killed in an automobile accident, and the partially built residence remained untouched for more than 15 years.

In 1922 Snyder’s sons finished the work, and their families used the beautiful place as a vacation retreat. Over time, the families came less and less often, and eventually leased it out as a hotel. In 1942 sparks from a fireplace ignited the roof, and the building, along with the nearby carriage house, was gutted. The stark exterior walls, all that remain, now stand sentinel over the lake.

Ha Ha Tonka possesses another legacy of the past—caves, natural bridges, sinkholes, an Ha Ha Tonka spring, all formed over thousands of years. The park’s formations are the collapsed remains of a once extensive cave system. Whispering Dell sinkhole, for example, is 150 feet deep, one of a series of caverns whose roof collapsed. Its cool microclimate supports relict plant communities usually found at colder lati-tudes.The park also preserves more than 1,000 acres of savannah woodlands.

What to See and Do

There aren’t very many castle ruins in America, and when you have the chance to admire the remains of one as grand as Ha Ha Tonka, it’s best to put it at the top of your visiting list. The skeletal remains of the mansion are a very short walk along a trail from the main parking lot, and there are two overlooks from which to see the striking views of the Naingua Arm of the lake below and the Ozark hills beyond.

Next, visit the large natural bridge soaring more than 70 feet above the cavern floor. Just down from the mansion ruins, the bridge was the original road access to the mansion. If you have time, hike from the parking lot along the Dell Rim Trail to the Spring Trail, leading down to a huge spring. A portion of the trail drops 200 feet, down 300 steps. At the base of the canyon, the spring issues 48 million gallons of water a day. The walk is strenuous. You can also reach the spring by driving to a parking area beside the lake and hiking in about a hall mile.

Finally, River Cave, near park headquarters, is home to a growing population of gray bats, Indiana bats, and the blind grotto salamander. To protect the habitat, the cave may be explored by guided tour only.