As anyone who has followed my blog knows, I spent much of the last year visiting and writing about the national parks that are found in my home state of Missouri. It was fun and rewarding, and we even found one, George Washington Carver National Monument, to which we had never been, and discovered that it was actually our favorite.

The state of Missouri is currently celebrating 100 years of Missouri State Parks. There are eighty-eight state parks and historic sites in all in Missouri, and so, of course, my husband and I are in the process of visiting each and every one of them. We are very fortunate in Missouri to have free admission to all our state parks, and I hope that remains so forever.

The state has issued a Centennial Passport in honor of this milestone anniversary, and we are busy getting each page of our passport stamped. I was lucky enough to be at the opening of our newest park, Echo Bluff, where I was able to have my passport signed by the governor of the state, making it an extra-special keepsake. I am easily excited, and smiles come fairly easily, too! Over this year, as I collect my passport stamps, I hope to share some of what our magnificent Missouri parks have to offer…and in that endeavor we begin with one of our favorites…

Ha Ha Tonka State Park…”Smiling Water”

Ha Ha Tonka State Park sits at the side of the Lake of the Ozarks in south central Missouri. It is located in Missouri’s karst region, and is known as the best place within the “Cave State” to learn about karst. A karst region is simply an area where the landscape is built on a foundation of soluble rock such as limestone and dolomite. As these rocks dissolve over many years, sinkholes, caves, underground streams, and springs develop. It is possible to find all the elements of a karst landscape within the boundaries of Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

Ha Ha Tonka is a fascinating place in a fascinating area. On fourteen trails, covering a little more that eighteen miles, it is easy to see and experience a lot of what it has to offer. So, let’s take a little tour…I say little, because I have not been to all the views, nor all the experiences on all the trails, but what I have done, and what I have seen was well worth the journey, and the effort.

My favorite trail is the Spring Trail. It is 1.5 miles long, and takes you along a scenic view of the lake before climbing 316 wooden stairs up to a bluff top from which there are fantastic views of the park and the castle ruins…ruins we will talk about in a bit.

As you begin your hike, you will walk along the lake edge on one side, and a towering bluff on the other. It is an easy, flat, and surfaced trail for the first bit, until you get closer to the spring.

The Niangua branch of the Lake of the Ozarks

As you leave the lake, you will continue along a mill race which served a community mill, a reminder that a community existed in this place, and people lived here before the area was flooded to create the Lake of the Ozarks. It is very peaceful and still through here, and believe me, you can leave a lot of the things that have been bothering you for quite some time back at you car, and never think about them for a while. I love it!

Along this path is another trail that leads out across the trace to a small island. It is a circular trail, and will bring you back to the Spring Trail.

You can climb to a large balanced rock on the island.

My favorite activity on the island is studying the rock formations, how they have dissolved, and how ferns and mosses, lichens and other plants defy the elements and grow profusely.

Just before you come to the spring, your path becomes a boardwalk. Along this portion of the trail you will see new plants, depending on the time of the year. When we visited this spring, there were so many colonies of columbine in full bloom…


There are “Skinny Rocks” on the trail as you finally reach the spring.

And now you have a decision to make, because if front of you are 316 wooden stairs that lead to the top of the bluff along which you have been walking. They seem daunting, but they are not nearly as hard a you might think. There are plenty of places to stop to take a breath as you climb…and believe me, I have used most of them. It is worth the climb, because the upper trail is beautiful…

You can join another trail and hike on to the Natural Bridge. The bridge was formed when the ceiling of a cave became so thin in two places, that it caved in, making two sinkholes, with a stronger section remaining between them.

This part of the cave remained in tact when sinkholes formed on either side, creating a natural bridge.

And if you go to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, you must go to see the castle ruins.

In 1903, Robert Snyder, a wealthy businessman form Kansas City, purchased 5,000 acres in the area, including the spring. His goal was to build a luxury lodge to be used as a private retreat. Before it was finished, Snyder was killed in an automobile accident.

Later on, Snyder’s sons completed the castle, and for a while used it as a summer residence. At some point they turned it into a summer hotel, and then tragedy struck again in 1942. The wooden roof shingles caught fire and the entire castle was gutted, and has remained so ever since. Here are pictures of the ruins as they appear today…

But my favorite picture of the castle is one I took last year. I played around with it a bit, turned it into a black and white photo…and it made the greatest under layer for a Halloween card ever!

Ha Ha Tonka State Park is a beautiful treasure in mid-Missouri. I hope you will have an opportunity to experience its wonders someday, just as we have.

A Mid-Missouri Side Dish

Sauteed Kale with Caramelized Onions

  • Servings: 3-4
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I adapted this recipe from “The Cast Iron Cookbook” by Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne. Swiss Chard is the green in the original recipe, but I often make it with kale.


  • 3 Tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 yellow onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 bunch kale, cut into 2 inch strips
  • 2 Tbsp. orange juice
  • 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup white beans


  1. Melt 1 Tbsp. of the butter in a 10 inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and continue cooking until caramelized, about 5 to 10 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate.
  2. Add 1 Tbsp. butter to the skillet along with the kale. Stir in the orange juice, and the apple cider vinegar. Cook until the liquids starts to evaporate, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add the caramelized onions to the kale, and keep warm.
  4.  In a small skillet, saute the white beans for 3 minutes, until slightly browned.
  5. Add the beans to the kale and onion mixture and stir them all together.
  6. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately. Enjoy!