A visit to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, Camdenton, Missouri
27 March 2004

Part of the Ha Ha Tonka trail map.

Ha Ha Tonka. Yeah, that's really it's name. It's an interesting place to visit, from both a sociological and natural point of view.

Ha Ha Tonka is the shell of a castle. I'm not kidding. The shell of a castle. On a friggin' hill in the Missouri Ozarks. A really steep hill. It's a monument to self-indulgence. Think about it: a rich guy from Kansas City bought 5000 acres, and decided to build a castle. Oh, sure, it's defensible. Mostly because no Ozarker in their right mind would try to lay siege to some nut's castle.... He also had to build a water tower on a neighboring hill, to provide some kind of water pressure. Despite what some tourist attractions claim, water doesn't really run uphill, you see.

Anyway, the rich guy from Kansas City started building his castle. Then, fate being the ironic babe that she is, he died the following year. His son eventually finished pouring cash into the money pit and completed the castle. Then he leased it as a hotel. A honking huge fire gutted the castle in 1942. It's been a photo op ever since. The Missouri Parks system turned the area into a state park in 1978.

I've been to Ha Ha Tonka many times. It's never ceased to amaze me.

A view of the castle from the carriage house.

My niece Amber, who's 19 now, wanted to go to Ha Ha Tonka, since we haven't been for a few years. So, road trip. We parked in the area marked with a pink star, on the map above, then took the trail to the carriage house. Here's a view of the castle from the carriage house area. Were actually on the rim of a huge sinkhole. That's part of what makes Ha Ha Tonka State Park so fascinating -- there are several sinkholes, and you pass through a number of habitats on your way from the top of the bluffs to the bottom, where the springs are. If you look over the edge, up at the overlook between the carriage house and the castle, you'll see this excellent cedar tree.

The excellent cedar tree.

I have pictures of this cedar tree in my photo albums, pictures taken by me, or by my nieces when they were tiny. We've been coming here a long time. It hasn't changed much. I suppose one of these times, it won't be there. That's life. The pale greenish water is the spring in Whispering Dell. A lovely name for a big-ass sinkhole, isn't it?

Okay, just a little farther now. And there's the castle. Had to wait for a professional photographer to decide to quit hogging the best side -- the castle's really popular with professionals. It makes great competition material, and it's hard to beat a portfolio that contains a castle.

A closeup view of the castle.

Another thing I enjoy about the castle: you get to see bare-nekkid structural detail. There are no beams, no decorations, nothing but the stone. If you're into architecture at all, that's really cool. I always take way too many photos of the castle. I'll throw one more in here, and put the rest in a gallery one of these days.

Bare-nekkid structure:  interior wall and fireplace.

And as you can see from the next photo, the view from the top is spectacular. I didn't bother taking any pix facing the Lake of the Ozarks, which is where the water from the spring ends up. I figure the Lake of the Ozarks has been photographed/is being photographed/will eternally be photographed enough....

Of course, you do realize that now, we have to get from the rim of the mondo sinkhole, to the bottom of said mondo sinkhole...? Ah, yes.

Amber and I went back along the trail to the carriage house, past that to the water tower, and on along the boardwalk that leads down to the spring. Way down to the spring. As a matter of fact, you manage a 200-foot descent in just 316 steps. More switchbacks than the average human body wants to deal with, and some really big overhanging rocks make the trip down pretty interesting. Being who I am, of course, I found several wildflowers along the way -- good photos, and a great opportunity to take a quick breather. I'm hopelessly out of shape.

Trillium, a not-so-common wildflower.

Here's a clump of trillium, growing out of a crevice in the rock. I've got a few pictures of individual plants I saw, before I saw this colony. But this is just really neat, don't you think? Around here, it goes by the name "Wake Robin," I think because it's one of the earliest spring flowers, and the robin is considered the first sign of spring. They're fairly small plants.

Okay, we made it to the bottom. Here's a view of the spring.

The spring in the bottom of Whispering Dell.

The air was ridiculously humid for late March. It was over 70 degrees when we got to the park, it had rained the day before, and was supposed to start raining again later that day. There was barely a breeze down in that sinkhole.

Then, I decided to look back at the hill we'd just come down....

The hill stairs. Eeeep.
Sorry. Gotta say it again.

Dutchmen's Breeches.

Welcome to the real trail....

Okay, now that I'm past that.... We ambled along the boardwalk a little. I saw this beautiful clump of Dutchmen's Breeches. Usually it's tough to get good photos of woodland wildflowers, because they're small, they live in a lot of dried leaves, and I don't like to lug the big camera around. This clump, thank you Mother Nature, was right beside the path, on a mossy rock.

At this point, the "civilized" trail ends. No more boardwalk.

And if you look up, you'll see that the castle is flipping you off. It's just one of the many fun things about this park.... I've got more pictures in the camera, so from here on, there aren't any images to go with the narrative. I'm sure you'll survive a few more days, won't you? Just until I get the rest of the film used?

The castle flips you off.

Okay. Referring to the map above, we're on the trail between the spring and the shelter, which is the point of pink farthest to the left on the trail system. We took the White trail, which was fairly steep, unpaved, unchipped, covered with sopping leaves and garnished with uneven rocks. But it did get us to the top of the next ridge. We followed the ridge trail til we realized we'd missed the "official" road crossing, at which point we took the road marked D-144 to pick up the Brown trail.

Thus we reached the Devil's Promenade.

Oh, yes. The Devil's Promenade.

This part of our day required that I -- yes, I! -- hang onto an iron ring sunk into an overhanging rock, ignore the 20-foot drop beneath my too-wide-spread little fat legs, and step from one slippery rock to another, then do the same on the other end of the "stepstone" without the iron ring.

Then, like five minutes later, I had to figure out how to get up over a really lumpy rock, with *no* way around it. The "trail" was a 2" gap between the rock and the cliff face. I ended up putting my right foot into the gap, swinging my byzantine ass up onto the rock, scooting farther up the rock until I could swing my fat little legs over the top, then slid down the far side.

But the fun wasn't over yet! Then we hit the end of the Devil's Kitchen Trail. Which was under about a foot of water. Our options: go back the way we came (simply not possible for me!), take off our shoes and socks, roll up the pant legs, and wade through, or .... We ended up sort of going around the loop of the trail that was under water, by crawling under a ledge, over slippery, wiggly rocks into a sort of cave, then over a few more moss-covered rocks to get to the far side of the trail.

You know what?

It was totally cool.

Even the seemingly-neverending, almost entirely uphill hike from the flooded part of the trail up into a dry, sunny, glade-world. Even the seemingly-neverending, just-leave-me-here-to-die-Amber-I'll-never-make-it, very uphill hike through the dry, sunny glade-world to the Natural Bridge area parking lot, where I cratered at last, leaving Amber to go on up the rest of the hill and fetch the car.

Part of me can't believe I tried this. I knew how challenging the trail was.

And part of me is still grinning, because I didn't just try it, I did it.

Check back for updates, as I get my other photos back. I'm also going to try to snitch some of Amber's. You want to see her swinging on a huge grapevine, don't you?

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