Missouri Day Trip: Ridgedale to Kansas City
Ha Ha Tonka State Park Roadtrippers Map
Lake of the Ozarks
Closest Town: Camdenton, Missouri
About 158 miles from Kansas City and 178 miles from St. Louis
As with all Missouri State Parks, it is dog-friendly
I’ve wanted to visit this Missouri State Park for several years — it’s an Instagram favorite. It’s best known for its castle ruins, and its beautiful location at the top of a hill overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks. It’s easily explored via trails, boardwalks, and staircases. And many stairs. Lots of stairs. Still … that’s better than blazing your own trail.
My starting point for this trip was my fave resort in Missouri: Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, about 30 miles south of Branson. Ha Ha Tonka is an easy stop about half-way to Kansas City, right on the Lake of the Ozarks. It’s a pretty drive, straight up Hwy 65 to Hwy 54, about two hours. And, best of all, some beautiful backroads…
I was traveling home so I didn’t get to explore the whole park, but can’t wait to get back and spend more time. I think you really need to spend a night in the area and then a full day at the park to see everything. After a stop at the Visitors Center, I headed straight for the castle ruins first. There’s a very small parking area (about 8 spots) at the top of the hill right next to the castle, and a larger parking lot down the hill. Since I’m not a fan of walking uphill, I circled the parking lot a couple of times with no luck, then headed over to the Natural Bridge.
From their brochure: It’s easy to see why Ha Ha Tonka State Park is a karst showcase with a natural bridge that is 70 feet wide, spans 60 feet, and reaches more than 100 feet in the air. Karst topography is the result of the dissolving action of water on the bedrock and is characterized by caves, sinkholes, springs, and natural bridges.
About the third time I went to the parking lot at the top of the hill, I hit the jackpot – a car vacating their space! This is a technique I perfected in Los Angeles shopping mall parking lots — circle until you get lucky. From the golden parking lot, it’s a short walk up the boardwalk to the water tower in one direction, and up a gently sloped paved path (wheelchair accessible) to the castle ruins in the other direction.
It is easy to imagine why the Snyder family chose this then-remote location for their vacation home. The history of the castle, though, is tragic more than once.
From the brochure: In 1903, Robert M. Snyder, a wealthy Kansas City businessman, visited the area and was so impressed that he began purchasing land to build his private retreat. He envisioned a European-style castle with 60 rooms and a central atrium rising three and one-half stories to a skylight. He also planned a water tower, greenhouses, and stables. The materials were extracted from the area, with sandstone quarried nearby and transported by a mule-drawn wagon and miniature railroad. Construction began in 1905 but was halted a year later with the death of Snyder in one of the state’s first automobile accidents. Snyder’s sons finished the structure in 1922, although not quite as elaborately as originally planned. Eventually, the property was leased for use as a hotel. In 1942, sparks from a chimney ignited the roof and the fire gutted the castle. The carriage house burned the same day. Today, only the ruins remain.
With a view like this, it’s hard to imagine why the Snyder family fought against damming the Bagnell Dam to create the Lake of the Ozarks, which swallowed up a small existing lake. The view of the spring and its beautiful blue waters, though, has always been there.
For the return trip to Kansas City, I took the long way round. Cut through Lake of the Ozarks to Sunset Beach, then up Highway 135 to Route M to Sedalia, where I always stop for a Freddy’s burger. I need to spend more time in Sedalia. From Sedalia you can continue the backroad route on Highway 50, or cut up to I-70 and zip right over to KC. But the backroads were beautiful, filled this time with frolicking horses and a whimsical fence made from metal bedframes. And lots of barns!