Who's ready to get out of the house? More than 2 million tourists a year come to Lake of the Ozarks to enjoy the great outdoors. Besides boating and golfing, we are home to two of the largest state parks in Missouri.
More than 2 million tourists a year come to Lake of the Ozarks to enjoy the great outdoors. Besides boating and golfing, we are home to two of the largest state parks in Missouri.
If you are itching to get outside, like we are this time of year, we’ve got lots of places you can discover. Whether it’s a local hotspot or an overnight hiking trip, you are sure to enjoy these ways to connect with nature!
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
If you were one of the more than a half-million visitors to this park last year, it probably included a trip to see the famous castle ruins. Year-round, the castle and the bluff on which it sits inspire.
In 1905, Robert M. Snyder bought more than 5,000 acres and staked his future in that place. The ruins of his grand idea for a home remain, fitting in among the trees, equally statuesque and sending forth the scents of pine. The castle provides a view of the water tower, another climb for those inclined to see farther and exercise vigorously.
Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) notes that Ha Ha Tonka “is unique in the quality and quantity of its remarkable geological features.” One is a natural bridge spanning 60 feet with more than 100 feet below it. Another is a steep sinkhole, 500 feet long, 300 feet wide. One rock face rising 150 feet from a sunken basin holds two caves, both used by criminals as hideouts in the 1830s.
Fifteen miles of walking and hiking trails wind through the park and reveal its many geological gems, but naturalists and gardeners may enjoy the woodlands more. Little bluestem is just one beautiful prairie grass thriving under and with several varieties of oak trees. A backpack trail guide, just one available online from AllTrails, helps hikers enjoy more than 400 species of plants and flowers, including the Evening Primrose found in glades and Missouri’s brown-eyed Susan.
Through the year, whether icy cold or sweltering, people enjoy Ha Ha Tonka, ranked fourth in the nation in a 2015 USA Today poll and consistently among the top 10 parks in Missouri.
The visitor’s center is a good place to gather information about the park’s amenities, including historical sites, playgrounds, picnic shelters, boardwalks and paved pathways leading from parking lots to those awe-inspiring views.
Kayakers enjoy easier entry using a launch near the Ha Ha Tonka Spring. Nearby is a picnic shelter and waterfront dock for fishing. This cove, often dotted with yachts, kayaks, and even radio-controlled boats, is home to families lining the shore or walking the path to the spring. Along the way, they will likely see fish in the clear water, ducklings, and even river otters.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park
Lake of the Ozarks State Park is a local treasure. Last year more than 2.5 million people visited making it the most popular park in Missouri.
Accessed from Osage Beach Parkway and off of Highway 42, LOSP consists of two public beaches with marinas and boat rentals, fishing docks, and boat ramps. On land, LOSP offers camping, picnic areas, and hiking trails. Indeed, everyone can enjoy all that Lake of the Ozarks and the Ozarks hills offer from the park.
Established in 1946, it is 17,441 acres with 85 miles of shoreline and 12 trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. One of the more unique trails, the LO Aquatic Trail, is on water. Boaters can pick up a free booklet at the park’s office to seek 14 points along the shoreline.
Another unique feature at LOSP is Ozarks Caverns, welcome on sweltering summer days because the temperature is a constant 56 degrees. Lantern-lit tours are available for a small fee payable at the visitor center where education materials and exhibits begin the cave experience. Tour guides will introduce hikers to Angel’s Shower flowing from solid rock above and to bats inhabiting the cave.
Picnic shelters and playgrounds in the park make a day trip ideal, although the shelters can be reserved and leased for a modest fee to ensure that large family or business gatherings have ample space for their events.
Fishing from one of the docks at the public marinas is free but a license to fish Missouri waters is required. The boat launch at McCubbin Point is also free, but there is a fee for launching from Grand Glaize Beach or Public Beach #1.
Trails through the park lead from one Instagram-worthy location to another. One of these is a wild area consisting of 1,200 undeveloped acres to be explored, but just a short hike and drive away are all the urban amenities anyone could want: shopping, dining, music, and movies.
Echo Bluff State Park
Missouri’s rich history and resources come together at its newest state park, its 88th: Echo Bluff near Eminence.
The Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers flow through this country, carrying kayakers and rafters in search of calm waters and the occasional rapid. A short drive from Eminence through some of Missouri’s oldest white oak forests brings tourists to the Alley Spring Grist Mill, Rocky Falls Shut-In, Akers Ferry, and Blue Spring. The luckiest ones may even glimpse the elusive elk while hiking some of the many miles of trails fit for feet, horses, and bikes.
At the heart of these rich resources is Echo Bluff State Park. Opened in 2016, Echo Bluff includes the Betty Lea Lodge, nine cabins, two trails, a restaurant, and both full-service and walk-in campsites. These accommodations provide excellent headquarters for all the area has to offer.
The Lodge consists of 16 guest rooms and four suites, each outfitted with a king-sized bed, twin or queen sleeper sofa, and gas-log fireplace. Each room also provides a balcony opening from large glass doors affording a view of beautiful vistas.
Nine cabins with two to four bedrooms are within walking distance of the Lodge where hungry guests can choose the Creekside Grill on the ground floor or take a walk, hike or bike trails before dining. Guests can rent bicycles at the Lodge or drive to a nearby float trip outfitter to access the outdoor delights in the region. A playground for children and a picnic shelter are on park grounds.
Peck Ranch Conservation Area near Echo Bluff is 23,763 acres of rugged terrain where elk have been re-introduced. Stegall Mountain at 1,348 feet as well as glades and two creeks flowing into the Current River are part of this beautiful landscape. The Ozark Trail crosses the ranch.
Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry, with access from Echo Bluff’s grounds, is 60,000 forested acres with 30 miles of trails drawing outdoors enthusiasts from Missouri and beyond to the natural beauty preserved in a public-private partnership. Fifteen of the trail miles lead hikers and horsemen to the Current River.
A long deck along the back of the lodge overlooks Sinking Creek and the bluff that echoes whispered conversations to people downstream. The sounds of the water flowing over rocks soothes in all seasons. A massive fireplace in the lobby warms the gathering spaces inside. Photos of other Missouri parks on display throughout the lodge inspire guests to explore all that Missouri has preserved with lodges, fish hatcheries, and historic sites from east to west and north to south, but Echo Bluff is the newest and, some say, provides the most beautiful accommodations.
It’s a destination for those who love scenic spots, those who love to explore and exercise, and who treasure Missouri’s many resources.
Elephant Rocks State Park
Considered a geologic phenomenon, these giant granite boulders located in Southeast Missouri draw more than 300,000 people each year. The elephant rocks were formed from 1.5 billion-year-old granite boulders that you can climb or photograph while you stand back in awe. One rock, nicknamed Dumbo, is 27 feet tall, 34 feet long, 17 feet wide, weighing in at 680 tons. The 131-acre park has a short asphalt paved trail which makes for an easy walk to see the rocks.
Not only do visitors go to the park for the geology but also its historical significance. Beginning in 1869, a quarry was in operation where you can today see an old, abandoned railroad engine house used to haul the heavy rock shipped out to build city streets and homes.
It makes a great destination for camping due to its proximity to some of the best state parks in the state including the Mark Twain National Forest, Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, and the Taum Sauk Mountain State Park.
Bennet Spring State Park
A destination for fishermen hoping to land a Brown or Rainbow Trout, Bennett Spring State Park is a short drive from the Lake. It’s especially busy in March when the catch-and-keep season begins each year.
Fishermen need daily permits sold at the park and a working knowledge of lures permitted in specific zones. For dedicated veterans, these rules are low hurdles to overcome.
With an average of 100 million gallons of water flowing daily, the stream has always been a destination. In the 1800s, people used the stream to power grist mills. They camped while waiting for their flour.
Today, tourists can stay at Bennett Spring in one of the cabins constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Some are stand-alone, others duplexes. In addition, Bennett Spring is home to five campgrounds; some are rustic while others offer electric, water, and sewer services.
The Corps also built a dining lodge, now located next door to a convenience store. Open during the catch-and-keep season, the restaurant serves from 7 a.m. until one hour after horns signal the end of the fishing day. On Friday and Saturday nights, the restaurant offers a dinner buffet, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, a breakfast buffet.
Another CCC building, the Gauge House, is still in use. It measures the spring’s output. The dam also still stands and dates from CCC days. Tourists often park to walk across and pose for pictures at this scenic spot.
Fishing is not the only sport or recreation available at Bennett Spring. The park has an Olympic-sized pool with a lifeguard on duty from Memorial Day to a closing in mid-August when children return to school.
Those pools are an ideal cure for sweaty brows after canoeing the spring or hiking one of seven trails. Serious hikers strike out on one 7.5 miles long, but another is a short ¼ mile. Some lead to a natural tunnel, others to open woodlands.
The Nature Center at Bennett Spring has maps for these trails as well as brochures about the region. Educational displays inside are as popular as the beautiful stream and woods outside. Children can see an exhibit about bats among stalactites and stalagmites, a feature of the many caves across the state. They will also see interpretive exhibits for water creatures too small to see with the naked eye as well as animals living and thriving along the stream. Both will help visitors appreciate the 3,216 acres of Bennett Spring State Park more fully.
Taum Sauk Mountain State Park
Climb to the tallest point in the state for the ultimate adventure. Located in the St. Francois Mountains (about three hours southeast of the Lake area), this park also has the state’s tallest waterfall. Mina Sauk Falls drops 132 feet down a series of rocky volcanic ledges.
The summit, which is 1,772 feet above sea level, can be accessed at an overlook a short walk from a parking lot. But there is a challenging 14-mile hike in the park (as well as a small loop to take you to the waterfall) if you are seeking more of a thrill. The longer hike will take you most of the day so an overnight camping trip is likely a must.
It’s also located just outside the Mark Twain National Forest and close to some of the best rivers in the state to take a float trip. So it might be worth spending several days in the area.