Conor Watkins' Ozark Mountain Experience
Article 5
Ha Ha Tonka State Park - A unique name for a unique place
By Conor Watkins

Ha Ha Tonka State Park
- A Unique Name For A Unique Place

Author in front of castle.
One of the more distinctive features of the park is the
ruin of the Snyder family castle.

More Views Of The Castle: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12,
& 13 (From Bretz "Caves of Missouri")

Ha Ha Tonka State Park has a name as unique as its scenery.  The park is home to multiple sinkholes, caves, springs, natural bridges, and other features associated with karst.  An arm of the Lake of The Ozarks is also viewable from the park.  Perhaps the park’s most famous feature is a castle ruin left after a fire.  All of these features are accessible by relatively short hikes.  Bring a camera, binoculars, and good hiking shoes, as this Missouri state park makes for an excellent day or weekend trip from Rolla.

Most of the features at Ha Ha Tonka State Park are relatively close
together and can easily be seen in one day.

In 1904, Robert Snyder, a wealthy Kansas City, MO businessman, was so impressed with the natural beauty of the location that he purchased around 2,500 acres of the land for use as a resort.  Synder originally started out in St. Louis and worked in the wholesale grocery business.  He later moved to Kansas City where he became involved with the wholesale grocery business, banking, land speculation, and utilities.  Snyder owned the Snyder Gas Company of Kansas City and was one of the first automobile owners in that city.  In his business dealings, Synder was always said to operate with honor and integrity.  Construction on Hahatonka Castle started in 1905.  Snyder dreamed of a resort built to resemble the finest of European castles.  In order to fulfill his goals, he hired Scottish stonemasons and a European supervisor to complete the project.  The entire resort consisted of a 3.5 story castle, stone stable, nine greenhouses, and an eighty foot water tower, all built of locally acquired stone and timber.

Hahatonka Castle as it looked in the 1930's after the completion of Bagnell Dam.
From Harry Cloud Bolon's "A Study of Missouri Springs."

The large spring in the chasm below the castle was originally named Gunter Spring after John Gunter, an earlier landowner from Alabama.  The nearby post office was also called Gunter.  When Robert Scott of Iowa surveyed the area for use as a rail route in the early 1890’s, he found the rugged topography unsuitable for railroad use but realized the natural beauty of the area.  Scott, a land speculator, returned to Iowa and convinced a friend to join him in purchasing the land.  He decided that Gunter wasn’t a flashy enough name for the area and was able to change the name of the local post office to Hahatonka in 1895.  Scott renamed the area after reading Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha.”  He believed or fabricated the legend that Osage Indians called the spring Hahatonka (translating to “Laughing Waters.”)  An early settler in the area named Lodge claimed that Osage Indians referred to the spring and area as Hahatonka while talking with them 40 years earlier.  There is little evidence to support this claim but the name has stuck.  When Scott sold the land to Robert Snyder in 1904, he made a healthy profit.

No one can prove if the Indians named the location for its "laughing waters"
but the name stuck.

Snyder was killed in one of Missouri’s first auto accidents in 1906 and his sons inherited the project.  The castle was completed under their guidance in 1922.  When Union Electric began to plan and construct Bagnell Dam/Lake of The Ozarks, the family sued the power company to prevent the lake from flooding a portion of their land.  This lawsuit was lost and the family fortunes were exhausted by this process and the Great Depression.  Resulting financial problems later forced the family to lease the castle as a hotel.  Unfortunately the castle was short lived.  In 1942, sparks from the chimney caught the roof on fire and the castle was completely gutted in a matter of hours.  The fire also spread to the stables and carriage house that were only a few hundred feet away.  Only the spectacular sandstone walls and foundation of the castle and stables remain.  The nearby greenhouses fell to ruin and little is left.  Two quarry locations from which building stone was acquired may be accessed via a trail near the castle.

The Snyder family sued Union Electric to prevent Bagnell Dam from flooding a
portion of their land.  This picture is from an old postcard (unknown date).

Robert Snyder Jr., son of the elder Snyder, was a collector of rare books and other literature.  He collected tens of thousands of works on the history and culture of the Midwest and Western U.S. during his lifetime, all of which was stored at the castle.  When he died in 1937, William Volker purchased the collection and donated it to the University of Kansas City (UMKC).  Clarence Decker of the English Dept. made the 300 mile trip five times to retrieve all the literature.  This was done just in the nick of time, as the castle burned only days after the last of the material had been moved.  The collection, known as the Robert M. Snyder Collection of Americana is still a special collection present at UMKC, with some being available for viewing and photocopying.  Much of the extensive collection has yet to be catalogued.

After the fire in 1942, the area was left and neglected.  In 1909, Missouri's Governor Herbert S. Hadley wanted to make the area the state's first state park but his dream wasn't carried out until 1978.  When the area was converted into a state park, the Missouri Division of State Parks put spaces in the name.  For this reason, the spring and the park have different punctuations in their names.

The castle was built to overlook an enormous valley formed by a collapsed cavern from which Hahatonka Spring issues.  At first glance, this canyon-like feature might not be recognized as a collapsed cave.  The open end of the chasm connects to the Niangua Arm of the man-made Lake of The Ozarks, a feature not present when the castle was originally constructed.  Spectacular cliff walls rise 250 feet above the valley floor and the vertical distance from top to bottom is well over 300 feet.  These cliffs make excellent roosting spots for turkey vultures and other birds.  Expect to see many vultures and other birds circling over the valley.  While at the castle, take time to view the spring and the Lake of The Ozarks which are both below.

Massive cliff walls remain where an enormous cavern has collapsed.

Turkey Vultures enjoy roosting on cliffs at Hahatonka
and commonly circle overhead.
Additional Views: 1, 2, 3

The Niangua Arm of the Lake of The Ozarks extends into the park and
adds to the scenery.

View #2, View #3, View #4, View #5

Hahatonka Spring is the 11th largest spring in the Ozarks and discharges an average of 49 million gallons of water per day.  The water from the spring branch was dammed and used to power a mill.  The castle’s water supply was once provided by a pump that was able to transport water from the spring to a water tower nearly 400 feet higher in elevation.  Parts of the pump and iron pipe used in this water system are still visible along the hiking trails.  The stone water tower was gutted of its wooden members and roof when vandals set it afire in 1976.  Efforts are currently well underway to restore the water tower to its original condition.

Additional View

Hahatonka Spring is the 11th largest spring in the Ozarks and is easily
viewed from a boardwalk.
Additional View

View of spring branch from above.

The water tower sits 400 feet higher than the spring.
It is now being restored after being set afire by vandals.
View #2
View #3 - From Below

While in the spring area, one might want to view features on the “island” within the chasm from which the spring issues.  This island was once simply a hill near the spring and was created by two small dams used to impound the water in order to run a mill and trout rearing pool.  Spring water flows around each side of this hill within the chasm and then cascades over the two dams.  When the Lake of the Ozarks is at a high level, both dams are covered and the hill becomes an island in that lake.  A rock pinnacle of Eminence dolomite known as Balanced Rock is located on the island.  Although interesting, this is not the most unique geologic feature in the park.

View of the stone mill dam at Hahatonka

Balanced Rock is one of the many geologic wonders
present on the island at Hahatonka.
View #2

Undercut sycamore roots show where the spring branch enters
Lake of The Ozarks.

Several caves are present in the park and access to two of these can be gained by contacting the park administration or participating in interpretive tours.  Both Island Cave and River Cave are open to visitors with advance permission.  Island Cave is located on the island.  Much of the rock on the island is pitted with spongework, a Swiss cheese type phenomena formed by the dissolving of rock in the phreatic zone (below the water table).  Spongework generally forms in water filled caves and these rocks represent the wrecked remains of a once larger cave.  Some wreckage from this cave is visible along the spring branch and below the small dams, especially when the Lake of The Ozarks is lowered before the spring floods.

The cave wreckage below Hahatonka Spring is especially apparent when
The Lake of The Ozarks is low (From Bretz' "Caves of Missouri").

River Cave is another cave leftover from the once larger cave system within Ha Ha Tonka State Park.  It is located in the bottom of a sinkhole and pirates a surface stream.  The cave and its stream head 700 feet towards Hahatonka Spring before the passage narrows to a size no longer enterable by humans.  This stream is one source for the spring.  Although the cave is not long, it contains a small natural bridge and a beautiful stalagmitic column.  One may also notice interesting ice formations at the entrance to the cave on cold winter days.  Two other caves, Robbers’ Cave and Counterfeiters’ Cave are small shelters at the bottom of another sinkhole and represent more remains of the collapsed cavern system.  Both caves acquired their names due to their use as hideouts by criminals in the 1830’s and are not open for visitation.

Staircase down to River Cave in the winter.

Interesting ice formations in the entrance of River Cave on a cold
winter day.
Additional Picture

This stalagmitic column is one of River Cave's most notable features.

Other Images of River Cave:
Map of River Cave
Natural Bridge in River Cave

(All from Bretz "Caves of Missouri")

The park is home to multiple natural bridges.  The best example is the Hahatonka Natural Bridge which is close to the castle ruins.  The Hahatonka Natural Bridge is a sturdy formation that once carried a road.  The Devil’s Kitchen Sinkhole along another trail is home to another small natural arch/shelter.

The Hahatonka Natural Bridge is the largest such formation in the park.
View #2, View #3, View #4 (From Bretz "Caves of Missouri")

The Devil's Kitchen is another small natural bridge/shelter in the Hahatonka area.

The state has done an excellent job of turning this area into a park and many consider Ha Ha Tonka to be the highlight of all the Missouri State Parks.  This park offers boat docks where boaters from the lake can leave their boat to explore the park.  20 picnic sites and two shelters are scattered around the park.  The shelters may be reserved for a $40 fee or used on a first come first serve basis.  Boardwalks, which are marvels themselves, allow visitors to hike down into several of the sinkholes and to the spring.  Some of the trails and boardwalks traverse slopes with high gradients and consist of hundreds of steps.  There are several different routes to the spring area and the out of shape and unhealthy should consider using a less scenic but flatter route.

The park has around 15 miles of trails with most of these being relatively short and sharing portions of other trails. All trails except for the possibly the seven mile Turkey Pen Hollow Trail may easily be hiked in one day.  Overnight backpack camping is permitted on this trail for those wanting to take their time.  The Turkey Pen Hollow Trail passes through the 953 acre Ha Ha Tonka Savanna Natural Area, a natural area designated by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  This designation was the result of the area’s unique dolomite glades of thin, rocky soil and its native prairie and woodland vegetation.

As with much of Missouri, the Hahatonka area is a karst terrain.  It appears that faulting and jointing of the bedrock created conditions that allowed this intensely karst landscape to develop.  Groundwater running through faults and fractures in the rock eventually dissolved large caves.  The roofs of these caves collapsed in places where the rock became too weak to support its own weight.  Parts of the original cave system are still left as the several natural bridges and caves throughout the park.  The groundwater that continually eats away at the rock comes to the surface as Hahatonka Spring.  It is very possible that another sinkhole or cave entrance may form in the future.  For those who have visited Conical and Slaughter Sink between Rolla and Waynesville, these sinkholes are small in comparison to the sinks present at Hahatonka.  Because of the uniqueness of this complex karst landscape, 70 acres have been set aside as the Ha Ha Tonka Karst Natural Area by the MDC.

Portion of topographic map showing both karst and man made features
of the Hahatonka area.
  (From Bretz "Caves of Missouri")

The stratigraphy exposed at Hahatonka consists of Ordovician formations.  From youngest (highest) to oldest (lowest), the formations present are the Gasconade, Eminence, and the Roubidoux.  The Gasconade Formation is largely a dolomite but contains a lower sandstone layer known as the Gunter member.  Hahatonka Castle and its associated stone buildings are all largely constructed from this sandstone.  The Eminence Formation is a dolomite containing the karst that has given the area its character.  Weathered exposures of the Roubidoux Sandstone, a dolomitic sandstone, are present in outlying areas of the park.  The Gasconade, Gunter, and Eminence are well exposed at the Hahatonka Natural Bridge.  The Gasconade dolomite is the uppermost layer, the Gunter sandstone (lower Gasconade Formation) is in the middle, and the Eminence dolomite is the lowest layer.

A stop by the park information center is highly suggested for those visiting for the first time.  Trail maps are available and interesting pictures and information on the park’s features are displayed.  The castle is shown before, during, and after the fire that led to its demise.


To get to the park, take I-44 west to Hwy 7 at the Richland Exit (Exit 150). Head northwest (right) 32 miles on Hwy 7 until the road runs into Hwy 5.  Take Hwy 5 three miles north (right) to the town of Camdenton.  Turn west (left) on Hwy 54 and follow for two miles until Hwy D.  Turn left on Hwy D and start looking for the entrance to Ha Ha Tonka State park within a mile.

While on the way to the park, one might want to stop at Slaughter and Conical Sink, which are just off exit 169.  The Caveman BBQ, a restaurant in a cave, is just off of Hwy 7 before Richland.  Signs on the right will point the eater in the right direction.  This restaurant will be opening back up on March 18th, 2001.  Bennett Spring is not too far out of the way and is a good stop if taking a weekend trip to the area.  Several commercial show caves are also present in nearby Camdenton.  Bridal Cave is an excellent cave and is well worth visiting for its formations.  Multiple signs along the highway give directions.  There are plenty of restaurants in the Camdenton area so the visitor can choose to eat out or bring a picnic.

Map showing Ha Ha Tonka State Park (H) in relation to Rolla.

This is a little local color seen along the way in Montreal, MO.  Although karst
is meant to be spelled with a "K" this just doesn't look quite right, especially
with THREE "K's."

Thanks to the Ozark Caving Homepage (, “The Ghost of Ha Ha Tonka” (, ODD.NET (, “Ha Ha Tonka, Origin of The Name” (, Lake of The Ozarks Convention And Visitor Bureau (, Directory of Missouri Natural Areas (, The Robert M. Snyder Collection of Americana (, Missouri State Parks And Historic Sites - MoDNR ( &, the good people at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, “Caves of Missouri” by J Harlen Bretz, “Springs of Missouri” by Vineyard and Feder, and “Geologic Wonders And Curiosities of Missouri” by Beveridge and Vineyard for some of the information used in this article.

(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins