Spending weekends at the Lake of the Ozarks is a Missouri tradition, a rite of passage. The state’s largest lake destination is well known for its floating parties and resort attractions, but there’s a lot more to experience within the 1,150 miles of shoreline than just that. Tucked among the rock bluffs and wooded hills, you’ll find everything from rare geological wonders to nearly 30 miles of hiking and biking trails.
Try the fastest growing global watersport, stand-up paddleboarding, at Sunrise Beach in Lake West. Super Dave’s Paddle Craft Adventures sits on a large, quiet, no-wake cove and offers paddleboard rentals and lessons, as well as access to kayaks, canoes and pedal boats for all ages and skill levels.
Of course, if you brought your own kayak or canoe, there’s no shortage of amazing places to float:
The Big Niangua Arm, where the river ends in Lake South, is a scenic place with dense forests and majestic hills. Calm waters with a put-in and rental site (kayaks to tandems) make this a top paddling location. And you can’t beat being able to drift into Onyx Cave (about a quarter mile from the put-in) for a cool break on a hot afternoon.
The cove at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, off Highway D near the 15-mile marker of the Niangua Arm, is another good paddling option. The easiest put-in is at the launch on the spring side of the cove. From there, you’ll have a unique view of the 250-foot cliffs rising above. There are also docks on the castle ruins side of the cove, if you’d like to check out this historic attraction.
Mix exploration with your paddling at on Lake of the Ozarks State Park Aquatic Trail. The 9.75-mile-long trail runs between the park’s main campground in Lake West and Grand Glaize Beach, with 14 stops in between. Buoys mark the path, and a free printed guide gives you tons of details about what you’re seeing from the water. Don’t miss Station I for Missouri’s version of a desert or Station N for “Nature’s Window,” an unusual stone arch in the bluff.
Fancy a post-paddle swim? The public beach at the Lake of the Ozarks State Park is open from the end of May until mid-September, with hours from sunrise to sunset. Facilities include picnic areas, covered shelters, changing facilities and washrooms.
Hiking & Biking Trails
Within the Lake of the Ozarks State Park and Ha Ha Tonka State Park are nearly 30 miles of spectacular hiking and biking trails. The two parks are only 13 miles apart, so both are easy to explore in a weekend.
You can backpack and camp overnight on the rugged, 7-mile-long Turkey Pen Hollow Trail in the Ha Ha Tonka Savanna Natural Area. The terrain consists of rock outcroppings, cedar and oak glades, and breathtaking wildflowers.
Colosseum Trail winds under a 70-foot-wide natural bridge that spans 60 feet and reaches more than 100 feet in the air. Along the way, you’ll also find the 150-foot Colosseum Sinkhole and sheer bluffs. The natural bridge was originally used by motor vehicle traffic to get to the turn-of-the-century stone mansion built by wealthy businessman, Robert Snyder. Now, the 3.5-story castle ruins are accessed by a road that’s the usual start for visitors exploring Ha Ha Tonka. With a diverse assortment of trails ranging from paved and boardwalk, to rugged and rocky, the park is accessible to all skill levels.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park features Four Winds Trail, which is open to hiking, biking and horseback riding. It’s rough, with rocky Karst topography, along with big hills and fast descents. The 15-mile trail dissects other trails, so keep a careful eye on your map.
Mountain bikers looking for a long, intermediate to advanced ride can take the Honey Run Trail, starting off at the trailhead at McCubbins Drive. The 12.5 miles take you through three different types of terrain, ranging from wet bottomland to oak woodlands. Regulars recommend a clockwise out-and-back route, starting at the Connector Trail to the South Loop.
Coakley Hollow self-guiding trail, also at Lake of the Ozarks State Park, is the perfect leisurely walk for discovering Missouri’s geological diversity. It takes around an hour to complete the 1-mile trail if you’re stopping to read the signposts and check out the fauna and flora. Have some fun on the swinging bridge.
When you return to the park office, take the hour-long Ozark Cavern tour for another unusual half-mile walk. The cavern is famous for its Angel Showers formations — there are only 14 in the world, and two are in this cave!
Speaking of spelunking, Missouri is often called the “cave state,” thanks to its 6,300 registered and mapped caves. Lake of the Ozarks has four show caves within 30 miles of each other, but if you’d like to challenge yourself, there are also a number of wild caves open to try.
First-timers may find the Windermere Cave (4 miles west of Ha Ha Tonka on Highway 54) a good choice. Here, a guide takes you on hands and knees through popcorn rocks and dome rooms to experience the total darkness of the cave.
River Cave, a wild cave in Ha Ha Tonka State Park, is available for spelunkers by supervised entry only. Access is through two different sinkholes from the rugged Dolomite Rock hiking trail. Island Trail, another challenging hiking trail in Ha Ha Tonka, provides access to the gated wild Island Cave, but by permit only. (Advance permits must be obtained at the Ha Ha Tonka Park Office.) You’ll also need a permit for River Cave; its stream feeds into the Ha Ha Tonka Spring, which features a stalagmitic column and natural bridge.
Some caves may have limited access due to white-nose syndrome, a condition that affects the bat population and spreads easily, so check with local authorities before entering.
Rappelling & Ropes
If you’d rather climb over the rocks than under them, you may want to give rappelling a try. The sport is allowed in Lake of the Ozarks State Park through specified months, with a permit from the park office (contact them before you visit). Requirements include having a certified climber in the group and full safety gear. A sandstone outcropping on Osage Beach is one of the most popular places to get started rappelling. Located in the heart of the park, it’s just a short walk from the gravel parking area off the road. Park officials can advise you of optional locations depending on local conditions.
Zippy’s Ziplines, located in Turtle Hill Eco-Park in Lake North, has three routes ranging from 300 to 700 feet that fly across the forested hill and ridgelines near Bagnell Dam. The ziplines here use a secure belted seat setup rather than a harness. When you’re done whizzing around the canopy, hang out at Turtle Hill for some washers, horseshoes and ladder golf, and maybe learn about off-the-grid living, Earthship building, organic gardening and other eco-friendly measures. It’s a beautiful and unique setting.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park – mostateparks.com/trails/ha-ha-tonka-state-park
Lake of the Ozarks State Park – mostateparks.com/trails/lake-ozarks-state-park
Super Dave’s Paddle Craft Adventures – funlake.com/super-daves-paddle-craft-adventures
Turtle Hill Eco-Park – zippysziplines.com
Author: Linda Aksomitis is a contributor to Terrain magazine