Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ha Ha Tonka Trail Review

Oh my goodness. We seriously went on the most incredible hike a few weekends back.  Every once in a while, I just crave a hike that kicks my butt. You know that kind of workout that gets all of your endorphins to kick in? I totally wanted and needed that kind of hike that weekend. And holy smokes people, Ha Ha Tonka was the perfect combination of workout intensity and incredible landscapes. A great last summer hike for sure.

It wasn't the longest hike we've taken, but by far the most rigorous in terms of trail conditions and elevation changes. I'll save the specific stats for the end of the post.

If you've never been to Ha Ha Tonka, it's a state park in Missouri with an incredible display of geological features including caves, a natural spring, sinkholes, a natural bridge, rock walls, and a turn of the century castle overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks. There is a view almost everywhere you turn.

I highly recommend stopping at the Visitor's Center first. They have really nice trail maps there, among other information about the park. There is also a covered model version of the entire State Park.

We are here.

We were hiking on Labor Day weekend in a Missouri so parking was somewhat difficult. We couldn't park in the parking lot at the trail head but we were able to park in a lot across the street. Fortunately, everything in the park was incredibly mapped out and we were able to easily get where we needed to be.

We did some research ahead of time and decided to hike Devil's Kitchen Trail. It included a couple of points of interest and touched on a couple of other loops that looked interesting.

It takes us just over an hour to get to Ha Ha Tonka from our house. You can imagine that by the time we got there, the boys were ready to get moving. We got out of the van, stretched a little bit and then we were off!

The whole drive there, we saw the first twinges of signs of fall. The leaves were just a slightly lighter shade of green everywhere we went. 

We started out on a wide trail through a shallow wooded area.

This wooded meadow hybrid landscape seems to be common on trails we hike in Mid Missouri. I love being able to peek through the trees to meadows on the other side.

Did I mention it was low to mid 70's on this particular day? Perfect for a late summer hike.

And the long distance view. Sigh.

The wooded trail opened into a meadow with full sun.

And quickly descended.

You know that feeling you get when you're hiking downhill really fast and you just know at some point you're going to have to go back up? That's the feeling I got about 5 minutes into this hike.

And yet we still went down.

And the views were literally breathtaking.

We continued downhill over a moderately rocky trail and back into the woods.

We had to go somewhat slower than usual because there were so many loose rocks. What was really cool though was that the rocks were made up of some kind of mineral that made them sparkle in the sun. A geological glitter. Quartz maybe?

Finally, we entered a low point and found this. Our first point of interest of the day.

A natural rock climbing wall!

We had to stop of course and play, and explore a little bit.

But soon we were back on our way, deeper into the forest.

The jutting rocks definitely were a tripping hazard.

This was the kind of rocky sculpture we saw all day long. We would be walking along on a nice wooded trail and round a corner to see something like this.

Lots of wildlife out today. Hello, toad.

We had a seen a place where you could peek down into a cave, but some other hikers told us that if we kept walking around the rock, we would see the really cool feature. 

And they were right, we rounded the corner and I literally squealed with glee over this massive cave, complete with climbing rocks and a peek hole (or chimney) to the sky. It was so cool. We stayed in here for quite a while just climbing around and looking into crevices.

 Looking up through the chimney.

 Looking from the top back out of the cave. This is known as the Devil's Kitchen trail and the boys both pictured this cave as the actual kitchen. And then they speculated why the devil abandoned this kitchen in the first place. Among their guesses: there's not enough light, and there's not enough space to cook stuff. I love how their brains work.

After plenty of time climbing and exploring, we marched on until we came upon this, the Devil's Promenade, a massive rock wall where the trail hugged right up against it. 

More little caves to explore.

And lots of climbing. This picture below - that's the actual trail. Climbing required.

And then we came to a point where you actually had to cross a gap in the bedrock to move along the rock wall.

Jeremy had to help all 3 of us across.

Not the first time on a trail that Jeremy has had to get the boys from point a to point b.

But we made it and carried on. 

A little longer along the rock wall.

Until we were finally back onto the wooded trail.

 We found a mushroom that looked like a flower.

This was what the trail looked like in many places. Thick tree roots embedded and woven through the tough ground, creating an obstacle course for hikers. I twisted my ankle in this specific area which is why I took a picture.

And finally, finally, we were to this old country road.

which led us to another point of interest, an old post office, plus a little park, and huge grassy area. We stopped here for some granola bars, almonds, and water break. 

After our break, we had to walk up the road a bit to see the old Post Office. 

From here, we crossed the road to where the Devil's Kitchen trail meets up with the Spring Trail for a little bit. I should also mention that at this point, we had only gone 1/2 a mile! We had seen beautiful grasslands, caves, a rock wall, an old post office and lots of wildlife. We were exhausted, but we had only gone 1/2 a mile. That's what I mean by this being a moderately rigorous hike. It's not just a walk in the woods. The uphill, downhill, tripping over roots, climbing through rocks, etc. makes for a fun adventure. 

So on to the Spring Trail we went.

Starting with a walk down some stairs to get to the actual trail.

It was no time at all before we were looking over the spring to the beautiful rocky cliffs on the other side.

A peak at the spring below.

And then we came to a sign that showed the spring trail cutting off from Devil's Kitchen trail. We had not planned on taking this offshoot loop, but the stairs leading down to the spring did look inviting. Probably because they were going down! All 300 plus stairs... I was scared of coming back up from the very first step down. Especially since my legs were shaking like jello about half way down.

I can't believe these pictures don't show the dozens if not hundreds of other people who were climbing down these stairs and then the ones huffing and puffing climbing back up. We talked several times about just turning around instead of climbing all the down. But going down was so easy so we continued.

And then a peek at the spring, Missouri's 12th largest.

At the bottom of the stairs, the trail continues flat around the spring. We decided to delay climbing back up the 300+ stairs and kept on walking.

We went through a rock tunnel.

We learned about all kinds of wildlife and plants from the signage.

The water was so clear.

And the lightest shade of blue green.

The spring opens up to the Lake of the Ozarks.

Finally, we found a resting spot at a shelter house at the end of the spring. The boys looked for fish in the small canal.

It seemed like a good place to sit, get some snacks, and drink lots of water. While we rested, we reviewed the map and considered the white connector trail that was right by where we were resting. Taking the connector would mean extending the hike a little bit BUT it would mean going uphill on a trail instead of climbing back up the 300+ stairs. Some other hikers resting in our area convinced us that was the way to go. So up the trail we went.  

The connector trail was a combination of uneven steps and rough terrain...

But FAR easier than climbing 300 steep stairs.

 We finished up the loop and passed up the trail back to our car to see the watch tower and castle ruins.

And the views at this higher elevation - WOW. It was so incredibly beautiful.

Alas, more stairs to the watch tower.

We had to look through the bars but it was still interesting... and very old.

A nice family came along and offered to take our picture and then we returned the favor.

 Just a little trek further up the hill led us to the castle ruins. We were sad to see that it was mainly blocked off. On our last visit, we were able to get much closer and actually look inside (through the windows).

And finally, FINALLY, we were ready to head back to the car. We could not even muster enough energy to go to the natural bridge which was probably less than 500 feet from where we parked. That's something for next time, because there most certainly will be a next time on this trail. What an amazing trail experience. 

Here are the stats from geotracker, starting with the maps of our hike.

The big loop is the Devil's Kitchen Trail. The smaller loop is the Spring Trail.

Three miles doesn't seem like a lot, but considering the terrain, elevation, points of interests (meaning stop/start/stop/start), stairs, stairs, and more stairs... Well you get the point - I'd say this is the most rigorous hike we've done yet. 

And speaking of elevation, here are the stats to prove it. 

It's usually around this time that I talk about how I really prefer a less populated trail/hike, and given the holiday weekend a Missouri outdoors hot spot, we saw many more people than we usually do on trails. We ran into quite a few other hikers along the way. We shared tips (take the white connector on the way back up!) and several admired our boys' strength and endurance. What I loved though, was when were back in the car and I asked the boys what their favorite part of the hike was. Lex's answer? "All those nice people we talked to." What a great way to end summer with a bang. 

Happy Hiking!