Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri’s Must-Do Road Trip

From cliff-hanging castles to subterranean sculptures to water recreation, Missouri’s top lake destination has a timeless allure that defies the ages.

On a map, the Lake of the Ozarks unfolds like a slender, azure-hued Chinese dragon with an undulating central body and four graceful arms propelling it across the heart of central Missouri. The construction of the Bagnell Dam breathed life into the watery wonder in the 1930s, setting the stage for a tourism boom that has spanned generations. Just as an artist’s brush strokes create life on a blank canvas, the damming of the Osage River ushered in an era of discovery for people seeking to carve out a getaway spot along the lake and its 1,100 miles of shoreline—more than the coastline of Lake Erie, the Great Lake I call home now.

A serene calm washes over the Lake of the Ozarks as the sun disappears behind the trees

In the 1990s, a friend’s family bought a no-frills waterfront home in Gravois Mill, at Lake of the Ozarks’ north end. I visited soon after. Lisa and I spent a good chunk of our days sunning on the floating dock, leaping into the water every so often to cool off. Eventually, her dad would rev up the boat for an excursion on the lake. One afternoon, Lisa spent time trying to teach me how to waterski. It was a dismal failure on my part. The only skill I mastered was letting go of the handle before the boat reached optimal speed. Lisa’s parents blamed the boat, but I knew better.

After many years in absentia, I recently programmed the GPS in the direction of that same lake house—now owned by Lisa and her husband, Steve. This time, I had my 10-year-old daughter with me to experience a host of quintessential activities I remember fondly from my childhood, teens, and 20s—other than waterskiing.

Soaking up the ethereal charm of Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Outside of being at the cabin again, the place I looked forward to seeing most was Ha Ha Tonka—one of Missouri’s most fascinating state parks—located at the southern end of the lake’s Niangua arm. Its natural geologic wonders include sinkholes, caves, cliffs, and a crystal-clear spring that spews 48 million gallons of refreshingly cold water every day. Ha Ha Tonka gets its name from this spring, which means “laughing waters” in the native Osage language.

The lookout at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, near the mansion ruins, offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the surrounding Ozark landscape. Perched atop towering cliffs, visitors are treated to sweeping vistas of the rugged terrain, dense forests, and the sparkling waters of Lake of the Ozarks below

What truly sets this 3,700-acre park apart, though, are the remains of a stately country estate high upon a bluff overlooking what was once a small trout-filled lake, which was swallowed up when the Lake of the Ozarks took shape. The castle-like structure caught fire in the 1940s, leaving behind a sandstone skeleton. Today, it is a haven for roosting vultures that soar over the cliff’s edge, riding on the warm temperatures rising from the lake. We circled the vacuous structure and then wandered some of the hiking trails on the precipice. We peeked into the ruins of the water tower, echoing with the coos of a pigeon basking in the sunlight streaming through one of its windows.

Boaters can seek out the Lake of the Ozarks’ quiet coves for relaxation and water recreation

At the bottom of the cliff, the Spring Trail—a favorite of mine—follows a spring-fed stream to its source beneath a rocky outcropping. In my teens, my friends and I would take the trail, to splash around in the shallow stream, balance on fallen logs, skip rocks, and shiver as we lowered ourselves into the 58-degree water. The park has since closed the spring to swimmers to help protect the delicate ecosystem; however, if you want to cool off, you can jump in the lake near the trailhead’s parking lot. There’s also an option to rent kayaks from a lakeside kiosk there, but you must pay and pick up a key at the park’s visitors center first. A two-hour rental runs $20 for a single kayak or $25 for a tandem.

The water along the Spring Trail at Ha Ha Tonka State Park is a mesmerizing sight to behold. Crystal clear and serene, it flows gently through the lush forest before spilling into the Lake of the Ozarks
A kayaker heads directly for the ruins of a stately mansion sitting high atop a cliff

We were handed a floating keychain emblazoned with the instructions: “Get in – Sit Down – Shut up – Hold on.” Once we lowered ourselves into the kayaks, we couldn’t abide by the instructions. My daughter delighted in jumping out of the kayak and swimming in the cove where the spring-fed stream meets the lake. Meanwhile, my gaze wandered upward, drawn to the castle ruins perched on the cliff above us. I’m still in awe of the park’s extraordinary setting and singular beauty that still has a hold on me after all these years.

The stone shell is all that remains of the cliff hugging mansion that overlooks the Lake of the Ozarks. The castle-like structure caught fire in the 1940s

Exploring the showy caverns of Bridal Cave

Another unique feature of the Lake of the Ozarks lies underground. Bridal Cave echoes with legendary tales of Native American lovers pledging their devotion to each other, surrounded by stalactites, stalagmites, columns, fragile soda straws, and other impressive onyx formations that have taken centuries to grow. The stories gave rise to its name, while also prompting more than 4,000 couples to tie the knot within this mystical underworld.

Located in Camdenton, at mile marker 10.5 of Lake of the Ozarks’ Niangua arm, the cool embrace of the cave is a great place to find respite from the summer heat—no matter your relationship status. We took a one-hour guided tour through dimly lit passages connecting eight chambers. The second chamber is the infamous Bridal Chapel, where a magnificent display of stalactites makes up what’s known as the “Pipe Organ.” The formation indeed produces sonorous tones with each gentle thump; however, the instrument has been silenced following damage to its delicate features in the past.

The cave was expanded in the 1990s with a blast of dynamite that revealed more hidden wonders within the depths. The final stop on the tour is Mystery Lake, a serene 30-foot-deep aqua-colored lagoon shaped by the slow dance of dripping cave water.

Flowstone formations inside Bridal Cave

TIP: Before the tour at Bridal Cave, head to the gift shop adjacent to the entrance. There, kids can grab a free bag of fish food to feed the giant carp gathered underneath the dock below the cave’s cliffside entrance. The large fish wriggle and writhe as they vie for some of the tasty treats.

Getting out on the water

All kinds of recreational activities thrive at the Lake of the Ozark from golfing and go-karting on land to fishing, tubing, and wakeboarding on the water. Even if you don’t have your own boat, the possibilities are as vast as the lake itself thanks to a fleet of powerboat, pontoon, and Jet Ski rentals.

On our last afternoon at the lake, we joined the parade of boats zipping back and forth across the lake. Though determined to conquer waterskiing once and for all, my apprehension about face-planting at high speeds remained steadfast. It was also harder than I remember to keep the skis upright as I waited for the thrust of the boat engine. I felt the tell-tale tug on the rope as I gripped the handle. Just as I began to rise from the water, I let go of the rope, along with any desire to try the activity ever again. To be honest, none of us successfully waterskied that day. We blame the boat’s lack of get up and go, but we all knew the truth.

Lake of the Ozarks has a way of producing lots of smiles and unforgettable memories

The fun truly began when we switched out the skis for a tow-behind inflatable raft and spent the rest of our time on the water watching Kinley’s beaming smile as she bounced over the waves. It’s those moments of pure joy that truly capture the essence of this beloved destination.

Reflecting on my journey to rediscover the charm of the Lake of the Ozarks, my daughter’s eagerness to return speaks volumes. From the enchanting depths of Bridal Cave to the majestic ruins of Ha Ha Tonka, and the exhilarating adventure on the lake, the trip left an indelible mark on our hearts.

At Lake of the Ozarks, boating reigns as a beloved pastime. Thrill-seekers flock to the waters for adrenaline-pumping activities like wakeboarding, water skiing and tubing

SIDEBAR –  Lake of the Ozarks in brief:

Where you base yourself in the Lake of the Ozarks largely depends on your personal interests:

●  Lake Ozark: This town is a popular destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment, with  

    attractions like the Bagnell Dam Strip offering a vibrant nightlife scene.

●  Osage Beach: Known for its upscale resorts, golf courses, and outlet malls, Osage Beach is

    a favorite among families and those seeking a mix of relaxation and recreation.

●  Camdenton: Located near the Lake’s eastern shores, Camdenton offers a more laid-back

     atmosphere with opportunities for hiking, exploring caves, and visiting local wineries

Accommodations: There are all kinds of waterfront accommodations at the Lake of the Ozarks from resorts to condos to luxury vacation homes. Try Lake Ozark’s Alhonna Resort, the setting that inspired the Netflix drama, Ozark.

Waterfront dining: The Lake of the Ozarks boasts numerous waterfront restaurants with lively atmospheres and diverse offerings. Favorites include Landshark Bar & Grill at Mile Marker 26 and Neon Taco at Mile Marker 0. For a more refined experience, 1932 Reserve complements its lake views from Mile Marker 17.5 with a locally sourced menu.

Osage Beach, Missouri, offers a delightful blend of shopping and dining experiences that cater to all tastes. For a sweet treat, head to Randy’s Frozen Custard, renowned for its indulgent Ozark Turtle—vanilla ice cream smothered in rich hot fudge and topped with crunchy pecans
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