10 Questions with Ha Ha Tonka State Park’s Nancy Masterson

Discover the amenities, new programs and wonders at Missouri’s most used day-use state park

Camdenton resident Eric Davis took this photo over Memorial Day Weekend of a couple who marveled at the unique Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Camdenton.

Camdenton resident Eric Davis took this photo over Memorial Day Weekend of a couple who marveled at the unique Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Camdenton.

Even though a former Missouri governor proposed making its current area Missouri’s first state park, Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Camdenton was not purchased for this purpose until 1978. Along with the Ha Ha Tonka State Park’s creation came its first park superintendent, Nancy Masterson.

Having an avid background already with the Missouri State Parks system, which is ran by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Masterson was in at the ground level of Ha Ha Tonka State Park’s public development such as designing facilities and continuing to grow and maintain the already previously popular and highly used area that makes up the current park. Masterson began her work with Missouri State Parks in 1974, working with summer educational programs near St. Louis while teaching junior high special education in Columbia the rest of the year. Her first full-time job with the Missouri State Parks system was at Lake of the Ozarks Sate Park, supervising its group camps and being able to develop outdoors education programs for special populations.

Masterson then left Ha Ha Tonka State Park in 1987 to assume an Ozark District supervisor role with the department in Lebanon. Developing more links between schools and naturalist programs within the parks for educational purposes, Masterson honed her talents and expanded opportunities for state parks within her district. However, in 1994, the superintendent role at Ha Ha Tonka State Park became open, and she returned to her true passion – managing a park and connecting it with the community.

Still holding that position, Masterson and her staff have seen how visitors enjoy the unique opportunities the park provides such as its numerous hiking trails, fishing, picnic and educational program outlets, attractions such as Ha Ha Tonka Spring, Ha Ha Tonka Castle ruins, Colosseum and Natural Bridge, and the River Cave, and its many natural landscape sites that showcase its diverse terrain and Karst geology. Whether a frequent patron or new visitor, discover what Ha Ha Tonka State Park has to offer from its knowledgeable superintendent, Masterson, during this week’s “10 Questions.”

For more information about Ha Ha Tonka State Park, which is located 1491 Route D in Camdenton, visit www.mostateparks.com/ha-ha-tonka-state-park or call the park office at 573-346-2986.

1. Tell me a little about the park staff.

Nancy Masterson: When we started, there was myself and one maintenance worker. Now we have two full-time maintenance workers, myself and a full-time park interpreter/naturalist, Larry Webb. Larry is largely responsible for organizing and administering the “Something on Saturday” events throughout the year, providing interpretation on nature hike programs with schools or community groups such as the garden clubs, and assisting with natural resource maintenance for the park’s landscape and wildlife habitats. We also hire seasonal interpreters and employees that help with various projects and programs during the summer season.

2. How has the park's attendance grown over the years?

Masterson: The attendance in 1985-1990 doubled. In 1990, attendance was 260,000 people, but we now log more than a 1/2 million visitors a year. So, it has doubled again. That is due in large part to Lake of the Ozarks being a destination spot. This park is a great place for those visiting here to spend a day in the park at no additional costs. In Missouri there is no fee to enter state parks, as there are in many state parks. We are supported by the Missouri Soil and Sales Tax. That is our operations and development money, along with parks that have earnings. We do a brisk business in selling souvenirs to guests such as books on geology, history, natural resources that exist here, as well as T-shirts and novelty items. That all goes back into the park system to help run and develop it.

3. What seems to be some of the most heavily attended areas of the park?

Masterson: People have told visitors to “come see the castle.” Most people coming into the park know to go see the ruins. However, once they are here, we tell them about the park having such unique resources and natural geological features that visitors should put that on their list of things to see.

4. What are some of the most popular land and water activities?

Masterson: In the summer months, the Lake is the big drawing card at the park. Another big number for our attendance is folks that come by boat. I have done what I call a snapshot of the Lake on a Sunday afternoon, and sometimes there will be 60 boats out there in the cove by Ha Ha Tonka Spring. Some are anchored and swimming or others that have taken advantage of our courtesy docks to enjoy the Spring Trail or our amenities by the water. It is very popular because of the nice cold water that comes from the spring. Fishing has also become very popular. For most newcomers it is the chance to see this unique cultural oddity of the castle ruins on top of the bluff. In addition, one of the most popular activities is hiking, along with photography. We also ask if anyone has pictures from the park or the castle. This way, we have records of the building’s features, and share in their memories of different events that were held at the castle from years ago. There are also wonderful opportunities for exercise with the strenuous 6 ½ mile trail up to the castle or, for those with strollers or wanting a leisurely walk, the paved trails back to the spring or to the castle. The park also has a playground and very nice picnic facilities.

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A new addition to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, the LOWA Paddlers worked diligently to receive donations and funds for the installation of a platform step-down and kayak rail launch site by the Lakeside picnic areas of the park. This generous inclusion has not only helped increase the group’s Kayak Meet-up attendance, but also encouraged more visitors to utilize kayak and canoe activities at Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

5. Have there been any renovations, additions or updates to the park?

Masterson: It is our job to continually maintain and improve the facilities we have. So we continue to refine our hiking trails, as well as our public facilities. A unique addition was brought about by a local kayak group, which is part of the Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance (LOWA). The (LOWA Paddlers) are avid kayakers, and they were utilizing a place in the park that was OK for encouraging people to attend their Kayak Meet-ups, which allows individuals to get in the water and try out kayaking. The area they were using to access the Lake was not the best it could be. They tirelessly got donations, got volunteer help, had an engineering firm to draw up plans, and got a dock company to supply some large stones. Through their efforts, they were able to build some steps amongst the rip-rap down into the water, as well as a railing shoot to easily slide their kayaks down into the water. That is our newest addition, and it is located in the small picnic area down near cove by the spring off the little spur road. These steps make level platforms to stand before getting into their canoe or kayak. The (LOWA Paddlers) had very successful Kayak Meet-ups last year and has encouraged a lot of new people to purchase kayaks and enjoy quiet waters at this end of the Lake. They have had two so far this summer, and will have more throughout the year. In addition, LOWA, Ameren Missouri and Ha Ha Tonka State Park are partnering to get a River Trail together, so kayakers can start up on the Niangua and come down to the park, seeing interesting sites and businesses along the way.

6. What are some of the ongoing natural resource projects you have at the park?

Masterson: In the winter months, we all shift to natural resource management work such as doing controlled burns, which are beneficial to the open landscapes and encouraging prairie understory. About every three years a unit needs to be burned to control the understory and the “leaf litter” on the ground. The sunlight penetrates more of the forest floor and encourages more prairie growth in the park … We now have one of the largest examples of this open oak woodlands that is left in Missouri, called the Ha Ha Tonka Oak Woodland Natural Area. It is close to 3,000 acres in size. That acreage was more than doubled about a year ago. It is largely due to the restoration that Larry (Webb) is doing, enhancing the tremendous diversity of native plants and even animal species in that region. A lot of the work we are doing now is encouraging songbird habitats, too.

Speaking of diversity, the River Cave is the fifth most diverse cave system in Missouri. It is home to two endangered bat species. The Indiana bat use the cave as winter habitat and the gray bat use it as a maternity cave for the females. We just had our bat program (June 8) at the cave. We don’t go into the cave because we don’t want to disturb the bats while they are roosting their young. But at night, they come out to feed and watch the night exit from the cave, which is pretty exciting … Because we have controlled the cave entry with gates at both the front and rear entrances, both of those endangered bat species populations have increased.

7. I know the Ha Ha Tonka State Park hosts a number of community programs and events throughout the year. Tell me about some of the special events coming up this summer?

Masterson: As I mentioned we have our “Something on Saturday” programs, which started June 1. (See sidebar for specific dates and times). Most of the programs are similar every year with our owl prowls, night hikes, bat programs, and our signature and closing event, our Ha Ha Haunt the Friday before Halloween. However every we change the theme of the (Ha Ha Tonka Junior Explorer) Day Camp. This year, the theme is “Land of the Laughing Waters.” We are going to talk about the land, the resources and the people of the park area … One of our seasonal park interpreters, Richard Webster, will be doing a program called, “Karst and Counterfeiters.” Those coming to that program will here about some of the individuals that would hide out in the caves and set up their counterfeiting printers and businesses there. There is a local creek in the area the locals started calling “Bank Branch,” because they suspected counterfeiting activities to occur there, as well. We know the early settlers utilized the grist mills, and there were several here in the area … the Native Americans used the Colosseum (at the Natural Bridge) as a gathering place. The acoustics of that bowl-shaped area allowed sound to carry very easily and the Natural Bridge was there for weather protection. There is a lot of history with the uniqueness of our resources, and that program presented will cover those topics. We will also have some other programs presented by Larry and our seasonal park interpreters in August, which will be announced soon.

8. What are the top three questions asked by visitors to the park?

Masterson: The first question we get is, “Where is this castle?” So if they see it, they then ask, “Are you going to rebuild it?” Of course the answer is, ‘No.” It is unique in it’s own setting. In ruins the way it is, everyone can enjoy it.

The second question is, “What does Ha Ha Tonka mean?” According to early Ozark folklore, which is what the settlers thought the Native Americans, specifically the Osage tribe, referred to this area as. When we checked with the Osage tribe, those words as they are don’t really exist in their language. However, they have a very guttural way of speaking so maybe the settler thought the Native Americans said, “Ha Ha.” “Tonka” does have a meaning in their language as the great one or the great spirit. So the settlers thought they were talking about the great spring and as it tumbles over the rocks it is makes a great laughing sound. It is a wonderful interpretation, but we are not for sure it is very accurate.

The third question is when people are down by the spring, they ask, “Can we drink this water?” In Missouri, you don’t recommend anyone drinking from open water. It is groundwater that we know comes from as far away as Lebanon. You don’t know what else is put into the water during its travel here, such as fertilizers from a field. So, we can’t advise it. But a trip to the spring does show guests how abundant the aquatic life is there.

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Ha Ha Tonka State Park has a large playground and several picnic areas and shelter houses for special events. It also boasts an amazing number of trails with a special primitive camp use area that groups such as the Boy Scouts can reserve.

9. What is one of the top comments you have received from visitors or patrons to the park?

Masterson: I think they are impressed with the beauty of the area. I still get local residents who say, “I’ve lived here, never been here and didn’t realize how beautiful this park is.” They have such a unique opportunity at their doorstep to enjoy this park. We do have the park utilized by a lot of school groups, college groups and science professionals. Those professionals are truly amazed at the quality of landscape, the diversity of plants and the animals here … They are very appreciative of what we are doing here at Ha Ha Tonka State Park to preserve this landscape and to preserve this diversity. That is very gratifying to hear those compliments.

10. What would you say to encourage those who may not have been here to come explore Ha Ha Tonka State Park?

Masterson: Ha Ha Tonka State Park isn’t a place to come visit once. If you haven’t visited here, you need to come and come back. It will just amaze you with its landscape, the scenic views and its wonders. For example, on a hot summer day you can experience the natural air conditioning by the River Cave entrance or the Ha Ha Tonka Spring. Each season has it’s own eye-catching delights. In the winter, you can look into these landscapes, see great distances, see the irregularities of the rock outcroppings, and see the icicles that form much like stalactites in a cave. Spring arrives and you have outstanding displays of wildflowers. In the summer, it may be hot but you see such vivid green against the blue skies, which is just beautiful. The wildflower displays stay through summer, such as the cone flowers along the Devil’s Kitchen area. Then fall comes and you get the wonderful color from the maples, hickories and dogwoods. So, there is always something to do every season at Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

About ‘Something on Saturday’ events and ‘Kayak Meet-ups’

The LOWA Paddlers invite anyone interested in learning more about kayaking or those who simply enjoy the sport to attend one of its upcoming monthly Kayak Meet-ups with its launch site at Ha Ha Tonka State Park. The event is held from 8:30 a.m.-noon the following Saturdays: July 13, Aug. 10 and Sept. 14. Guests are asked to bring their own snacks and clothing that can get wet. Lifejackets are required. For more information, visit http://soslowa.org/lowapaddlers.php.

In addition, the public is invited to enjoy the following free “Something on Saturday” special events at Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

• Saturday, June 22, 8:30 p.m. at the Lake

  • Night Hike – What it’s like after dark: Hike the Spring Trail after hours to experience the park after closing time

• Saturday, June 29, 8:30 p.m. at Post Office Shelter

  • Astronomy for Beginners: Join the Camden County Astronomy Club for an evening of star gazing

• Saturday, July 6, 8:15 p.m. at River Cave

  • Bats: Guess how many live in Missouri: Learn about bats of Missouri and watch endangered gray bats leave River Cave for their nightly feeding

• Saturday, July 13, 10 a.m. at Natural Bridge area

  • Karst and Counterfeiters: Hike with the park interpreter to view Karst features and hear the folklore of various past uses

• Saturday, July 20, 8:30 p.m. at the Lake

  • Night Hike – What it’s like after dark: Hike the Spring Trail after hours to experience the park after closing time

• Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, July 23-25, 9 a.m.-noon

  • Ha Ha Tonka Jr. Explorer Camp: Explore the “Land of Laughing Waters” with activities ages 5-12. Register by calling the park office.

• Saturday, July 27, 8:30 p.m. at the Lake

  • Owls: Who makes this area home: Join naturalist for an owl program and try to call a barred owl into the yard

• Friday, Oct. 25, 5-8 p.m. at Castle Ruins

  • Ha Ha Haunt: Walk the decorated jack-o-lantern trail to the castle where decorations, treats and a craft activity await

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