Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

LOSP in Translation

Lake of the Ozarks State Park (LOSP) is Missouri’s largest state park. With nearly 18,000 acres to explore, the Park is over twice the size of the State’s second biggest park, which makes it sometimes feel more like a National Park than a state one. After all, LOSP even has its own airport; how many state parks out there can claim that?

GENERAL INFORMATION

For a family that likes to enjoy the outdoors, LOSP has everything you need for a wonderful get-away.  Of the Lake’s 1,150 miles of shoreline (which, if you’ve watched Ozark on Netflix, you already know is more shoreline than the State of California has coastline), the Park occupies a respectable 85 miles.  To explore all of that waterfront, boats of all shapes and sizes, from kayaks to bay liners, are available to rent from the Park’s marinas.  Though our family did not partake, the Park also offers a self-guided aquatic trail that meanders over 9 miles, and offers a point of view that hiking on land simply cannot.  If you are feeling naughty rather than purely nautical, the infamous “Party Cove” is located inside the Park, not far from its Grand Glaize Beach (one of two public beaches in LOSP).

Back on dry land, hiking is the best way to experience the varied terrain and unique ecosystems of the Park.  In total, over 35 miles of trails are provided with additional opportunities for stepping off the beaten path for those so inclined.

Overnight lodging options include primitive backpacker campgrounds, a very well-maintained formal campground with numerous restrooms and showers for car campers and RVers, and cabin and yurt lodging.  We stayed mid-week before Labor Day, and found it to be pretty quiet.  Weekends and holidays are likely a different story, when advance reservations are recommended.

HISTORY

The Lake of the Ozarks was opened in 1931 as the world’s largest man-made lake, after the construction of Bagnell Dam by Union Electric (now Ameren UE). More than 20,000 people were employed in the construction of the 2,500 ft long dam over the two years that it took to build it.

(please pardon the dirty windshield)

 

Bagnell Dam

The National Park Service developed Lake of the Ozarks Park in the 1930’s as a recreational use area (some accounts suggest that it was intended as a National Park, but I doubt that is true). In 1946, management of the Park was transitioned over to the State, and Lake of the Ozarks State Park was born.

NEARBY

If you are staying in Lake of the Ozarks State Park, there are a variety of options only a short drive from your tent.

Ozark Caverns Visitor Center

Still in the Park, I highly recommend a visit to Ozark Caverns (across the Lake from the campgrounds). The Caverns offers a visitor’s center with some of the most personable and knowledgable staff we’ve encountered in any park, state or otherwise. The visitor center itself is simple, offering ticketing for the Caverns tour ($10/adults, $8/teens, $6/adolescents, kids under 5 are free), multiple live and preserved specimens representing local wildlife, restrooms, and information on the geology and biology of the area.

NOTE: Due to White-Nose Syndrome, many common objects are only allowed on the tour in a provided, sealed ziplock bag, including hats, smartphones, and cameras.  Their staff warned me that the ziplocks they provide would be too opaque to shoot through, but I was skeptical- they were right.

“twilight” area of the Ozark Caverns

Because of the inability to photograph inside the cave, I unfortunately cannot share images of what wonders it contains.  That said, “Angel Showers” is the cave’s most famous feature, and is an excellent representation of a very unusual formation referred to as a “showerhead and bathtub”.  The formation is quite rare: Angel Showers is one of only 14 known formations like this in the entire world.

Nearby the Visitors Center at Ozark Caverns is a wonderful short hike called the Coakley Hollow Trail.  Coakley is a veritable museum of Ozark geology and ecology, though it is situated largely in what is referred to as a fen, or an area that constantly seeps cool, mineral-rich water originating from underground sources. At less than a mile long, this trail (which offers a free self-guide book) is a must-do, before or after your Cavern experience.

Castle Ruins at Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Just down the road from Lake of the Ozarks State Park, on another branch of the Lake, is Ha Ha Tonka State Park.  The area of this State Park was first recorded by Westerners in the early 19th century. In the early 20th century, a grand estate was planned by a wealthy Kansas City business man as his private retreat. His life was lost before he could see his opulent vision of a European-style castle come to fruition, though his sons would complete it for him. By the 1940’s, the castle was in use as a hotel, and it was during this period that fire devastated it.  In 1978, the castle ruins and 4000 or so acres surrounding it was converted into a State Park.  In addition to the castle ruins, Ha Ha Tonka offers over 15 miles of trails through some of the state’s most beautiful and accessible wilderness.

NOTE: Unfortunately, the castle ruins themselves are currently off limits and are surrounded by a big fence.  Signs proclaim structural integrity as the issue (a 2016 study of the site’s structural condition is to blame), and although I reeeeally wanted to climb over and get a better view of what is obviously an epic site, I respected the barrier.  For those of us that enjoy nature and photography, I think it is most important that we abide by the rules posted; after all, it is often our images that lead to the destruction of natural landmarks because they encourage other visitors/photographers to go where we go. So, be mindful of this, play by the rules people, and stretch your creativity to find angles that Instagram didn’t find for you.

The closest “city” to Lake of the Ozarks State Park is Osage Beach.  The community of Osage Beach, originally named Zebra, was flooded out by the Lake’s introduction.  The new town is therefore both literally and figuratively linked to the Lake that is both its misfortune and fortune.  Like any small town near a big tourist attraction (5 million people visit each year), the OB knows how to cater to out-of-towners.  I’ve never been a big fan of the Branson-style “hillbilly mercantiles” that sell everything from fudge to terrible “Indian moccasins”, but those do exist in Osage Beach if that’s your fancy.  That said, if I’m going to go full-tourist, I much prefer the waterside canteens, like Backwater Jack’s.  Maybe it’s the summers I spent cruising the Mississippi as a child with my family, but to me, nothing tastes better after a day on or near the water than fried fish and fries, and Backwater Jack’s offers them up in full-on, party cove style with swim-up bars and music blasting.

Just past Osage Beach, is a park overlook of Bagnell Dam that was built by Ameren UE, the Dam’s current owner.  It features a scenic view and some history of the site. The view of the Dam is pretty tame, but right next door to the Park along a gravel road is a better one (see the pic of Bagnell Dam above).

Bagnell Dam scenic overlook

OUR EXPERIENCE

Close your eyes, breath in deeply, and conjure up a place in your mind that makes you happy.  You might imagine a camping idyl bathed in the warm light of a fading sun, maybe you can even smell the campfire smoke as it dances lazily through a gentle breeze, but do you hear the screams- the screams of a tired toddler with an apparent anti-nature disposition?

This was our youngest son’s first camping trip, and at 15 months, perhaps this was a bit much to thrust upon him.  He is normally such a chill child though, that we thought this would be no problem for him. The drive out from St. Louis is 2-3 hours (depending upon which route you take and how fast you drive), but for our baby boy, this was 1-2 hours too long.  His temperament seemed set from the drive forward, so if you’ve got little ones, you may want to keep this in mind.  There are opportunities to stop along the way, and this might have helped.  We had the tent site reserved for longer, but had to cut out early to keep the baby happy.  A year from now, I’m sure our tiny trooper will be ready to try again.

Enjoy the video below which is as much about parenting as it is about camping with littles:

All of that said, the trip imparted some great memories for us and our kiddos, and we will most definitely be back to LOSP on future Gray Family camping expeditions.  If you have kids, this is a great place to bring them, with plenty for families to do.  All of the people that we met were friendly and accommodating, a concern for multiracial families like ours traveling outside the city (sometimes even inside the city).  If you are planning an adventure here, you will not be disappointed.

Gear

Backpack: F-Stop Loka with Small Pro ICU

Main Camera: Nikon D7200

Secondary Camera: Nikon D300 (did not use, see my review of the D7200 for why it came along)

Timelapse/Video Cameras: GoPro Hero 4 Silver and GoPro Hero 4 Session

Lenses: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-x Pro, Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D, Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D

Other Equipment: Serac Sequoia Hammock, Serac Classic Hammock, Anker Pocket Bluetooth Speaker, iPhone 7Plus

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