Ha Ha Tonka State Park is known for the stone castle ruins that have been on the property for more than one hundred years, but when I visited, I was far more enthralled by the rushing spring far below.

I visited the park with my friend Fiona. We chose to pass time there while waiting for friends to camp in nearby Eldon. We first stopped at the castle ruins and admired how tall the structure was, but wished we could have gone closer. Since 2016, there has been a fence around the castle so the structure is not disturbed by visitors. Robert McClure Snyder, a successful Kansas City businessman, began castle construction in 1905 but was killed in a car accident in 1906. His three sons completed the castle in the early 1920s, but it unfortunately burned down from a chimney fire in 1942. The state bought the grounds and what remained of the castle in 1978. The site got its name, Ha Ha Tonka, from an Osage phrase, which is translates to “laughing waters” or “smiling waters.”

After admiring the castle, we made our way to one of the trails. The popular state park features geologic wonders throughout, including caves, a giant natural bridge, and Ha Ha Tonka Spring, the twelfth largest spring in Missouri. While walking on the trail, we found the steps that lead to the spring and a sign warning you that it’s a strenuous hike. Without hesitation, we descended downward 316 steps.

We were quiet on the way down with the exception of the occasional gong noise my metal water bottle made when it hit the wooden rails. Fiona and I had experienced a mutual loss of our friend Cole a few months beforehand and still were processing that grief. We spent the majority of time together—laughing, crying, sharing, and hiking. A lot of hiking.

From left, author Corin Cesaric and Fiona Murphy enjoy the peaceful view at Ha Ha Tonka Spring.

During our trip to Ha Ha Tonka, the temperature wasn’t high, but the air was humid and sticky. It was sprinkling, but the trees covered the wooden steps the entire way down to the spring, so we could hear the drops of water hit the leaves above us. They rarely touched our skin.

On our trek, I realized it is very difficult to be sad in nature. When my mind would wander to what—and who—we had lost, the natural noises of the spring or an animal scurrying in the brush briefly snapped me out of it.

At the bottom of the steps, the spring gave off a green hue, and there was a thick fog on the water that made it look almost mystical. The bright green leaves on the trees surrounding it and the rolling hills of the Ozarks were blurred by the fog. The spring was even more beautiful than we imagined it would be.

Another group of visitors challenged us to race leaves in the spring with them, which amounted to dropping our leaves on the water and seeing which one the current carried the quickest. My leaf lost.

After the spring had soothed our souls, we hiked back up those 316 steps. Remarkably, my heart didn’t feel so sad at this beautiful place of unfulfilled dreams and a tragic fire