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More to Lake of the Ozarks than just the lake

KAISER, Mo. – Mention Lake of the Ozarks State Park and most people think of water. But they’re leaving out a whole lot of land.

“Something like17,600 acres – we’re the largest state park in Missouri,” said Cindy Hall, a naturalist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “We’re also one of the busiest; we have over a million visitors a year.”

Many of those visitors come because of the Lake of the Ozarks, which is a favorite for boating and fishing in the Midwest. The lake itself is owned by AmerenUE, with the state park wrapping around its Grand Glaize Arm.

The state park features two beaches and two marinas with boat launches and rentals, providing public access on a shoreline that is largely privately owned. “Those are busy, busy places on summer weekends,” Hall said.

The park creates something of an oasis for boaters and anglers seeking to escape the watery traffic jam on the lake’s main channel. Because it is a private lake, development was allowed along much of its shoreline on the main channel.

But the park property that borders the Grand Glaize Arm is largely free of condos and restaurants and resorts. Visitors can find a secluded, tree-lined cove, even on those crowded summer weekends.

“A lot of people like to come to this arm of the lake because it’s much quieter,” Hall said. “It’s become kind of a mecca.”

But the park has several features that have nothing to do with the water.

“A lot of people think the marinas and the beaches are the park, and there’s nothing else to it,” Hall said. “But anything you’ll find at other state parks, you’ll find at Lake of the Ozarks.”

Nice and quiet

The park has 12 designated trails covering some 50 miles for everyone’s interest -- hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and equestrian. Even boaters have a trail with the park system’s only aquatic trail – a series of buoys over 9.75 lake miles that allows visitors to discover the park’s woodlands, glades and geologic features by water. Along the way, a brochure explains the scenes, such as the swallows that inhabit the rocky ledges or the cedars that would invade the glades without periodic prescribed burns.

The Trail of the Four Winds is the park’s longest trail, taking hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders over 13.5 miles through woodlands with stunning views of the lake. For people who want to do the trail on horseback but don’t have a horse, the park’s stable can take care of that. Several shorter trails follow the shoreline.

Take the 2-mile Rocky Top Trail, which climbs to one of the park’s largest glades, then head through the woods to a cliff overlooking the lake. The view can be serene, with a single boat skimming the placid water.

“We get a lot of people looking for a good view of the lake, and I send them out on this one,” Hall said of the trail. “The wildflowers can be beautiful and you get to the bluff and look directly into the park – you don’t see any of the development.”

She added that most visitors think of the Ozarks as dense woods, and are surprised to find areas with widely spaced trees and grasses and wildflowers growing beneath. This landscape is preserved by fire management, mimicking what occurs in nature and historically, when American Indians and early settlers burned plots.

The park has more than 230 shaded campsites, ranging from primitive spots in the backcountry to those with electric hookups. Eight camper cabins offer rustic lodging by the water. There also are group camp sites constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The historic district along Highway 134 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of the beautiful stone work in the CCC-era buildings, bridges and dams.

“We have such a diverse user group – people with the big houseboats and people who have a tent way out in the middle of the park, and everything in between,” Hall said.

An Angel Shower

Ozark Caverns, another of the park’s features, showcases the geologic wonders found in southern Missouri’s karst topography, which is marked by a subterranean system of caves and fissures.

Visitors to the Caverns take lantern-light tours and learn about the soda straws, stalactites and other deposits, as well as about the species that range from the blind grotto salamander to four types of bats.

The Caverns most notable feature is Angel Shower, a continuous flow of water from a “showerhead” of stalactites to a crystalline basin eight feet below. “If people remember anything, it’s the Angel Shower,” Hall said.

The Division of State Parks has closed most of its wild caves as a protection against the spread of a disease called white-nose syndrome that is killing bats in several states. Ozark Caverns is one of four public tour caves that has remained open but staff are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the disease.

The visitor center at Ozark Caverns, where Hall has an office, is in a wooded setting near a restored fen and a spring-fed brook. The mile-long Coakley Hollow Trail begins at the center and meanders through one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the park.

“Even on the Fourth of July, when the lake goes crazy, the Ozark Caverns area is nice and peaceful,” Hall said. “We do programs to help people learn that there’s a little more to this park than just the lake.”