My family decided to go on a short fall getaway this year to Lake of the Ozarks State Park in central Missouri. Lake of the Ozarks State Park is perhaps the crown jewel of Missouri’s state park system; it’s a sizable park with access to the large lake for which it is named, with boat slips, boat rentals, public swimming beaches, the scenic Ozark Caverns cave tour, guided horseback trail rides, and miles of trails for hiking and biking.
The highlight for my family was hanging out in our rented, rustic, secluded log cabin on park property. Because we visited during the fall off-season, some park attractions were closed, but we had plenty of fun cooking over a campfire outside our cabin and watching nature from our front porch.
What to do at Lake of the Ozarks State Park
The disadvantage to visiting Lake of the Ozarks State Park during the off-season was that we couldn’t tour the cave on park grounds, we couldn’t see the visitors center, there were no interpretive programs conducted by naturalists, and the camp store wasn’t open.
Fall is a quiet time at the park. We still could access the swimming beaches, and during our first day there, it was almost warm enough for the kids to swim. There are multiple playgrounds with picnic shelters and bathrooms. The two wooden swinging bridges on park property are interesting to drive across but are kind of out of the way.
There also are miles of hiking and equestrian trails. We opted to hike the 1.5-mile Lake Trail that encircles the group of cabins where we stayed. The Lake Trail was listed as moderate, but some parts were more rugged. We encountered a few partially washed out stretches where the ground slanted steeply toward the lakeshore, and gravel rolled precariously under our feet. The trail winds for a long way directly along the lakeshore, with a view of the water and houses and marinas across the lake. We saw a small prairie kingsnake and the remains of a large turtle along this trail in addition to the stone ruins of an old Boy Scout camp.
After exploring what was available at Lake of the Ozarks State Park, we drove 30 minutes to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, a popular hiking destination featuring the ruins of a mansion (many people call it a castle) that was built in the early 1900s and burned in the 1940s. Visitors can walk right up to the mansion ruins and other outbuildings. Another highlight at Ha Ha Tonka was walking under and on top of a natural rock bridge.
Where to stay at Lake of the Ozarks State Park
Lake of the Ozarks State Park offers camping ranging from primitive to electric sites. Some campsites have nice views of the lake.
The campground also features two yurts that sleep 5 to 6 people each and include a futon, futon bunk bed, a dorm-sized refrigerator, microwave, coffee table, lamp, air conditioner and heater. Outside each yurt are a picnic table, fire ring, and barbecue grill. The yurts have no running water, and guests use the central bathhouses in the campground. During the off-season, vault toilets are available.
Our family stayed in one of eight rustic cabins located in a secluded area on the other side of the park. Fellow writer Beth and her family stayed in one of these cabins two years ago and tipped us off to how fun they are.
For $55 a night (that’s the weekend/holiday rate; the weeknight rate is $50), we got a cabin with wooden table and (heavy) chairs, a wood-burning stove, electricity, a ceiling fan and lighting, air conditioning, heating, a dorm-sized refrigerator, and a microwave. We also were given a nice supply of complementary firewood (we used it to make fires for cooking dinner/dessert on two nights and for cooking breakfast on two mornings, and we still had wood left over).
You must bring your own bedding, and the cabins sleep up to six people, although two of the three beds are smaller than full size, so four is a more realistic number if you’re talking about teens and adults staying here. My husband and I slept on a futon bed on the main floor, and our two daughters each got their own beds (sized between a twin and a full) in the loft.
Be warned: The loft is up pretty high, with a tall ladder to reach it. My youngest daughter was a few weeks shy of her 5th birthday when we stayed here, and she fell down the ladder on our first evening, even after we’d stressed the importance of being careful. Based on our experience, I would be wary of putting kids younger than 4 years old in the loft. For kids who know how to climb safely, though, the loft is way fun. My daughters quickly claimed it as their personal hangout space, and they spent hours up there playing with their dolls and coloring.
Outside our cabin were a fire pit and picnic benches/tables. Each cabin also has a generously sized covered front porch, and I actually wished it would rain one morning so we could sit in lawn chairs on the porch while drinking hot chocolate and admiring the wooded view.
Cabins have no running water, but there is a central bathhouse with drinking water nearby. The bathhouse, by the way, is newly built and is the cleanest, brightest, nicest bathhouse I have ever used while camping anywhere. It’s also heated during the winter.
The cabins are available to rent year-round and are spaced far enough apart that you have little interaction with your neighbors, which is good if you want to be alone. If you are renting multiple cabins for a large family or group, it may pose challenges.
As a mom who finds tent camping slightly stressful because of the work involved, I enjoyed cabin life. It was nice not having to cram everyone into a tent. It also was nice to have space to bring some of our gear inside where we stored it on some sturdy shelves, rather than trying to stuff everything in the hatch of our Subaru like a life-sized game of Tetris. The mini fridge and microwave were small creature comforts. I also loved that the cabin had lots of wooden hooks on all the walls on the main floor and in the loft for hanging hoodies and jackets, towels, small bags, and more. There also were a few metal hooks where we could safely hang lanterns, and you WILL want to bring a few lanterns because the cabin is lit by only a single light bulb.
Even with the small comforts, we still felt like we were roughing it when we cooked our meals outdoors, sat around the campfire, and walked to the bathhouse. My daughters and I pretended we were Laura, Mary, and Ma Ingalls all weekend.
The only downside was that our cabin smelled a little musty, but the smell may have been because we got one of the cabins that allows dogs to stay (it was the last one available to rent). After opening some windows, it wasn’t bad.
If you’re a germophobe, you may want to bring along some disinfectant wipes or Lysol to quickly clean the mattresses, the fridge and microwave, and the wood counter where you may be doing some food prep. I’m not if sure park staff cleans any of those things between guests, and our fridge looked like someone had spilled juice in it. These are small, easily fixed issues, though.
We’ll Be Back
We will likely return to Lake of the Ozarks State Park during the more full-featured summer season so we can tour the Ozark Caverns, check out the visitors center, and swim in the lake.
While there are plenty of lodging options like the campground and yurts, we enjoyed the cabins so much I’m not sure we’ll ever stay elsewhere during future visits to Lake of the Ozarks State Park. It’s a lovely thing to awaken on a not-too-cool fall morning in a cabin, with all the windows open to the sunlit woods and with the sound of birds all around, and with memories of a moonlit campfire the night before.
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