Nothing is more surprising than when you have a preconceived notion of a place, and it turns out not to be anything like you thought. I pictured Branson, Missouri, as a mini-Las Vegas, full of glitzy theater shows tailored to fit a more Midwestern audience. And while you can certainly fill your days watching country singers, bluegrass bands and gospel groups in everything from an intimate, 50-seat theater to a 3,000-seat auditorium, this city in the heart of the Ozark Mountains offers so much more.
Most surprisingly, it is an outdoor lover’s paradise, especially if you like hiking, biking, sailing or fishing. While I never would have thought of Branson as a “beach town,” Table Rock Lake has almost 800 miles of shoreline, and there are numerous areas where you can swim and sunbathe, as well as campgrounds near the lake so you can set up for a long weekend. The lake is paradise for bass fishermen, and is also filled with crappie, bluegill and catfish. One of the most unique things about this location is that very little development has been allowed along the shoreline, so it is not as commercialized as many popular lakes; despite being only a short distance from Branson, it seems like you’re miles away from civilization.
Nature lovers will also appreciate Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, which covers more than 10,000 acres in the Ozarks. The first thing you notice upon entering is the working gristmill—walk to the other side, and you’ll be stunned by the sight of a cascading waterfall rushing down the mountain. There are waterfalls throughout the park, as well as trout streams so pristine that you can see the fish swimming in the startling clear blue-green water. You can choose to hike through the park or take a guided tram or Jeep tour, which will also take you up to higher pastures where herds of bison, elk and longhorn cattle roam. There’s even a supercool treehouse built by Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters on-site which you should check out if you can pull yourself away from the beauty of the outdoors.
I was really surprised to find one of my favorite outdoor –or should I say underground—attractions was located in Silver Dollar City, which was the last place that I thought I’d find one of the most impressive caves I’ve ever seen. Known for its amusement park rides, craftsmanship demonstrations and insanely good food—you have got to try at least one of the 100,000 cinnamon rolls that they make each year—the park sits upon a hidden treasure. Marvel Cave, a registered Natural Landmark, first starting offering cave tours back in 1894, and the theme park actually grew up around it.
You start your tour by walking down a long staircase to end up 300 feet below the surface in the Cathedral Room, the largest cave entrance room in the United States. In fact, you could fit the Statue of Liberty within this space! From there you walk half-a-mile underground, up and down 700 steps and along serpentine paths, until you’ve actually climbed 50 stories to reach the cable train at the end that takes you 1,070 feet back to the surface. Along the route, you get to see a stunning array of cave fixtures, including and draperies, columns, stalactites and stalagmites.
While Branson is known for its shows and more glitzy attractions, there’s a lot more than meets the eye in this “touristy” destination, especially if you’re looking for outdoor adventure.
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