If you need a break from the crowds at Branson’s biggest attractions or you’re a repeat visitor that has already seen the top sights, maybe it’s time to get off the beaten path and explore places that slip under the radar for most visitors. Some of the suggestions in my Branson Off the Beaten Path itinerary are hiding in plain sight right on Highway 76, while others are located outside Branson that are worth the short drive. These include museums (my favorite museum in the Branson area is among them), some free attractions perfect for families, and new attractions at Top of the Rock.
As for dining, there are few stones left unturned in this very touristy town. Highway 76 is especially a challenge, but I’ve found that Pancho Villa, serving Tex-Mex fare, can seat customers quickly even when busy. On the way to Table Rock Lake, Billy Gail’s Cafe may not be undiscovered, but it used to be, until fame grew simply by word of mouth due to its generous portions and friendly atmosphere. Also on the way to the lake is Danna’s BBQ & Burgers, renowned for its slow-cooked meats and homemade rubs and sauces. Dobyns Dining Room, located on the College of the Ozarks campus and staffed by students, is a real gem and one of my favorites. At Top of the Rock, Arnie’s Barn, also serving Tex-Mex, is a great place for lunch or weekend dinner and is new enough and out of the way enough that you might be able to snag an outdoor table.
Start your adventure at Branson’s often overlooked attractions right on Highway 76, at the Veterans Memorial Museum, which chronicles our nation’s wars and conflicts during the 20th century and is insightful even for people who know nothing about them. Down the road is the oft-neglected but fascinating World’s Largest Toy Museum, which contains a staggering amount of toys (almost two million) from the 1800s to more recent pop culture. For shopping, Branson Mill rarely draws crowds, yet its in-house artisans and vendors offer a higher quality of goods and souvenirs than Branson’s other craft malls, making it my personal favorite.
Nine miles north of Branson, just off Highway 65, is the Bonniebrook Gallery, Museum and Homestead, which includes the early 1900s home of Rose O’Neill, who was a very interesting and independently minded woman who created the Kewpie doll but also, at the other end of the spectrum, the “Sweet Monsters.” But the museum everyone should see is a 10-minute drive south of Branson at College of the Ozarks, where the Ralph Foster Museum is an unexpected delight of everything Ozarks and beyond. It contains an eclectic and overwhelming display of Indian artifacts, quilts, musical instruments, dolls, taxidermic animals, more than 1,000 firearms and much, much more.
Farther south is Top of the Rock, where another museum, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, is also is dedicated to the Ozarks, this one relating to the people and animals that contributed to the region’s history over the past 12,000 years. A combination ticket is available that also lets you tour the next door Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail, either on a self-driven golf cart or on a guided walking tour that lets you take in scenic views of Table Rock Lake, waterfalls, a huge cave and more.
Prices for museums and other attractions in Branson can add up, especially for families, but there are a couple of free fun things to do at Table Rock Lake. The Dewey Short Visitor Center has displays relating to the lake, the dam that created it and the natural history of the area, with plenty to keep young ones occupied. As a bonus, the paved 2.25-mile Table Rock Lakeshore Trail starts right beside the visitor center. Nearby is the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery, with a Conservation Center describing how trout are spawned and raised, pools with trout of all ages and even free guided tours in summer.
For more ideas on fun and free outdoor destinations, see the Branson Outdoors itinerary.