Branson’s theaters and attractions might get all the glory, but it’s Branson outdoors and the Ozarks’ natural beauty that should really steal the show. Blessed with wooded hills, spring-fed creeks, rock outcroppings, ravines, lakes and scenic vistas, Branson and its surroundings are reason enough to visit this neck of the woods. Best of all, you don’t have to go far to immerse yourself in countryside; there are hidden gems right in the center of town. If your favorite outdoor activity is golfing or fishing, you’re certainly in one of the best places in America for that. There are also plenty of destinations great for families, whether it’s swimming at a sandy beach or a trolley ride through a game preserve. And for active travelers who live for spiritual communes with nature, there are plenty of nearby destinations that fit the bill, most notably Mark Twain National Forest.
Although you might have arrived fully equipped for an outdoor adventure, for people who travel lightly or spontaneously and find themselves in need of some gear, Bass Pro Shops is packed to the rafters with outdoor apparel and footwear, rods and fishing lures, camping equipment and much more, while the Coleman Factory Outlet has coolers, portable grills and other items for picnics and camping. And if you’re here for fishing, you might find lots to marvel at the History of Fishing Museum, which boasts more than 40,000 lures, reels, rods, motors, bobbers, boats and everything imaginable relating to fishing.
As for meals during your outdoor activities, packing a picnic could make the most sense. Or, maybe you’ll opt for a casual restaurant with outdoor seating (who knows what company you might want to keep after a day in the woods). In town, I’d choose Outback Steak & Oyster Bar, which sounds fancier than it is and has an outdoor deck. There are also a few destinations listed below with outdoor dining options, including Dogwood Canyon and the State Park Marina’s outlet for Danna’s BBQ & Burgers. Another option if you’re visiting Dogwood Canyon and looking for a place to unwind at the end of the day is the Buffalo Bar, located at Top of the Rock golf course, with an outdoor patio overlooking Table Rock Lake.
If you have only an hour or two to spare but need that outdoor getaway, the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area right in the heart of town offers hiking trails, an historic homestead and views of Lake Taneycomo. On the way to Silver Dollar City is an often overlooked gem, the 1,534-acre Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area with five hiking trails of varying length and difficulty; you could spend an entire day here.
There are also more than a half-dozen golf courses in and around Branson, several of them perennially listed as one of the top places to play in the country. There are also several companies offering zipline adventures, the biggest of which is Branson Zipline seven miles north of downtown Branson.
Table Rock Lake west of Branson is the region’s biggest recreational draw, especially when it comes to fishing, swimming, boating and hiking. Families looking for some R&R might head straight to Moonshine Beach, the lake’s only sandy beach and equipped with a playground, picnic tables and other facilities. Not far away is Table Rock State Park, with a myriad of options from camping to hiking. Its State Park Marina offers fishing, skiing, pontoon and other recreational boats for rent (it even has a full-service scuba diving shop), but for those who would rather leave the driving to others, the 48-foot Spirit of America catamaran sails daily in summer and includes an option also for anchored swimming. The marina also has a barbecue and burger joint for casual dining.
Hikers and bikers might want to take advantage of the park’s two trails. The 2.25-mile, handicap-accessible paved Table Rock Lakeshore Trail offers great vistas as it hugs the lake’s shore, with benches and picnic tables along the way. Mountain bikers and hikers looking for a more challenging adventure should try the nearby 11.75-mile White River Valley Trail with its looping dirt trails over the region’s naturally hilly topography.
One of the region’s newest outdoor destinations is at Top of the Rock, where you can drive your own electric cart on the 2.5-mile Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail that takes in rock formations, waterfalls, beautiful views of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake and even a cave. Another fun, although pricey outdoor option for families and pretty much everyone else is Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, 35 miles south of Branson. It’s a private wildlife refuge that’s groomed to perfection, with spring-fed streams, waterfalls and wooded areas, which you can explore on foot, bike, trolley, Segway or horseback. There’s also a newly opened working grist mill and a restaurant with patio. Both Top of the Rock and Dogwood Canyon are under the same ownership as Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge.
But for outdoor enthusiasts who really want to get away from it all, Mark Twain National Forest covers about 1.5 million acres of wilderness spread around southern Missouri, with scenic drives, hiking trails, great rivers for canoeing and of course camping. Another gem is Roaring River State Park, established in 1928 and one of the oldest and most scenic of the state’s parks. Famous for its trout fishing, it offers camping, dining, rustic cabins, swimming and hiking.