Mark Twain National Forest, named after Missouri’s famous author who grew up in Hannibal, was established in 1938 to preserve nearly 1.5 million acres of woods, hilly terrain and spring-fed rivers. Rather than one huge park, it’s spread over 29 counties, mostly in southern Missouri.
You’d have to move here to see it all, but Taney County has almost 66,000 acres within its borders, mostly east and west of Branson around Kimberling and Forsyth. In fact, much of the serpent-like Table Rock Lake which snakes west from Branson and past Kimberling toward Arkansas, is in the national park.
For a scenic drive, there’s the 28-mile Sugar Camp National Forest Scenic Byway, which runs south on Highway 86 from its junction with Highway 76 to Forest Road 197, ending up on Highway 112 just south of Roaring River State Park. Combining paved highway and 8 miles of gravel road, it travels along ridges and through valleys with pastures and farms, providing spectacular views of Ozarks scenery, especially when dogwoods are in blooming in spring or the leaves are changing color in autumn. East of Branson, The Glade Top National Forest Scenic Byway (aka Forest Service Road No. 147) weaves 23 miles along ridges from the little hamlet of Longrun on Highway 95, providing great views and many picnic opportunities.
Otherwise, the national forest has lots of hiking and biking trails and picnic areas, including the Glade Top National Forest area above, and Swan Creek (near Garrison), with about 20 miles of trails used by hikers and mountain bikers. Thirty-some miles west of Branson via Highway 76 is the Piney Creek Wilderness area with about 13 miles of trails and primitive camping.
Although you can canoe or kayak near Branson on Swan or Beaver creeks, for more serious canoeing you’ll want to head farther afield, where crystal-clear streams like the Current (part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways), Jack’s Fork, North Fork and Eleven Point are among my favorites and are popular for tubing, canoeing and kayaking, with many outfitters to set you up. Be forewarned, however, that it can be bow to stern on weekends, so go on a Monday or Tuesday if possible. In addition, spring floods sometimes close rivers to boaters.