Biking, swimming, backpacking, fishing, hiking—whatever your interest, make sure you experience these recreational highlights, as chosen by AAA editors.
By Greg Weekes
You could spend a week in Branson doing nothing but seeing live entertainment. But the heart of the Ozarks—a land of lakes, streams, hills and trees—provides a welcome respite from all things touristy as well as a peaceful reminder of why folks started coming here in the first place.
To really commune with nature, go camping. The Tri-Lakes area is a camper's paradise, offering campgrounds in idyllic settings far removed from the hustle and bustle of the Branson Strip. Many of them are tucked into the nooks and crannies of Table Rock Lake. Indian Point campground is right on the lake. Wilderness At Silver Dollar Campground is just a short hop from Silver Dollar City.
The Tall Pines Campground , on SR 265 just south of SR 76, and the Oak Grove RV Park and Campground , a short distance south of SR 76 on SR 165, both offer scenic views and the wooded settings their names promise. Table Rock State Park is an ideal base for water recreation; it has a marina and facilities for boaters, anglers and scuba diving enthusiasts. The Table Rock Lakeshore Trail, which begins at the park's visitor center and follows the shore for more than 2 miles, makes for a nice waterside walk.
For even more solitude, venture a little farther afield. Aunts Creek and Mill Creek campgrounds have boat ramps and access to Table Rock Lake. Baxter is another lakeside retreat where you can get away from it all for a little boating or fishing.
The area's largest campground also is one of the most conveniently located: Branson Lakeside RV Park on Lake Taneycomo near downtown and Branson Landing. Cooper Creek Campground and Resort , occupying 14 wooded acres on Lake Taneycomo, is a good bet if you aim to do some trout fishing. Note: Most campgrounds are open from the beginning of March or April through October or November.
Table Rock Lake is the Branson area's No. 1 outdoor draw. Created by damming the White and Black rivers to generate electricity, control flooding and develop recreation opportunities, it's a favorite with residents and visitors alike. You can fish, swim, water ski, scuba dive and parasail. Fishing boats, sailboats, pontoon boats, houseboats and personal watercraft all share the water.
Professional tournaments take place at Table Rock Lake, which has four distinct fishing seasons. Bluegill, catfish and crappie as well as largemouth, smallmouth, Kentucky and white bass are all plentiful, occupying different depths and habitats depending on the time of year. The lake is a bass angler's dream due to a favorable natural environment and carefully monitored breeding and management programs. Marinas, bait shops and resorts around the lake all can provide advice about when and where the fish are running. You'll need a state fishing license; for more information, contact the Missouri Department of Conservation at (417) 895-6880.
Bird watching is another popular outdoor pastime. Great blue herons are frequently sighted along local rivers and streams and also congregate in the vicinity of the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery due to the presence of trout-rearing pools. During the winter, bald eagles can be seen on the small islands that dot Table Rock Lake. Wild turkeys are abundant in the Ozarks. These wily, ungainly looking birds travel in flocks and spend lots of time in wooded areas; you often can spot them along the 8-mile stretch of the Ozark Mountain Highroad (SR 465). The eastern bluebird, Missouri's state bird, is a fairly common sight thanks to nest boxes provided by helpful humans.
Multicolored painted buntings spend seasonal time in the Ozarks; bring binoculars and search for them at the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area. The entrance is just off SR 76 a short distance west of the intersection with Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. Hike the paved half-mile trail to the observation tower, which can be climbed for a panoramic view of rolling woodland, rocky glades and Branson's sprawl. This also is a nice place for a picnic.
The Buffalo Ridge Golf Course, designed by golf architect Tom Fazio, not only takes full advantage of the surrounding natural beauty but is impeccably maintained. The course at the Holiday Hills Resort and Golf Club was originally laid out in 1938. Predominantly flat, with wide open fairways and large greens, it is especially forgiving to the yeoman golfer, and the landscaping is lovely. There are more hills at the LedgeStone Country Club, where the features include dense woods and water that comes into play on 11 holes.
Some of Branson's resident country music stars have homes along the Point Royale Golf Course; its rolling hills, mature trees and numerous water hazards will test golfers of every skill level. The most dramatic tee shot setting at the Thousand Hills Golf Resort is at the par-4 ninth hole, where the fairway is nestled in a valley lined on both sides with thick trees.
Escape Branson for an afternoon and explore the surrounding scenic countryside. The following suggested driving route takes in most of the Tri-Lakes area. From downtown Branson, take US 65 south through Hollister to the junction with SR 86. You might encounter road construction and traffic, but as soon as you turn onto SR 86 you'll leave hubbub behind.
The two-lane road, a AAA Scenic Byway, meanders along the Missouri/Arkansas border, dipping and winding over lushly forested hills. The trip is especially scenic in April, when blooming dogwoods and the fresh new greens of spring are everywhere, and during the fall foliage peak in October.
Follow the signs to Dogwood Canyon Nature Park , 10,000 acres of pristine Ozarks wilderness. It's a real get-away-from-it-all place where you can fish for rainbow trout, rent a bike or paddle a kayak. An open-air tram ride passes waterfalls and spring-fed streams before ascending the canyon to open grassland, where resident herds of American bison, elk and Texas longhorn cattle roam.
SR 86 continues west through the hamlets of Emerald Beach, Golden, Chain-o-Lakes and Eagle Rock. At the junction with SR 76 head east back toward Branson, traversing the northern portion of Mark Twain National Forest en route to Cape Fair. Straddling the James River arm of Table Rock Lake, this is a woodsy little town situated on rocky bluffs high above the water. The many coves along the lakeshore offer superb angling for the likes of largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish and catfish.
From Cape Fair, continue east on SRs 76 and 265 to Shepherd of the Hills Expressway and Branson. Note: Round-trip mileage is about 103 miles. Drive time is approximately 3 hours, not counting stops.
In-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. All hotels must meet the same basic requirements for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality to be AAA Approved. A rating of one to five AAA Diamonds tells members what type of experience to expect, from no-frills to highly personalized.
The Branson/Lakes area levies general retail sales, tourism sales and food and beverage sales taxes based on three different jurisdictions: Branson Landing/downtown, citywide and Branson Hills. General retail sales taxes range from 8.6 to 9.6 percent; sales that include a tourism sales tax range from 11.6 to 12.6 percent; food and beverage sales taxes range from 8.975 to 9.975 percent.
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Skaggs Regional Medical Center, (417) 335-7000; CoxHealth Cox North (Springfield, Mo.), (417) 269-3000; CoxHealth Cox South (Springfield, Mo.), (417) 269-6000; Mercy Hospital (Springfield, Mo.), (417) 820-2000.
269 SR 248 Branson, MO 65615. Phone:(417)334-4084 or (800)214-3661
(BKG), 1 mile south of the Hollister exit off US 65, east on Branson Creek Boulevard, then following signs to 4000 Branson Airport Blvd., is served by Buzz Airways and Frontier and handles commercial and general aviation; phone (417) 334-7813.
Hertz, which only operates out of Springfield-Branson National Airport, offers discounts to AAA members; phone (417) 597-5313, (800) 654-3131 or (800) 654-3080. Rental cars are available at Branson Airport.
Gray Line Branson
Cab companies include Jerry’s Shuttle, (417) 348-1419; and Checker Cab, City Cabs and Yellow Cab, all of which can be reached at (417) 332-2227 (Branson Cab Service).
Unless you're part of a motor coach tour, getting around Branson is much easier if you have your own vehicle. One convenient alternative to driving is a free ride aboard the Downtown Trolley. The red-and-gold, hop-on and hop-off trolley makes 12 stops in the historic downtown area, including two stops at Branson Landing. It operates daily 9-6, Mar.-Dec.; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Trolley maps are available at downtown retail locations and at the Downtown Branson Betterment Association, 112 W. College St.; phone (417) 334-1548 or (866) 523-1190.