With 58,559 seats spread across 50 theaters, Branson, Mo., offers more theater seating than New York City’s Broadway. And for many of Branson’s 7.8 million annual visitors, its live music shows are its signature song. But the city’s greatest hit may be the one playing beyond its opulent theaters and the frenetic stretch of Highway 76 known as “The Strip.”
Situated in the Ozark Mountains 35 miles south of Springfield, Mo., Branson is characterized by rolling hills of deciduous forest, dramatic rock bluffs, and scenic lakes. While this scenery may go unnoticed amid the glitz and glamour of The Strip on a Saturday night, Branson’s natural resources offer year-round enjoyment, and they constitute one of the area’s major, but often overlooked, attractions.
My family has been coming to Branson for decades, and one reason we continue to visit is the combination of big-city amenities and world-class outdoor recreation. In addition to the city’s 242 restaurants, outlet mall, and countless shops, Branson is home to one of the most scenic lakes in the Midwest, 13 golf courses, hiking trails, and even a world-class trout fishery.
If outdoor recreation is your idea of live entertainment, here are four must-see shows.
Hitting the links at one of Branson’s golf courses is a great way to experience the area’s Ozark Mountains scenery. These award-winning courses challenge both novice and advanced golfers, and they incorporate a variety of features, ranging from lush, tree-lined Bermuda fairways and bent-grass greens to waterfalls, lakes, and creeks.
Popular courses include the Thousand Hills Golf Resort, which some consider Branson’s most challenging course, and the Tom Fazio-designed Branson Creek Golf Club, rated by Golf magazine as Missouri’s No. 1 public course.
Zip-Line Eco Tour
Learn ecological and geographical facts about the Ozark Mountains while enjoying a zip-line tour through the Wolfe Creek Preserve canopy. The folks at Branson Zipline and Canopy Tours offer guests of all ages a bird’s eye view of the area’s hills and hollows in a unique adventure that combines education with excitement.
“We actually have worked hard to ensure this is a low-impact activity for multiple generations to enjoy,” says general manager Emma Hamilton. “The most challenging aspect for most participants is overcoming their issue with heights.”[pagebreak]
So put your fear of heights aside and select from several different tours, including the Ozarks Xplorer Canopy Tour, a 2.5-hour trek incorporating swinging walkways, suspension bridges, and numerous zip lines. Speed demons will want to explore the Blue Streak Fast Line — Wolfe Creek Preserve’s fastest zip line. After a brief orientation, visitors are transported to the top of Wolfe Mountain where they begin a high-speed, high-altitude descent.
Table Rock Lake is known for its breathtaking scenery, which is apparent from most any point above or below the water’s surface. Scuba divers visit the lake for its legendary underwater visibility, and nearly every summer weekend you can find a group of divers exploring the waters off the bluff at the Dewey Short Visitors Center on the south end of the dam.
At roughly 50,000 surface acres, Table Rock offers plenty of space for boating, skiing, or tubing. If you don’t own a vessel, just visit the Table Rock State Park Marina, which rents boats and personal watercraft. Parasailing and excursions aboard the 48-foot sailing catamaran, Spirit of America, are available through the marina as well.
For something a bit slower paced, guided kayaking trips are available through Kayak Branson.
Whether you like to fish for bass, trout, crappie, or walleye, Branson is an angler’s paradise. Table Rock Lake supports excellent numbers of crappie, white bass, walleye, and catfish but perhaps is best known for its black-bass fishing. “By national standards, Table Rock Lake supports some of the highest bass densities and remains one of the country’s most popular fishing destinations,” says Shane Bush, a fisheries biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Guides are readily available through many of the lake’s resorts and marinas, or anglers can access GPS coordinates to Table Rock’s fish-habitat structures at newmdc
gis.mdc.mo.gov/tablerock and go it alone.
Equally impressive is Lake Taneycomo, the world-class trout fishery located below the Table Rock dam. Lake Taneycomo supports stunning numbers of both rainbow and brown trout, and many of these fish grow to be quite large, thanks to the lake’s fertile waters and myriad insect life.
Those new to Lake Taneycomo may want to consider hiring a guide. In addition to showing you how to catch fish, a good guide can offer valuable advice on how to safely deal with water releases from the dam, which often are unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
Dining and Lodging
Locals know Clockers serves one of the best breakfasts in Branson, and after eating here on numerous occasions, I can understand why. Whether it is pancakes, omelets, or good ol’ bacon and eggs, the food at this downtown Branson café is served hot and fresh. Ditto for the coffee.
Mr. G’s Chicago-Style Pizza & Italian Food
Though it only is a block away from busy Main Street in downtown Branson, Mr. G’s is off the map of most tourists. A local’s place, Mr. G’s serves thick, hearty Chicago-style pizza and a variety of traditional Italian dishes in a comfortable, casual setting replete with sports memorabilia, a small bar, and lots of Midwestern heart.
Big Cedar Lodge
Featuring six different types of accommodations, several restaurants, a marina, spa, and conference center, Big Cedar Lodge, in nearby Ridgedale, Mo., is an experience unto itself. Situated in a wooded hollow on the shores of Table Rock Lake, this scenic 800-acre resort offers golf, horseback riding, hiking, swimming, and more. With too many Best Of awards to list, Big Cedar Lodge is just the place for family vacations, romantic getaways, or even corporate retreats.