By RICH GRANT
The best way to enjoy a visit to Branson, Missouri, is to get out of town. Not that there’s anything wrong with Branson. The family entertainment capital of the Midwest has a staggering 120 live shows with more seats than Broadway.
Nine million people a year visit the town for big-name concerts, a half scale replica of the Titanic, acrobats, showboats, religious shows, off-Broadway plays, go-carts, mini-golf, zip lines, nostalgic Five & Dime stores, ice cream, factory outlet shopping, craft chocolate, craft whiskey and entertainment by seemingly half the contestants who have ever appeared on TV in “America’s Got Talent.”
But the big surprise here is the beauty, history, art and culture of the surrounding Ozark Mountains. While the bright lights and music of Branson get a lot of attention, what’s often overlooked is the splendor of nature in the Ozarks. The pristine shoreline of Table Rock Lake (which sits high above Branson, ready to pour down and wipe it out should the dam ever break) is 745 miles long – longer than the coast of California. That’s one big lake.
The water is so chemical-free that when they launched the Showboat Branson Belle (allegedly the largest boat ever built on an in-land lake), they slid it into the lake using two tons of bananas as lubricant, rather than grease the skids, which would have polluted the water.
So, visit Branson and enjoy the shows in the evening. But here are some suggestions on trips to enjoy in the day.
RELAX IN THE MARVELOUS, CREATIVE MIND OF JOHNNY MORRIS
Never heard of Johnny Morris? You will. He is the Walt Disney of the outdoors, a 21st century Teddy Roosevelt dedicated to getting people off their couches and into nature, where he is one of the most important modern leaders in conservation.
He started with an eight-foot-square “shop” in the back of his father’s liquor store, where he sold gear for his passion, bass fishing. Today, his first store, Bass Pro Shop, has swelled into an empire with 100 retail outlets and 20,000 associates, serving more than 120 million shoppers a year.
But that’s just the beginning. Nearly 30 years ago, he created Big Cedar Lodge, a Branson nature resort area with fishing, horseback riding, log cabins, grand lodges with balcony views of the Ozarks and famous golf courses designed by Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and coming soon, the first public access championship course designed by Tiger Woods. If you don’t stay here, at the very least, it’s worth a splurge for dinner at one of four dining options with views over Table Rock Lake (resort wear only, please, collared shirts for men recommended). A shirt with a collar is as formal as “come as you are” Branson ever gets.
But it’s Johnny Morris’ new ventures that are truly remarkable. Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a 10,000-acre outdoor paradise that is difficult to believe, even as you are experiencing it. It’s like one of Johnny Morris’ Bass Pro Shops has come to life.
You enter passing the spectacular Dogwood Canyon Mill and Grill, a picturesque working grist mill that grinds corn for the restaurant or for purchase in the shop. Then there are 6.5 miles of paved trails along Indian Creek as it snakes and turns through the canyon. You can walk, bike or horseback ride into the canyon, or take a two-hour tram ride that provides a narrated history of the area and the opportunity to get up close and personal with a buffalo herd, Texas longhorns and elk.