By RICH GRANT
Branson, Missouri, and the Ozark mountains are the biggest tourist attraction in the midwestern United States, and an area of outstanding natural beauty, history and art.
While Branson attracts millions of visitors a year for its 120 shows, making it sort of the family-style “Las Vegas of the Midwest,” the area around Branson is filled with lakes, rolling mountains, history and some big surprises for an area so scarcely populated.
Here are some of the top things to see and do:
HAVE A DRINK IN A CAVE
Locals say the “must-do” experience of the area is the Top of the Rock Ozark Heritage Preserve Lost Canyon Cave & Nature Trail, part of the Johnny Morris/Bass Pro Shop empire. It’s a long name, but there’s a lot to do here.
The highlight involves riding a golf cart into a cave (where there is a bar) and passing waterfalls, crossing a wood Amish covered-bridge, splashing across streams and enjoying long views of Table Rock Lake. It’s all so beautiful and perfect that it appears more like a scene from a science fiction film of paradise in some future world than as a real place in modern-day Arkansas.
Another option is to head 40 minutes north of Branson to the flagship Bass Pro Shop in Springfield, which is attached to a gigantic aquarium and wildlife museum. It’s all part of the “Morris-land” empire, a delightful place to spend a day if you love the outdoors.
GO BACK TO THE HORRORS OF THE CIVIL WAR
There’s a great deal of irony in the fact that one of the worst places to be in America’s Civil War was southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and yet their bloody battlefields are now one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in both states. Missouri epitomized the Civil War – both the Union and the Confederates claimed Missouri and both sides had a star for it in their flags.
Three large battles finally preserved Missouri for the Union: Wilson Creek, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. All three are close and military buffs could visit them in a long day, but most people will be satisfied with just a trip to Pea Ridge National Military Park, one of the best preserved of Civil War national parks, ranking up there with Gettysburg, Antietam and Shiloh.
The two-day battle was a complicated affair and ended with a Union charge that was larger than the famed Pickett’s Charge. It was far less bloody because by that point in the battle, the Confederates had run out of ammunition. Films and historic markers make the campaign easy to understand, but the real highlight here is to get out of the car and experience 19th century Arkansas. The landscape has not changed since the battle.
There are dozens of miles of picket fences, rolling hills, restored farms and taverns, 20 cannon, orchards and, looming behind it all, the distinctive rocky mound known as Pea Ridge. The height of the battle was at pretty Elkhorn Tavern, and as you visit this picturesque spot with its beautiful orchard and fences, you are literally seeing what the 19th century would have looked like. It’s harder to imagine that the peaceful place where you are standing was once littered so thickly with dead bodies that you could, as one soldier described it, walk across the yard stepping from corpse to corpse, without ever touching the ground. The Civil War is still relevant today, and there’s no better place to learn about the causes, effects and tragedies suffered by both sides than at Pea Ridge.
VISIT THE MOST INCREDIBLE MUSEUM YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
Alice Louise Walton, a daughter and heir of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has always loved art. She also happens to be the richest woman in the world with a fortune estimated in May 2018 at $41.8 billion. So when she decided to build an art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas – look out! Founded in 2005 and opened in 2011, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is quite simply amazing.
The free museum (Walmart picks up the entrance tab for you) is comprised of a series of pavilion-like bridges filled with art that cross a stream and surround two spring-fed ponds.
But that’s too simple an explanation. You really must look at a model of the facility to figure it out. It’s so complex and mind-altering that it’s easy to get lost.
The setting places gorgeous modern buildings into a rugged Arkansas forest and canyon. Alice Walton used to play here as a child and she had world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie make the landscape an integral part of the museum.
There’s lots to see. The art spans five centuries of American art with classics including Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter,” Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (the one that’s on the dollar bill) and others by Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol and a host of other living and dead Americans. But it’s hard to stay inside looking at art when there’s so much to see outside.
There’s a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that was moved here from New Jersey (where it was in danger of being flooded), and there are 3.5 miles of walking trails through forests, along a stream and in gardens filled with outdoor sculptures.
But the main thing is just looking at the sprawling museum itself, and how it has ingeniously been built into the landscape.
More than 3 million people have already visited, and as the museum goes quietly about buying up new masterpieces, it is sure to gain more fame.
Bentonville is where Sam Walton opened his first Five & Dime store. Thanks to the citizens of the town, it was a huge success. The Waltons are paying Bentonville back tenfold.
STAY IN AMERICA’S MOST HAUNTED HOTEL
The unofficial capital of the Ozarks is an odd little town called Eureka Springs. Carved directly out of a hillside, the town has no traffic lights, no straight roads and no streets that intersect at right angles.
Once called the “Stairstep Town” because of its many staircases, the village of 2,000 is built on a slope so steep that many buildings have two entrances: one accessed from a road on the ground floor, and a second entrance on the third floor, where the road has climbed around to meet the same building on its backside, 30 feet higher. It’s an odd feeling to see a bar with a packed outdoor deck 30 feet above you, and then continue walking up the curving street until you suddenly find yourself in that same bar, but walking into it from street level.
The great thing about Eureka Springs is that it is filled with brick and stone Victorian buildings, marking its heyday, when the population was 10 times larger and (because of its 140 natural springs) it was regarded as one of the great Victorian health resorts of America. In the 1890s, an early promotor marketed the town’s healing springs as “Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water,” and people came from all over the world to be cured of whatever ailed them.
Today, the entire city has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and dozens and dozens of buildings have been repurposed as bars, breweries, restaurants, cafes, distilleries and every type of tourist shop you can imagine. There are musicians playing on the street, motorcyclists cruising the twisting roads, artists and craftsmen hawking their wares, hundreds of tourists licking ice cream cones, visitors in shorts and wildly colored T-shirts window shopping and, here and there, a slew of bars packed with fun-loving patrons. It’s a town made for chilling out. The type of place to spend an endlessly fun and lazy Sunday afternoon. And, of course, it’s haunted.
Or at least the 1886 Crescent Hotel is. The drop-dead gorgeous Victorian resort on a hilltop has 72 rooms and nine cottages, a “view bar” on the fourth floor, a spa, fine dining and a spacious and comfortable lobby spread around an open fireplace. It’s been many things in its history besides a hotel, including a college. But most infamously, it was a hospital run by a quack named Norman Baker. He eventually went to prison for mail fraud and for doing nothing for his cancer patients other than giving them the local water. So, of course, his patients died. And the hospital (now hotel) had its own morgue in the basement. You can guess the rest. How many hotels had a morgue in the basement?
One of the most popular activities in Eureka Springs is to take the hotel’s ghost tour. It’s billed as the most haunted hotel in America. Some people taking the tour claim the ghost activity in the hotel is so strong that during the tour they felt like they were “touched, poked and pinched.” Sounds like fun, but sadly, nothing like that happened on our tour. Nonetheless, the ghost tour was crazy, and all had a good time.
Best of all is the ghost of Morris, the hotel cat from 1973 to 1994. People have felt the ghost of Morris jump on their lap. Well, maybe. But what is indisputable is that Morris is buried in the hotel’s backyard, and a little exploration will take you to his beautiful little grave with a nice view of the Ozarks and Eureka Springs as a bonus.
If You Go
For information about everything Branson and the Ozarks, go to the webpage https://www.explorebranson.com/