Planning a trip to Branson, Mo., is like eating at a massive buffet: peruse it all, but only take the best of the best. Beyond its superabundance of attractions and never-ending live performances, Branson is near the mean population center of the United States, so it’s within a day’s drive for a large swath of the country. Even more, it’s perched amid the Ozark Mountains that provide stunning views at every turn, especially during autumn.
As a 30-something who’s well outside the target audience of Branson’s longstanding music shows like Andy Williams, Baldknobbers, Jim Stafford and the Good News Gospel, a little research showed there’s a lot more happening here — especially the fantastic surroundings — than presumed. Anybody can have fun here, young or old.
Branson has more than a dozen RV parks and campgrounds in and near town. With easy-to-navigate streets and excellent signage, getting around with your dinghy is a simple way to explore this compact city.
Seeking nature-based fun and a physical challenge, I signed up for an early-morning horseback ride — something I haven’t done since I was a kid. The drive took us south on U.S. Highway 65, and then west on Highway 86, which led us over an old steel trestle bridge crossing an arm of the sprawling Table Rock Lake. Continuing westward on 86 exposed a beautiful country drive where the pavement winds through hills engulfed in fall color.
Stretching alongside the Missouri-Arkansas border, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a 10,000-acre park that’s an easy drive from town, with separate RV parking. The facility is privately owned and its grounds are like a large countryside estate. The entrance sign says, “Welcome to Paradise,” as did the vibrant late-fall leaves atop rolling hills and the sound of waterfalls down in the valley.
After checking out what Dogwood has to offer — hiking, biking, ATV and Segway tours, a Wildlife Tram, rental cabins, guided Jeep tours, fishing trips and casting clinics — it was time for the main event.
At 6 feet 4 inches, climbing atop a horse felt like a circus trick about to go bad. After acclimating to this freakishly tall, ever-shifting center of gravity, I was prepared for forward motion. My horse turned its head to examine its oversized cargo. Following our instructor, Shilo Jones, we slowly clip-clopped along the trail.
Past the barn and across the prairie, the trail crested a rise with an expansive view of the Ozarks — brightly colored trees and grassy hills for miles. Near the field’s edge, the horses turned left and hustled down a rocky downhill section. At the bottom of the glen, our group could only hear the sounds of birds at play, livestock taking a drink from an adjacent pond and wind rushing through the trees.
I felt exhilarated, like Ted Turner checking a fence line around one of his 500,000-acre ranches. The rush of machismo faded when the horse shifted its weight and I clumsily gripped my reins in fear.
“Always a bunch of amateurs,” the horse seemed to say, and we ambled our way back to the barn.
After conquering the rugged farm life, we were back on the road to Silver Dollar City — a theme park 20 minutes west of Branson off highways 265 and 76. It’s a massive place with acres of parking, easy access for big rigs and a tram to carry recent arrivals into the park. A towering Christmas wreath at the entrance set the tone: the holidays come early in Branson.
Built around the mouth of Marvel Cave, which first attracted explorers in the late 1800s, Silver Dollar City has blossomed since opening in 1960 into one of the top theme parks in the United States and one of the Branson area’s best attractions for entertaining the whole family.
There’s a lot to do here: spelunking in the cave that’s a National Natural Landmark, experiencing more than 30 rides and attractions, exploring 60 unique shops and restaurants, enjoying 40 daily shows, watching the demonstrations of craftsmen and cooks, hopping on a steam train and traversing the vintage 1843 McHaffie’s Homestead, to name just a handful of choices at Silver Dollar City. Fresh off my equine hijinks, I avoided the coasters and water rides, electing to soak up the feel of life gone by in this recreated Ozark village.
Wafting scents of cinnamon and frosting carried me into Eva & Delilah’s Bakery, where culinary masters pinched and rolled out dough, spread layers of sugary filling and cut pastries on butcher block countertops. If only all bakeries were this interactive and exciting — and had truly exceptional cinnamon rolls, cupcakes, turnovers and pinwheels.
From there came Molly’s Mill, Brown’s Candy, Hazel’s Blown and Cut Glass Factory, and the General Store and Blacksmith, where we experienced the wonders of hand-blown glass furnaces in action, a taffy machine cranking out ribbons of sticky candy, a restored belt-driven furniture sawmill, a candle maker’s shop with creaky floors, a pottery studio filled to the rafters and woodworking craftsmen with long beards and blue jean overalls.
With a belly full of pastries and a king’s lunch finished off by an apple dumpling, it was time to start focusing on food farther down the street at the Culinary & Craft School. In the setting of a modern southern kitchen, instructor Debbie Dance Uhrig taught baking fundamentals to the class while whipping up Scandinavian Tea Rings (or cinnamon rolls) and demonstrating as she baked.
Moving quickly to see as much as possible, we also took in a performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in the historic Opera House. The large hall was packed to capacity, and the actors’ performance was energetic, moving and well received by the festive crowd.
A palpable buzz grew as a crowd began forming around the Main Street Gazebo at sunset. Suddenly a switch was flipped, and nearly every square inch of Silver Dollar City lit up with lights to signal the start of the Christmas parade. With holiday music, elaborate costumes, ornate floats and more lights than I’ve ever seen, it was an amazing procession.
It may have been a far cry from Christmas weather, but it was impossible to avoid catching the holiday spirit. While many old-time parks consist of “old” storefronts and cheesy architectural imitation, Silver Dollar City is more authentic, an honest-feeling step back in time for over-stimulated Americans.
With blue skies and a warm late-fall breeze, my next day was packed with a varied trio of activities: a river ride on the Branson Ducks, a train trip through the Ozarks and into Arkansas, and taking in “The Legend of Kung Fu” — a Cirque du Soleil-style show that was the opening act for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Just west of downtown on Highway 76, Branson’s Ride the Ducks is geared toward water enthusiasts of all ages and brings guests on an amusing open-air ride through town with views of the surrounding countryside and a thrill-inducing splash into Table Rock Lake.
Once seated, everybody is handed their own “quacker” to make noise and, as instructed, call out questionable jokes from our comedic driver. Kids get special treatment and some were offered the chance to drive our duck across the lake. Parents, grandparents and any military buffs will enjoy learning about the Branson area’s history (including a town sunk to form Table Rock Lake) and seeing decommissioned military equipment on the way to the hilltop overlook.
Back in town, I didn’t have to travel far for my next exploit: a 40-mile ride on the Branson Scenic Railway. A crowd gathered to board just outside the Hiltons at the Branson Landing, and it was a full train.
The luxury of traveling on an old passenger liner, with its glass-top observation and dining cars, is exciting for riders with fond memories or kids on their first railroad journey. This train enthusiast couldn’t wait for the chugging to begin, and took a forward-facing seat in a glass-top coach.
Alongside rivers, through dark tunnels, over bridges and past two abandoned towns, the Scenic Railway winds through Ozark foothills and gives an accurate feel for what it was like to travel this area before it became a tourist epicenter.
Closing out another fine day, I had tickets to “The Legend of Kung Fu.” The crowd could’ve been larger, but there was no questioning the drama, scale and incredible talent of this large and high-flying cast of athletic actors.
The show tells the story of a young boy, Chun Yi, and his growth through the help of his kung fu master. It’s emotional, exciting and a great show. The crowd was audibly amazed by many of the acrobatics and special effects.
“The Legend of Kung Fu” will amaze anyone looking to step out of the ordinary. You can opt for the full treatment with a three-course Chinese meal and drinks at one of many dining tables.
Any good act deserves a grand finale, and I had two priorities for my final half-day in the Branson area: a top-shelf breakfast and one final adrenaline rush. Breakfast was served during a tour of College of the Ozarks, 10 minutes south of town off U.S. Highway 65. With rustic buildings amid the rolling hills, College of the Ozarks is a unique campus where students don’t pay tuition but instead work for their education and earn degrees with a focus on community service, patriotism and religious faith.
After a brief tour, we were seated in a dining room under soaring wood beams inside the Keeter Center for a proper southern breakfast made from ingredients grown or raised on-site: sausage, ham, potatoes, tomatoes and a crunchy egg quiche.
Tours are available at College of the Ozarks, and lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch is served at the elegant Dobyns Dining Room at the Keeter Center. Reservations are recommended, as are the many take-home delicacies from the Center’s bakery.
Happily satiated, I had time for one last thrill before my trip’s end, and conspired with a courageous group for a stop at Vigilante Ziprider just northwest of town.
Confidence faded to apprehension as we pulled into the parking lot and spotted the 170-foot tower with its attached lines streaming off into the distant valley. With tickets purchased, there was no time to reconsider; before our group knew it, we were standing atop Inspiration Tower and strapping on our harnesses.
Stepping off over thin air was a rush, as was the endless view and 50 mph blast across the treetops. After touching down and feeling tough, we agreed anybody could enjoy the ride, as long as they have the guts to agree to it.
I left Branson pleasantly surprised with the amazing variety of activities and natural attractions. Whether you’re looking for the full country music experience, entertaining youngsters or seeking nature-based or non-traditional activities like I was, it’s possible in Branson. And, you might even get to meet Ray Charles and Dolly Parton impersonators. Weirder things have happened.
Branson Scenic Railway
Silver Dollar City