Branson – Ozark Paradise: Branson and Beyond
By: Joyce Campisi and Freelance Journalist: Suzanne Ferrara
Nestled in the hills and hollows of the southern Missouri Ozarks boasts a treasure trove of spellbinding natural wonders, and within this evocative setting are some of the best musical performances available in the heartland. But before we delve into Branson’s amplified entertainment genres, a visit just thirty miles southwest of the town on the Missouri-Arkansas border is necessary, a trip to the awe-inspiring Dogwood Canyon nature preserve.
This 10,000-acre nature park, owned by Bass Pro Shop Founder Johnny Morris, will mesmerize you with its endless beauty. Morris, a devout conservationist, formed a foundation to ensure the preservation of this breathtaking preserve.
Dogwood Canyon boasts unspoiled natural beauty, and at every turn there is a new discovery. Natural highlights include cascading waterfalls, and miles of winding spring-fed streams; in addition, endangered wildlife like majestic bison, elk and longhorns roam freely in the rolling prairie hills. Amidst all of this wonder is the “Great Spirit Rock Shelter”, a bluff waterfall where archeologists discovered some of Missouri’s oldest human remains.
This is also fly fishing heaven! There are several stunning blue-green lakes and ponds, including the extraordinary Glory Hole, all with a bounty of rainbow and golden trout swimming in water so clear you can see them at the bottom. If you don’t know how to fly fish, no problem, you can partake in fly fishing school or opt to take a self-guided catch-and-release or catch-and-keep fishing adventure.
While immersing yourself in all the canyon has to offer, you will discover the spectacular Hope Wilderness Chapel, an 1800’s replica made of pine logs and other local materials. Once inside, you can easily lose yourself as you bask in wonder over the unparalleled view of a waterfall plunging over towering cliffs. The back wall of this chapel is made entirely of windows through which you can see this natural marvel.
So what is the best way to experience Dogwood Canyon? There’s a plethora of choices, including an awesome open air tram tour, jeep ride, or by foot. If those don’t suit you, peddle your way through the canyon on a bike, hop in a saddle for a leisurely horseback ride, or take off on a Segway. While you explore this preserve you will cross a number of bridges, several formed by natural stone, and one long wooden covered bridge made by Amish craftsmen. The latter is a favorite of Dogwood Canyon visitors.
After working up an appetite from all of this splendor and adventure, head to the Dogwood Canyon’s outdoor café for a mouthwatering bison or elk burger; however, for those not as adventuresome, there are several other delicious menu items including sandwiches and salads. Want something extra-special? Take the family on a chuck wagon dinner excursion where cowboys will entertain you with music by the campfire.
Back in Branson, meanwhile, are the aforementioned wonders of the music world. The town, which has been labeled the live music capital of the universe, no longer hosts mostly country and hillbilly music. High-energy concerts coupled with international acts are also satisfying audiences hungry for entertainment day and night. From Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede to The Dublin Irish Tenors and The Celtic Ladies, there are literally hundreds of shows from which to choose, and the tickets won’t break your bank.
A Branson musical phenomenon which has inspired visitors for more than half a century is the numerous jaw-dropping family-talent that lights up the Ozark stages. Among them is the legendary The Baldknobbers Jamboree, a show that began in the 1950s and is still running today. In contrast, there’s also the high-energy Haygoods–all siblings–who deliver tight harmonizing and unforgettable high-tech light performances. The Duttons, which includes multi-talent members of three generations, blows away the audience with steaming hot, stellar violin music. For even more family shows, there’s the spectacular Presleys’ Country Jubilee (no relation to Elvis) which is said by some to be the standard by which other shows are judged; three generations perform a variety of music styles along with comedic skits.
(Tip: Check online show reviews and the actual show websites to get even more details on performances.)
But there’s even more to do in these parts that will only add to this spectacular and memorable experience. After being awed by outdoor excursions and dazzled by some of the best performers in the country, there are still plenty of additional options for must-see and one-of-a-kind experiences.
You cannot visit Branson without heading to the award-winning Silver Dollar City, an 1800s- styled theme park and essentially a re-creation of a frontier town (Fact: The Beverly Hillbillies recorded an episode here). You will feel like you stepped back in time because this place oozes nostalgia. There are dozens of exciting rides, award-winning live entertainment and working craftsmen, to name just a few highlights.
The newest addition to the park is Fireman’s Landing, which features two acres of rides designed to entertain all ages. The area harkens back to the days of fire brigades, and features rides like Fire Spotter (soaring balloons), FireFall (free-fall drop) and Up The Ladder (tower drop for younger riders).
Perhaps the most amazing discovery at Silver Dollar City actually lies hundreds of feet below the the park: the fascinating Marvel Cave, which is a National Natural Landmark. There is evidence that (1) the Spanish explored this cave in 1541 and (2) the Osage Indians knew about its existence in the early 16th century.
If that’s not enough for you to do at Silver Dollar City, there’s even a Midwest Living Culinary and Crafts School highlighted by live cooking demonstrations. You will feel so at home with the warm and welcoming instructor, Debbie Dance Uhrig, who grew up in her grandma’s kitchen, and will teach you how to bake the best flaky pastry crust in town.
For an emotional encounter with history, board the Titanic at Branson’s Titanic Museum Attraction. This museum has 400 artifacts from passengers and crew members of the ill-fated vessel, plus a captivating replica of the Titanic’s grand staircase. Upon entering, a crew member will give you a boarding pass and background information of an actual passenger or crew member’s name; as you leave, you will learn the personal stories of those on board this ship and the fate of your crew member or passenger.
Branson also offers a first-class nostalgic ride aboard the Branson Scenic Railway. When you hop on board these refurbished railroad cars, you can enjoy a journey the same way passengers did 50 years ago. With its panoramic views of the countryside, it’s a great experience for both the whole family or for those wanting a romantic candle-lit dinner.
An exciting way to tour Branson on land and water is by riding the Ducks, an amphibious vehicle reminiscent of those used during WWII. The ride starts with a scenic tour of Branson, after which passengers splash down for a thrilling ride into Table Rock Lake or Lake Taneycomo.
Here’s a couple more “don’t miss” attractions: Shoppers may want to check out Dick’s Oldtime 5 & 10, which has been a Branson landmark for decades. This century-old store is filled wall-to-wall nostalgic items, and you can easily spend a couple hours in the place. Folks with appetites, meanwhile, absolutely need to visit Mel’s Hard Luck Diner where singing servers entertainingly take your orders and serve your meals.
After all this fun and adventure, you’ll want a good night’s rest, so why not stay at a hotel that is centrally located amid even more attractions in the heart of historic downtown Branson and on Lake Taneycomo to boot? Check-in to one of the two newly-renovated Hiltons of Branson which are both a stone’s throw away from the other at the Branson Landing. Here you can shop till you drop, enjoy some spirits, dine, and cast your fishing pole.
While there, tempt your tastebuds at one of Branson’s newest fine dining experiences, the Level 2 Steakhouse; it’s a place where you can enjoy mouth-watering, 28-day aged corn-fed Midwest beef seared in a 1600-degree infrared oven, plus heritage Missouri pork and fresh seafood from Hawaii. Chef Jeff Luzius, who served his culinary delights for both Emerald Lagasse and legendary rock star John Couger Melancamp, is sure to please even the most discerning palate.
A unique feature at this establishment is their signature steak knives collection from which you can choose from one of five cutting tools. Be sure to ask how you can have your name engraved on your chosen bit of cutlery and then locked up for your return throughout your lifetime.
Wet your whistle with their hand-crafted cocktails and signature drinks. They serve up their own version of southern Missouri specialty drinks like the refreshing L2 Long Island Lemonade and their Spring Spritzer. Level 2 Steakhouse has an extensive wine list and you can take part in their “wine flight” offering where you can try up to 16 different wines.
For more information on Branson and what it has to offer go to: explorebranson.com