This Midwestern City Has Wild West Vibes and Plenty of Live Entertainment
Buckle up for a wild and wacky action-packed trip deep into the Ozark Mountains.
In terms of quirky Midwestern destinations, you’d be hard-pressed to out-whimsy a town that combines elements of Dolly Parton, Tiger Woods, Al Capone, and the Titanic. Welcome to Branson, Missouri, a rootin’ tootin’ Ozarks city that truly marches to the beat of its own drum. Nestled at the southern edge of Missouri, it’s a haul of a drive from Chicago, but once you make through St. Louis and wave at the Gateway Arch, it’s smooth sailing to a singular city that’s been compared to a family-friendly Las Vegas—the buffets and live entertainment are there, but instead of Cirque du Soleil, it’s livestock shows and frontier-style stampede dinners.
The drive is about eight hours from Chicago, but it feels like traveling back in time, to an era filled with old-timey photo parlors, old-fashioned candy shops, and vintage B&Bs, where gunslinging reenactors and moonshine-filled Mason jars co-exist with ziplines, wineries, caves, trails, and a gangster-worthy speakeasy. Worth the drive for the wonky Wild West vibes alone, along with ample indoor and outdoor recreation aplenty, here are 13 reasons to make the trip to Branson, Missouri.
Buckle up and speed into another era at this 61-acre 1880s-themed amusement park, open from mid-March through late December. Coaster fans shouldn’t sleep on the Time Traveler, which races up to 50 mph and plummets down a 10-story, 90-degree vertical drop, while Fire in the Hole, the park’s oldest thrill ride, sends adrenaline-junkees down into the depths to battle a town on fire. Kick back aboard the world-class Frisco Silver Dollar Line Steam Train before stopping to grab some good old-fashioned Ozark cookery at one of the many onsite restaurants. Beyond the dozens of rides, the park features a mix of entertainment that can best be described as eclectic—think magic shows, stunt dogs, brass bands, and Lucky the Rescue Dog mascot, the Branson version of Mickey Mouse. Close out your day with a candlelit tour of Marvel Cave, a complex, winding cavern set hundreds of feet beneath the park’s grounds that’s been open for exploration since 1894.
If the Mayor of Flavortown deems Branson worthy of Trash Can Nachos, it’s gotta be good. Indeed, Guy Fieri’s Branson Kitchen + Bar is one of many restaurants at Branson Landing, a sprawling waterside complex that’s home to eateries, bars, live entertainment, and shops. The Food Network celeb is one of the latest big names to put his stamp on the city, cementing Branson as a quasi-Vegas in the Ozarks, with Branson Landing basically being the Caesars Palace of it all. Other restaurants include Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, Cantina Laredo, Level 2 Steakhouse, and Joe’s Crab Shack. Booze it up at Andy B’s Tiki Bar, newly minted Seven Arrows Taproom, or Dude’s Daiquiris, then shop for tropical merch at the Margaritaville retail store. In terms of entertainment and activities, there’s a bowling alley and arcade, and it only gets weirder from there at the shipwreck museum, mirror maze, and… steampunk-themed hot air balloon rides?
If you thought Branson was all giant turkey legs and gut-busting comfort food buffets, well, you’re not wrong. But in addition to the cholesterol-charged staples, visitors will also find a host of restaurants fit to fancy any palate. Cozy up at throwback Clockers Cafe for a loaded breakfast just like Grandma used to make, or keep your morning meal light with a stop into smoothie specialist Revive Juice and Coffee Bar. Or get the complete opposite of a smoothie at BillyGail’s Cafe, a service station-turned-breakfast joint where the pancakes spill over the edges of your plate and Texas toast French toast is the size of Texas. Later, pop by Branson Cafe, a local fixture that dates back to 1910 and serves a scratch-made menu of sandwiches, burgers, steaks, and the best damn pie around (seriously). Soak up the rustic vibes at White River Fish House come dinnertime, where the log cabin motif sets the tone for downhome favorites like Catfish hand-breaded in cornmeal and hickory-smoked Pork Ribs. While Branson isn’t exactly Kansas City, you can sample Ozark-style barbecue at Gettin’ Basted, where coal-fired ‘cue yields a feast of Pulled Pork Nachos, Smoked Bologna, and Burnt Ends sandwiches. Farmhouse Restaurant has the fried chicken game on lock, while The Paddlewheel pairs mouth-watering chicken wings served by the pound with scenic views of Lake Taneycomo.
Nursing a sweet tooth? Get your after-dinner fix at Simply Irresistible Old Fashioned Candy, beloved purveyor of old-school treats like handmade fudge and taffy galore, or cool off with a scoop or three from Mr. B's Ice Cream Parlor. Did someone say Dirt Worm Sundae?
Get a bird’s eye view of the Ozarks while upping your heart rate along one of the area’s many zipline courses. Options include Shepherd of the Hills, dubbed Best Aerial Adventure Park in America by USA Today, where an expansive outdoor ropes extravaganza is partnered with live performances, seasonal festivals, a petting zoo, and places to eat (if your stomach’s up to it post-freefall). Elsewhere, Branson Zipline at Wolfe Mountain holds it down just north of town, complete with canopy tours for folks of all ages, a special moonlit after-hours tour for a little date night thrill, and Avalanche Zipline Tour, which hoists you up to the top of Wolfe Mountain for a guided cruise through trees. Hang onto your harness as you soar over Wolfe Mine, traverse Crow’s Nest bridge, and plummet down Dynamite Drop’s 40-foot freefall finale. Last but surely not least is Runaway Mountain Coaster & Flyaway Ziplines at Branson Mountain Adventure, which not only lays claim to the area’s first-ever mountain coaster, but also Flyaway Quad Ziplines, a high-speed showdown where you can race your fellow fliers to the bitter end (aka the landing pad several hundred feet away).
Like any good vacation town, Branson is chock full of quality places to lay your weary head after a day of Ozark exploration. The charming, eight-room Landmark Inn, originally constructed to house the railroad’s station master back in 1905, holds court in a quiet part of town with easy access to Historic Downtown and Branson Landing, while the Branson Hotel boasts two floors of themed guest rooms, each more elaborate than the last, plus a reportedly haunted onsite speakeasy to get you buzzing if the decor—and Al Capone theme—wasn’t whimsical enough. And for the romance-inclined, the ever-charming Branson House Bed & Breakfast provides personal touches like luxe linens, sunny common areas, daily breakfast, and a sunset-ready porch overlooking the lake.
Here to ball out? Book a stay at Chateau on the Lake, Branson's only AAA Four-Diamond resort, and settle into your elegant guest room before getting your fill of posh onsite amenities like indoor and outdoor pools, basketball and tennis courts, an inhouse movie theater, a full service spa, and dining draws like the upscale Chateau Grille and the more relaxed Atrium Cafe and Wine Bar. Westgate Branson Woods Resort sees Chateau’s riches and raises it with a spread of tastefully appointed studios and two-bedroom cabins, sprawled across 145 wooded acres, alongside family-friendly fun like a playground, mini golf course, and a stocked arcade, while Watermill Cove Resort adds a lazy river and splash pad, water sports, private hot tubs, and screened-in porches to the mix.
Both campers and glampers also have their pick of the less-frilly litter here. To ease into the great outdoors without setting up a tent, head to Big Cedar Lodge. Private cabins, slick glamping units keep you grounded while Devil’s Pool Restaurant and Top of the Rock's Buffalo Bar team up with a roster of hands-on activities like sightseeing lake cruises, motorized tours of Lost Canyon Cave & Nature Trail, golf outings on pro courses, water skiing expeditions, fishing trips, and relaxing spa treatments to stimulate your senses. Have tent, will travel? No sweat (well, probably some sweat). Snag a site at Table Rock State Park and pitch your temporary home amid its 356-acre lakeside expanse, or tow the trailer over to Branson Stagecoach Campground, where you can take advantage of 57 full hook-up RV spots alongside suite and cabin rentals, a swimming pool, an onsite restaurant, and shower and laundry facilities.
If Dolly’s involved, we’re all for it. And you will be, too, after setting foot inside the Queen of Country’s show-stopping dinner theater. Much like its sister arena in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (and a big reason why Branson is oft described as an Ozark version of Gatlinburg), this family-friendly procession kicks off with 32 majestic horses, a massive cast of talented trick riders, and a whole bunch of friendly competition. Cheer for your favorite buckaroos and rock out to Dolly’s original score while digging into four courses of country-style comforts including Rotisserie Chicken, Hickory-smoked Barbecue Pork Loin, freshly baked biscuits, corn on the cob, herb-based potatoes, and something called the “Stampede's Original Creamy Vegetable Soup.” Free refills on soda, tea, and coffee? You bet.
Any Midwesterner worth their Titleist cap knows that a trip to Ozarks mandates toting the clubs along. Grab your spikes and gear up for a breathtakingly gorgeous—and nail bitingly competitive—18 holes at one of the area’s pristinely landscaped courses.
Payne’s Valley is a strong contender for top tee-time destination, the first public-access course designed by Tiger Woods and his firm, TGR Design, complete with spectacular mountain views and an exceptional 19th hole clubhouse for post-par drinks. Open to the public and equipped with three sets of tees to accommodate all golfers, Thousand Hills Golf Resort provides an award-winning 18-hole expanse stashed near Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo. Pointe Royale Golf Course stands out as a championship par 70, with picturesque fairways, challenging water hazards, and more than a few Bald Eagle sightings. The recently revamped par-71 Buffalo Ridge Springs gets its lush layout and unique natural features from renown architect Tom Fazio and conservationist Johnny Morris, and frequently ranks among the top courses in the state. The state’s number one title, however, goes to Branson Hills Golf Club, a 72-par Chuck Smith-designed tribute to Missouri’s golfing legends dotted with waterfalls, craggy rock faces, and thick wooded patches.
For something on the chiller yet equally scenic side, try Top of the Rock Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus signature course towering above Table Rock Lake and spanning just nine holes. Top of the Rock also has the practice game on lock, sporting both an Arnold Palmer-designed all-weather driving range as well as a 70,000-square-foot putting complex from Tom Watson modeled after Scotland’s St. Andrews. And that’s just scratching the surface—start fantasizing about showing off that shiny new Callaway Epic Max here.
If your golf skills aren’t exactly up to par, keep it casual on one of the region’s many mini golf courses, with elaborate themes that range from old mining towns to Hollywood, pirates, and reptiles.
If you rightfully assumed you wouldn’t find any Titanic artifacts in the middle of the Ozarks, you’d be wrong. Case in point: the Titanic Museum. Is it cheesy? Absolutely, but if you didn't like cheesy, you probably wouldn’t have driven to Branson. Lean into the hokie vibes at this interactive museum dedicated to all things iceberg vs. ocean liner. The exhibit houses over 400 artifacts from the real-deal sunken ship, as well as life-sized recreations of the storied cabins, common areas, and the legendary grand staircase. And, get this—the immersive Titanic tour culminates in a photo-op with an actual iceberg floating amid 28-degree waters.
A trip to the Ozarks pretty much requires a dip into the moonshiner’s handbook, amirite? Put a little hair on your chest (the legal way, of course) by dropping into Smith Creek Moonshine’s venerable tasting room and hamber joint at action-packed Branson Landing. Sip your way through the selections—straight, sweet tea, apple pie, peach, salted caramel, orange cream, you name it—or opt for an expertly mixed moonshine cocktail before peeping the substantial 5,000-square-foot space’s arsenal of vintage distilling equipment and other backwoods curios.
White lightning aside, there’s plenty of smooth stuff to be had in the region, too. Copper Run Distillery, stashed about 15 minutes outside of Branson, stands proudly as the first legal distillery in the Ozark Mountains since Prohibition. Tours of the off-the-beaten-road destination are currently suspended, but feel free to swing by the brand new Branson West tasting room to get acquainted with their whiskey- and rum-dominated lineup. Family-owned Missouri Ridge Distillery picks up where Copper Run leaves off, focusing on small-batch artisan spirits sourced from all-American ingredients. Tours and tastings are available onsite, as are hearty sandwiches, specialty cocktails, and a monster bill of house-distilled whiskey, moonshine, rum, and vodka.
Don’t let the fancy dinner theaters and thundering roller coasters fool you—the Ozarks are all about reconnecting with nature. Pack a picnic, grab your best binoculars, and embark on a trek to remember at Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area, where a series of intricate trails of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty give way to Roark Creek, a 1,100-acre forested area named an Important Bird Area by Audubon Missouri. Dogwood Canyon Nature Park also brings the vibes, with waterfalls and chiseled rock bluffs providing the backdrop to an easy-going 6.5-mile paved mixed-use trail culminating in the park’s historic Glory Hole, a one-of-a-kind natural plunge revealing schools of rainbow trout below.
Table Rock State Park is one-stop-shopping for outdoorsy folks, with miles upon miles of criss-crossing trails and loops catering to hikers of all abilities. Murder Rock Trail might sound intimidating, but brush past the spooky name and you’ll find a rural, rocky dirt route chock full of history—apparently Alf Bolin's outlaw gang holed up here before meeting their makers courtesty of a local militia back in the mid-1800s.
Before you stick your nose in the Napa-scented air, consider that the Midwest’s unique geographical composition makes many parts of the region ideal for growing just about anything under the sun—including grapes. Spend a day traipsing through Missouri’s idyllic wine country and you’re sure to come away a convert (or, at least, a tad less resistant to the idea—booze is booze, after all).
A few must-hits: Lindwedel Wine Garden, with its pastoral grounds and easy-drinking red and white blends; St. James Winery for award-winning Italian-style dry, fruit, seasonal, and sweet wines plus brick-oven pizzas crafted to bring out the best in your glass of Vignoles; and Bear Creek Wine Company, with its laid-back vibes, Western-style Hideaway Wine Cellar tasting room, and cheekily named lineup highlighted by Vigilante Red and Hillbilly Persuasion White.
Contrary to popular belief, the mountain air in this neck of the woods can grow quite hot, especially during the long summer months. Thankfully, Branson is stocked with some of the most refreshing natural escapes around, from Lake Taneycomo’s kayak-ready waters to Table Rock Lake, with its world-class fishing opportunities and banks lined with family-friendly resorts ready to snap you into a pair of waterskis. Elsewhere, Bull Shoals Lake offers crystal clear waters perfect for swimming, diving, snorkeling, and fishing.
One unique way to experience the local waters is with an old-timey riverboat cruise. The Showboat Branson Belle hosts seasonal sailings on Table Rock Lake, complete with three-course dinners, toe-tapping entertainment, and Adirondack chairs spread across four grand decks.
Try your hand at spelunking
No sojourn to the Show Me State would be complete without a little cavernous exploration. That’s where Branson’s labyrinth of underground attractions comes in, giving newcomers and locals alike the chance to descend into the darkness for hours at a time. The aptly dubbed Fantastic Caverns throws you and yours into a badass Jeep for an all-weather, year-round trek into the depths—perfect for those who might not be up to tackling the geological wonder on foot. The electric carts at Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail zip guests along a 2.5-mile course through the canyons before grinding to a halt at the mouth of a gargantuan four-story cave. Inside, a massive waterfall crashes down from overhead, encircled by viewing platforms, natural areas to explore, a mining elevator, and, no joke, a bar—because even the most daring adventurers need a little liquid courage sometimes.