12 Reasons to Drive to Branson, Missouri

Buckle up for a wild and wacky action-packed trip deep into the Ozark Mountains.

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Big Cedar Lodge, Cave Trail | Photo by Janet Glaser (Big Cedar)
Big Cedar Lodge, Cave Trail | Photo by Janet Glaser (Big Cedar)

If you’re from the Midwest, you’ve likely heard of Branson, Missouri. Nicknamed the Live Entertainment Capital of the World, the revered vacation destination has long positioned itself as the family-friendly Las Vegas of the Ozarks and Missouri’s own Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There’s dinner theater and livestock shows, amusement parks and buffet restaurants, and more than a few old-timey photo parlors peddling vintage gunslinger costumes and laser-etched sepia tintypes. It’s hokey, it’s flashy, and it’s unabashedly fun for all the reasons you might assume—and plenty you’ve yet to discover.

The drive from Chicago isn’t exactly quick, but the scenery you’ll pass along the way will undoubtedly make the journey worthwhile. And as soon as you pull into your Wild West-themed resort, kick off your dusty cave-ready boots, and crack into a Mason jar of locally distilled moonshine, negotiating the Jane Byrne Interchange will be the farthest thing from your mind. Here are 12 reasons to make the trip to Branson, Missouri.

Flickr/Silver Dollar City

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. 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.

Farmhouse Restaurant
Farmhouse Restaurant

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 Dino’s Cakes and Coffee Co. or smoothie specialist Revive Juice and Coffee Bar. 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. 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.

Flickr/Historic Downtown Branson

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?

Branson Zipline at Wolfe Mountain
Branson Zipline at Wolfe Mountain

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).

Big Cedar Lodge | Flickr/Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau

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 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.

Chateau on the Lake Resort Spa & Convention Center
Chateau on the Lake Resort Spa & Convention Center

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 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.

Glamping Tent | Photo by Janet Glaser (Big Cedar)

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.

Dolly Parton's Stampede | Dolly Parton's Stampede

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, 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.

Ridgedale, Top of the Rock | Photo by Janet Glaser (Big Cedar)

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.

Payne's Valley | Photo by Janet Glaser (Big Cedar)

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.

The Titanic Museum | Flickr/Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau

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.

Missouri Mountain Moonshine | Flickr/Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau

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 starting April 1, 2022 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.

Dogwood Canyon
Dogwood Canyon

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.

Bear Creek Wine Company | Flickr/Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau

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; Mount Pleasant Winery, established in 1859, for tours, tastings, and hands-on workshops alongside a quality Cabernet Sauvignon; 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.

Table Rock Lake | Flickr/Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau

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.

Fantastic Caverns
Fantastic Caverns

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. 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.

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Meredith Heil is a Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist. She's originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that's boots on the ground, no airport BS). She enjoys all things cocktails, crosswords, and women's soccer. Challenge her to a game of Hoop Shot at @mereditto.