Branson, Missouri, lies nestled among the beautiful Ozarks Mountains of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Located within a day’s drive of one-third of America’s population, the city of 11,600 has evolved into a top vacation destination — and for good reason.
Branson offers more than 100 live music and variety shows, with more theater seats than New York’s famous Broadway. In addition, there are dozens of aquariums, museums, theme parks, shopping, dining, and lodging options. Branson has also become one of America’s top golfing destinations, with players from around the world coming to experience courses designed by some of the most famous names in the sport and carved into the beautiful, natural landscape.
On top of all that, people like me are beginning to discover the wide variety of outdoor opportunities Branson has to offer to those who like to escape into the wild for a little while to paddle, hike, bike, and camp.
Paddling Through the Seasons
Forbes magazine ranked Branson No. 2 for “Best Lake Towns in America.” The bustling town is surrounded by three pristine lakes that together have more shoreline than the entire state of California.
Lake Taneycomo, known for its fabulous trout fishing, is more like a big river than a lake and runs right through town. Table Rock Lake is well regarded as a great bass fishing lake. Nearby Bull Shoals Lake offers good fishing for walleye. All three lakes are home to many other popular species, and all are ranked among the best fishing lakes in the US.
With all that water surrounding Branson, there are plenty of places to paddle your kayak or canoe. During the summer months, you’ll find people enjoying the lakes through boating, skiing, tubing, paddleboarding, and personal watercrafing. But you can still find plenty of places away from it all to paddle around on local rivers and streams. Marinas and stores can also rent you a vessel if you didn’t bring yours with you.
Any season is a great time to get in a kayak or canoe and escape for a little while — or a long while. When paddling in the spring, you can enjoy the emerging greenery of the forested hills, listen to the birds singing, and watch wildlife come to the water’s edge.
Fall is my favorite time to take my kayak out. The kaleidoscope of colors in this beautiful area of the country is a special treat as I paddle and fish or just enjoy the peace and quiet. A buddy of mine says his favorite season to paddle his kayak around Branson’s lakes is when winter snows cover the landscape and eagles are diving down to the water trying to catch dinner.
Hiking and Biking the Ozarks
When I want exercise, I don’t go to a gym, I put on my hiking shoes and find a trail. Would you believe that Branson has more than 200 miles of public trails for both hiking and biking? Just about any season is a great time to check them out. Here are some of the many trails in the area that I enjoy.
The Lake Forest Wilderness Area is located right in Branson. It offers 4.4 miles of trails, with some pretty rigorous hiking, including a set of 315 stonework steps that were constructed in the late 1930s. There are also beautiful woodlands, an old homestead and barn, two caves, a grotto, a waterfall, and fantastic views of Lake Taneycomo and the surrounding countryside.
Busiek State Forest is about 20 minutes north of Branson and has 18 miles of well-marked trails that are popular with both hikers and bikers. I always seem to see deer or turkey when hiking here, so be sure to have your camera ready. It’s also a great place to find delicious morel mushrooms in the springtime.
Hercules Glade Wilderness Area is a scenic, 25-mile drive from Branson and has 32 miles of maintained trails that follow open glades, forested ridge tops, and a nice creek to cool your feet in. There are stunning panoramic views and other scenic features that you will probably want to photograph and send to all your friends and family.
Ruth & Paul Henning Conservation Area has 3.6 miles of hiking trails, with four different experiences for hikers. It’s located in the White River area of Taney County on the west side of Branson. Much of this 1,534-acre area consists of steep, forested hills interspersed with a series of scenic glades that make up the White River Balds Natural Area. The area also includes a small section of bottomland forest along a half-mile stretch of Roark Creek. This area is rich in local history, with several features immortalized in Harold Bell Wright’s best-selling book, “Shepherd of the Hills.”
White River Valley Trail is 10.25 miles in length and was built on Table Rock State Park and Army Corps land that was used during the construction of Table Rock Dam in the late 1950s. The trail is sectioned into loops that offer a variety of surfaces and challenges. Each of the four loops in the trail system has defining characteristics like changing elevations, rugged terrain, and scenic wonders. This trail system is also a challenging and exciting adventure for mountain bikers.
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a 10,000-acre property owned by the Dogwood Canyon Foundation created by Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris. It’s an experience you do not want to miss. There are 9 miles of trails of varying lengths, with both groomed and rugged landscapes. It’s located about 25 minutes from Branson and, unlike other biking and hiking trails in the area, admission to the park is required to access the trails (but the money does go to conservation causes). You can bring your own bike or rent one in the park.
Camping Under the Stars
There are a lot of stars entertaining at Branson shows, and I do enjoy going to see them. My favorite stars, however, are those I see twinkling in a dark night sky while I’m sitting around a campfire. There’s no better way to get away from everything going on in this world than to go camping. And, again, the Branson area has plenty of sites to suit your needs.
You can choose from public and private campgrounds, with all the amenities and fabulous views, or get wild at places around Branson where you can pitch a tent away from it all — out where the only light is from the moon and stars, your crackling campfire, or your flashlight. I’ve experienced all the following places, and they’re a wonderful escape.
The Busiek Forest State Wildlife Area has nine primitive sites that can be found throughout the forest, each offering dispersed camping experiences with no amenities.
Drury-Mincy Conservation Area is another one of the Branson area’s free, primitive campgrounds. Located about 30 minutes outside of town, it offers the bare minimum amenities, spread out campsites, and easy access to hiking, biking, and wildlife viewing near Bull Shoals Lake.
Mark Twain National Forest, just a few hours northeast of Branson, offers campers a plethora of dispersed camping options. Six separate districts of the National Forest provide more than 40 different camping opportunities.
Camping in each season is special, but my favorite is spring for the wildflowers, redbuds, and dogwoods — or fall for the cooler weather and colorful leaves.
What do I like most about camping, hiking, biking, and kayaking in the Branson area? Whether I’m alone, with friends, or with family, it’s nice to have the option to go into town and enjoy a good meal. If the kids are along, perhaps visit a theme park, a museum, or the aquarium — maybe even a live show. Make a few memories. Then, I go back and make more memories by immersing myself in Branson’s great outdoors. It’s good for the body and good for the soul.
Author: Missy Phegley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Busiek State Forest. (explorebranson.com)