ozark mountains

Ozark Mountains: Ultimate Travel Guide to the Ozarks

Remote and rugged, the Ozark Mountains have long been a destination frequented and beloved by locals, if a little misunderstood by those who have yet to visit.

To those who haven’t been here, the Ozarks seem to offer a somewhat confusing mix of both over-the-top entertainment and rustic relaxation, both in extremes. It’s just… hard to put your finger on what the Ozark Mountains are really about.

Dig a little deeper than the contradictions and you’ll find something truly special in the Ozarks. The perfect destination for a family getaway or just an escape from the routine, the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas invite you to put everything aside and enjoy the ride. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll love what you find in the Ozarks.

things to do in the ozark mountains
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Ozark Mountains

Covering nearly the entire southern half of Missouri and the majority of northern Arkansas, the Ozark Mountains encompass a massive 47,000 square mile region, considered the largest highland area between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains.

Also known as the Ozark Highlands, many simply refer to this area as the Ozarks. The Ozark Mountains can be a bit of a misnomer, as this region is actually home to two distinct mountain ranges: the St. Francois Mountains in Missouri and the Boston Mountains in Arkansas.

While the Ozark Mountains are generally just associated with Missouri and Arkansas, they do technically stretch into the far northeast corner of Oklahoma and just a few miles into the border of Kansas as well. The Ozarks in Oklahoma offer many impressive natural sites as well, among them Gloss Mountain State Park with its red hills and canyons that look straight out of Arizona or the American Southwest.

From soaring Mount Magazine to deep underground caverns and caves, the Ozarks are home to a diverse topography that makes the region feel remote and untouched, despite being more accessible than ever.

This untouched beauty is one of the region’s greatest draws. Endless miles of rivers are home to world-class fishing, trails for hiking and biking reveal stunning mountain views, and lakes welcome families summer after summer for memorable moments. It’s just as idyllic as it sounds, and then some.

Ozark Mountains in Missouri

With a much larger tourism footprint and more attractions, many of the visitors to the Ozark Mountains head for Missouri. With the convenience of the Springfield airport as a transportation hub for out-of-towners, it’s no wonder so many visitors flock to the northern portion of the Ozark Mountains every year.

Lakes like the Lake of the Ozarks (the most convenient Ozarks lake to St. Louis and Kansas City) and southern Missouri’s Lake Taneycomo, Bull Shoals Lake, and Table Rock Lake draw thousands of visitors each year in search of the perfect lake vacation, many who return year after year for a family getaway.

Branson, Missouri is also an incredibly popular destination in the Ozarks. Well known as the entertainment capital of the Midwest, this small town boasts an incredible number of theaters with shows of all kinds and attractions ranging from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! to the beloved amusement park Silver Dollar City, considered among America’s best.

Plus, with Lake Taneycomo winding through the city and Table Rock Lake and Bull Shoals Lake just minutes away, Branson is also a lake town to compete with the best of them. Stay at Chateau on the Lake for a proper lakeside getaway, or choose a hotel near the historic downtown and get your taste of the lake by hopping aboard the Showboat Branson Belle for a cruise and a show.

Read More: 23 Best Things To Do in Branson, Missouri

Ozark Mountains in Arkansas

While most people think of the Ozark Mountains as being a Missouri destination, there are plenty of reasons to opt for a vacation in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Here you’ll find gorgeous lakes (Beaver Lake is a true stunner!), stunning forests and parks, and a less built-up, more untouched feel thatn you’ll find just north of the state line.

Popular natural destinations in the Ozarks in Arkansas include Beaver Lake and Bull Shoals Lake, along with the Ozark National Forest. Though a challenging hike, Hemmed-In Hollow Falls is well worth the trek, hidden deep in the Ponca Wilderness.

Meanwhile, charming Eureka Springs has historic Victorian-style homes and classic bed & breakfast accommodations that are sure to enchant you. Even if you’re planning on spending the majority of your Ozarks vacation in Missouri, this beautiful town is worth a visit!

Ozark Mountains Map

Check out our interactive map of the Ozarks to get a better lay of the land as you plan your trip to the Ozark Mountains. We’ve included all the destinations we mention in this article, so feel free to click around and explore as you read. Or, you can even download the map to use it during your trip.

Lakes in the Ozark Mountains

One of the biggest draws to the Ozark Mountains for many visitors is the abundance of incredible lakes, which make the entire region a dream for an all-American summer getaway. From charming lake towns to excellent campgrounds and lakeside resorts, the lakes of the Ozark Mountains are one of their most memorable features.

One fascinating detail of note – the lakes in the Ozark Mountains are man-made! That’s right, these lakes were the product of dams created to control flooding and create hydroelectric power in the region. This gives the lakes of this region their unique shape, as the dams flooded valleys and left long, snake-like lakes behind, with thousands of miles of coastline.

While there are plenty of lakes and waterways in the Ozark Mountains, these are the main lakes you’ll find as you explore the Ozarks.

table rock lake

Table Rock Lake

For a great lake vacation in the Ozark Mountains, Table Rock Lake in southwestern Missouri along the Arkansas border is among your best bets. Easily accessible from Springfield and with Branson just off its shores, it’s an ideal spot for a lake getaway with all the conveniences you could ask for.

Table Rock Lake has over 800 miles of shoreline, meaning there are plenty of popular beaches and swimming spots. Moonshine Beach next to the Dewey Short Visitor Center is a popular swimming spot, though plenty of cabins, hotels, and resorts along the lake have their own docks and beaches for swimming and water sports.

State Park Marina has everything you could ever want to enjoy time on the lake, including fishing boats, water sports equipment, and more – you can even hop on the Spirit of America catamaran for a cruise of the lake.

There are countless campsites and RV parks bordering the lake as well as hotels and resorts. Table Rock State Park has two different campgrounds available, while Viney Creek Recreation Area on the western side of the lake has campsites as well.

Lake of the Ozarks

The most popular lake destination in Missouri is the Lake of the Ozarks, home to over 1,100 miles of shoreline and perfect for a true all-American summer getaway on the lake. The closest Ozarks lake to St. Louis and Kansas City, it’s quite conveniently located, making this a lake destination that locals return to summer after summer.

Unlike other lakes in the Ozark Mountains, the Lake of the Ozarks doesn’t have any large city on its banks; Osage Beach is a hub for travelers but is very much a small lake town, the shores of the lake mostly occupied by cabins, beach resorts, and lakefront homes rather than large cities.

Lake of the Ozarks State Park and Ha Ha Tonka State Park are popular destinations for camping, hiking, and backpacking trips, though you’ll find plenty of conveniences here, making them perfect for enjoying the lakefront as well.

Bull Shoals Lake

Stretching from southern Missouri (just 20 minutes east of Branson) downwards into northern Arkansas, Bull Shoals Lake is one of the lakes of the Ozark Mountains that remains less developed and more natural, making it a great choice if you’re looking to truly disconnect.

With over one thousand miles of winding, forested shoreline and characteristically calm waters, it’s a great spot for a lake getaway including all your favorite watersports. There are a number of marinas on the lake where you can rent water sporting equipment and even boats and pontoons. Bull Shoals Lake is also particularly known for its excellent fishing.

Lake Taneycomo

Extremely long and skinny, the man-made Lake Taneycomo could easily be mistaken for a river. Winding through the heart of Branson, Missouri, it’s among the most popular waterways in the Ozark Mountains. However, this Ozarks lake packs a punch and has a lot to offer that its larger neighbors can’t.

Lake Taneycomo offers a great range of experiences for visitors, from those looking to stay in downtown Branson and enjoy the endless entertainment of this historic town, or those looking for a traditional lake getaway. From campgrounds and RV parks to Branson’s hotels, there are plenty of places to stay nearby.

Since the lake’s waters come from the bottom of Table Rock Lake, Lake Taneycomo is among the coldest lakes in Missouri. However, the lake is a favorite among fishermen, as it is annually stocked with hundreds of thousands of rainbow and brown trout. It’s considered among the best places to fish for trout in the United States.

Beaver Lake

Located in northern Arkansas, Beaver Lake is a popular recreation area with plenty to see and do. While it may be overshadowed by some of the more well-known Ozark Mountain lakes in Missouri, Beaver Lake has just as much to offer, including great opportunities for watersports, fishing, and plenty of things to do.

The lake has a number of campgrounds, marinas, and parks, which make it easily accessible for visitors, as well as natural caves and even limestone bluffs which set it apart from some of its Ozark Mountain neighbors. It’s truly a stunning destination!

Read More: 10 Best State Parks in Arkansas

things to do in the ozarks

Things To Do in the Ozark Mountains

There’s no lack of things to do in the Ozark Mountains region. From long hikes to lazy days by the lake and everything in between, the Ozarks are really a destination anyone traveler can enjoy for all they have to offer. These are some of the very best things to do in the Ozarks.

1. Explore Branson

Long known for its incredible shows and over-the-top attractions, Branson, Missouri is a vibrant town with a little something for everyone. Conveniently located along both Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo, with more just a short drive away, it’s a great base for exploring the region.

Branson is well known for its shows, so whether you’re planning a full itinerary around Branson performances or are just looking to choose one show to spice up your time in the Ozarks, you’ll find plenty to choose from.

Sight & Sound Theatres offers next-level productions of well-known stories of figures like Moses and Queen Esther if you’re into theater. The Haygoods is another classic Branson favorite – a family band with a mastery of seemingly every instrument under the sun, offering over-the-top renditions of everything from country classics to the latest Top 40 hits.

Even if this type of entertainment isn’t what you’re looking for, don’t count Branson out. The historic downtown is home to artisan shops and impressive antique and vintage stores, while the waterfront Branson Landing is home to an increasingly impressive number of restaurants, breweries, and shops with something for everyone.

Whether you’re planning on staying in Branson or somewhere else in the Ozark Mountains, you’re bound to find something to see and do in Branson that will add the cherry on top of a perfect trip to the Ozarks. Check out the incredible caverns and caves, take in a show, or stroll down Branson Landing – you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for here.

Read More: 23 Best Things To Do in Branson, Missouri

2. Enjoy a Day on the Lake

While there are plenty of incredible things to do in the Ozarks, spending a day on the lake is undeniably one of the highlights of a visit to the region. From the fun-loving Lake of the Ozarks to rugged, natural Bull Shoals Lake, there’s no lack of options if you’re looking for a perfect way to kick back and relax on the lake.

You’ll find everything from boating to paddleboarding, tubing, kayaking, and more on the lakes of the Ozark Mountains.

Or, for world-class fishing, head to Lake Taneycomo or Table Rock Lake. Lake Taneycomo is renowned as one of the best places for trout fishing in the United States, while Table Rock Lake is better known for bass fishing. Make sure to visit Bass Pro Shop on Branson Landing before heading out on your fishing trip!

You’ll have your choice of great places to stay in the Ozarks for a lake stay, whether you’re looking for a cabin, cottage, campground, or lake-side resort with beach access and a dock. If you’re looking for a lakeside cabin or cottage rental, make sure to book well in advance, as summers are incredibly popular and many spots rent out up to a year in advance with families returning year after year.

silver dollar city

3. Visit Silver Dollar City

Apart from the gorgeous natural gems in the Ozarks, one of the biggest draws to the region is Silver Dollar City. Among the best amusement parks in the United States, Silver Dollar City is a theme park that combines the best of the beauty and history of the Ozark Mountains with all the thrills and entertainment you’re looking for.

We used to be season pass holders at Universal Studios in Orlando, and we were so pleasantly surprised by what we found at Silver Dollar City. There’s a great array of rides, with everything from thrilling coasters to rides perfectly designed with littles in mind, and plenty to see and do even if you aren’t a big ride person.

Part of Silver Dollar City’s appeal is that it isn’t built on top of a “parking lot” – it’s actually beautiful here, highlighting the gorgeous natural gems of the Ozark Mountains. Built among old-growth trees on the hillside, you’ll find abundant natural shade throughout the park and spot natural waterfalls and rivers with gorgeous mountain views as you work your way from attraction to attraction.

One of the biggest attractions in the park is Marvel Cave, which is home to the largest cave entry room in the United States. It is large enough to house the Statue of Liberty. Cave tours are a must – lasting about an hour, they’re a thrill you can’t find at any other amusement park.

Another highlight of a visit to Silver Dollar City is the delicious food; locally inspired and small-batch, it’s genuinely some of the best food we ate during our trip to the Ozarks. Another unexpected highlight, an array of street festivals and holiday-inspired events means there’s always something new to see and do at Silver Dollar City. The Christmas lights display and festive programming was named among the best in the entire country.

If you live within driving distance or are just a huge amusement park fan, consider getting a season pass to Silver Dollar City – they’re just a little more than half of the price of what you’ll pay for a single-day pass at Disney.

4. Explore Ozarks National Forest

Located in northern Arkansas, the Ozarks National Forest is a must when visiting the Ozark Mountains. This untouched forest is usually grouped together with St. Francis Forest, though they are technically distinct areas, and the whole area is sometimes referred to as the Ozarks-St. Francis National Forests.

Some of the highlights include hiking Mount Magazine, the state’s highest peak, as well as visiting the impressive Blanchard Springs Caverns. Hawksbill Crag also offers incredible vistas over the mountains, with an impressive rock ledge seemingly suspended over thin air!

The entire area is a haven for camping, hiking, wildlife viewing, and more. You’ll have a number of established campgrounds to choose from throughout the 1.2 million acre park, as well as the option of primitive camping or renting cabins, originally crafted in the 1930s.

5. Visit Eureka Springs

One of the most charming small towns in the Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs sits just a few miles east of Beaver Lake in northern Arkansas and is among the most popular places to stay and visit in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Known for its quaint and historic Victorian-era downtown center, it’s a classic Ozarks destination you won’t want to miss.

In addition to the town’s gorgeous land and mountain surroundings, it is famous for its natural cold mineral springs, which have long drawn visitors to the area for their supposed healing properties.

While you can visit these cool springs, you can’t swim in them, as many are now located in public parks around the city. However, Palace Hotel & Bath House is a historic spa and bathhouse using these waters in their treatments, making this a great place to soak up the area’s healing powers while soaking in its unique history.

If you’d like to stay in Eureka Springs, choose from one of the town’s endlessly charming bed and breakfasts, located within some of the historic buildings in the area. Or, take a popular ghost tour of the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, considered “America’s Most Haunted Hotel.” You can even spend the night… if you dare.

branson missouri

Where To Stay in the Ozark Mountains

You’ll find endless options when deciding where to stay in the Ozark Mountains. Before deciding on a hotel or resort, make sure you consider which city or town is most appealing to you and the type of vacation you’re looking for.

These are some of the best cities and towns to stay in in the Ozark Mountains, plus a few hotel and resort recommendations to keep in mind as you book your trip!

Branson, Missouri

One of the best places to stay in the Ozark Mountains is in Branson, Missouri. This city on the shores of Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo is the perfect mix of entertainment and relaxation.

Branson has everything you could want or need for a perfect vacation in the Ozarks, whether you’re looking to take in one of Branson’s seemingly endless number of shows, enjoy time on Table Rock Lake, at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, or anything in between. There are plenty of places to eat and stay in Branson, making it the best place to stay in the Ozarks.

These are the best places to stay in Branson, Missouri:

Springfield, Missouri

The largest city in the Ozark Mountains and home to the largest airport in the area, Springfield is the best place to stay in the Ozarks if you’re looking for a quick, convenient getaway. Here you’ll never be far from anything and can easily access popular areas like the Lake of the Ozarks to the north and Table Rock Lake and Branson to the south.

However, Springfield lacks a lot of the charm that makes the Ozark Mountains such an attractive destination, to begin with. There is no lake here, and certainly, no lake town feel. Springfield just feels like any other midwestern city, for the most part, though staying in Springfield can have its benefits when exploring the Ozark Mountains regions.

These are the best places to stay in Springfield, Missouri:

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Eureka Springs is loaded with charm, making it one of the best places to stay in the Ozark Mountains if you’re looking for both historic and natural beauty. Here you’ll find a few basic chain hotels, but the real draw is the endearing bed and breakfasts that truly feel like home.

Keep in mind that Eureka Springs is tiny and not immediately located on a lake, so if you’re looking for a true lake town getaway this destination might not be for you. However, just minutes from Beaver Lake and less than an hour from Table Rock Lake and popular Branson, it’s well-located to explore the rest of the Ozark Mountains area.

These are the best places to stay in Eureka Springs, Arkansas:

Osage Beach, Missouri

Located on the edge of the Lake of the Ozarks, the small lake town of Osage Beach is one of the most popular destinations in the Ozark Mountains for a classic, all-American lake getaway.

While there isn’t much to the small lake town of Osage Beach, you’ll find plenty of places to stay and the amenities you need for a week on the lake. A bit far from some of the other things to do in the Ozarks that sit south of Springfield, choosing to stay in Osage Beach is best if you’re looking to stay put and enjoy local favorites.

These are the best places to stay in Osage Beach, Missouri:

Getting to the Ozark Mountains

While most nearby travelers reach the Ozark Mountains by car, there’s no lack of transportation options to the Ozarks. Your specific transportation options will depend on what part of the Ozarks you’re planning to visit.

Many travelers prefer to fly into the Springfield, Missouri airport at the center of the Ozark Mountains region, as this airport is relatively well served with flights from across the country and is convenient for most of the region. It’s the closest airport to Branson and even Osage Beach and Eureka Springs, making it, for most travelers, the clear choice.

However, larger Kansas City and St. Louis airports can also be an option, especially if you’re planning to stick towards the northern Ozark Mountains region around the Lake of the Ozarks. Osage Beach is around two and a half hours from both these airports.

Alternatively, consider flying into Tulsa or even Little Rock if you’re headed to Bull Shoals Lake or northern Arkansas Ozark Mountains destinations. There are other smaller regional airports closer to the area as well.

carley rojas avila

Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.