Whether you’ve spent your childhood summers exploring the hills and lakes of the Ozark Mountains or have only recently heard about this gorgeous and unexpected travel destination, there’s always more to discover in the Ozarks.
This once-remote midwestern summer getaway destination is now more popular than ever, offering hidden gems and new favorites that are putting it on the map like never before.
In this ultimate guide to the best things to do in the Ozarks, you’ll find local favorites like waterfall hikes and national forest trails along with rousing shows and world-class entertainment to add some laughs and wonder to your trip. Get ready for an unforgettable stay in the Ozarks – your experience is sure to surprise you.
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Things To Do in the Ozarks
1. Enjoy A Day on the Lake
One of the biggest draws of the Ozarks is its number of incredible lakes dotting the Ozark Mountains region. While there are a number of lakes in the area, the largest and most well-known are Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock Lake, and Lake Taneycomo, Arkansas’ Beaver Lake, and Bull Shoals Lake along the Missouri-Arkansas border.
The Lake of the Ozarks is the most popular lake destination in the Ozarks. The closest lake to the area’s largest metros of Kansas City and St. Louis, the Lake of the Ozarks has long been a popular summer getaway from the city, with many families returning year after year for a classic lake town vacation in Osage Beach or any of the tiny hamlets on its shores.
Other popular lake destinations include Lake Taneycomo, which cuts through the heart of Branson, Missouri, and nearby Table Rock Lake, which both offer a great number of amenities and attractions in addition to the pristine lakes. Bull Shoals Lake and Beaver Lake tend to be more subdued and natural, though not any less impressive!
Whatever type of trip you’re planning to the Ozarks, make sure to spend at least a few hours enjoying the region’s beautiful lakes – it’s hands down one of the best things to do in the Ozarks.
2. Take in a Show in Branson
With dozens of theaters and too many live shows to count, Branson is built to perfectly entertain. From magicians and musicians to holiday spectaculars and historical musicals, you’re certain to find exactly what you’re looking for in Branson’s Theater District.
The most famous show in town is The Haygoods, starring six multi-talented siblings who have mastered every instrument you can think of, and then some. So much more than just a family band performance, The Haygoods is an entertaining mix of everything from pyrotechnics to tap dance, banjoes to harps, and oldies to recent hits.
It doesn’t make sense until you see it but trust us, it’s impossible not to have a good time at Branson’s most popular show with the Haygoods.
Truly next-level entertainment awaits at Sight & Sound Theatres – even having seen shows on Broadway we were highly impressed! They’ve been putting on stellar shows in Branson since 2008, with new performances every season featuring popular biblical stories like those of Noah, Moses, and Queen Esther.
Whether these stories are familiar to you or not, you’ll love the well-done renditions of thrilling tales at Sight & Sound Theatres, which have made this one of Branson’s most popular destinations for shows.
Read More: 23 Best Things To Do in Branson, Missouri
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3. Explore Dogwood Canyon Nature Park
Located south of Table Rock Lake and along the Arkansas – Missouri border, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a gorgeous natural gem. Plunging falls cascading over the canyon are the first thing that greets visitors to this family-friendly nature and conversation area.
Choose from trails for biking and hiking through the hills to guided horseback riding excursions. You’ll spot caves and springs along the way, and there are facilities like bathrooms and an impressive visitor’s center at the park. Visiting Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is the perfect choice for a less off-the-grid way to commune with nature without sacrificing any of the beauty and tranquility you’re hoping for.
For an unexpected yet unmissable wildlife experience, make sure to purchase tickets to the tram tour. Not only is this a relaxing – and accessible! – way to see the park, but it takes visitors to a gorgeous pasture where elk and bison roam, making it one of the best things to do in the Ozarks.
4. Visit Silver Dollar City
From roller coasters to waterslides and street festivals, Silver Dollar City has everything an amusement park should have and more. It’s among America’s best amusement parks, and a new personal favorite we can’t wait to revisit.
No need for forced or out-of-place theming at this park – Silver Dollar City’s attractions and rides are based on the history and lore of the Ozarks and feel natural, even educational, instead of gimmicky or commercialized.
You’ll find artisans at work throughout the park selling handmade goods like pottery and walking sticks, while eateries sell barbeque that’s been in the smoker all night. One of the first places you’ll see when you enter the park is a bakery selling small-batch, handmade cinnamon rolls, whoopie pies, and sticky buns. Silver Dollar City feels like an authentic encounter with the best of the Ozarks – because it is!
In contrast to other theme parks that are built on what amounts to a parking lot, Silver Dollar City is built among the natural hills and rivers of the Ozarks. Plenty of old-growth trees offer both shade and beauty to the park; restaurants offer mountain views and dining terraces overlook waterfalls. It makes for an enjoyable amusement park experience that combines the best of rides and attractions with the natural beauty of the Ozarks.
Make sure not to skip the one-hour tour of Marvel Cave, home to the largest cave entry chamber in North America. The absolutely massive scale of the cave and its stunning natural formations are incredibly impressive; we came with high expectations but were blown away!
5. Hike the Ozark Trail
It’s no secret that the Ozark Mountains are out of this world. The largest mountain range between the Rockies and the Appalachians, they’re a world-class destination for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, and backpacking, which are all among the best things to do in the Ozarks.
Missouri’s Ozark Trail is a collection of nearly 400 miles of trails in 14 semi-continuous trail sections throughout the state. While each of these sections boasts its own gems, most thru-hikers looking for a great adventure head to the 230-mile trail connecting Onondaga Cave State Park to the western edge of the Mark Twain State Forest: this is the real star of the Ozark Trail.
Currently, the Ozark Trail refers to lengths of mostly connected trails that run almost entirely across the state of Missouri from St. Louis onward. An even larger trail project is currently in the works to connect Missouri’s Ozark Trail to the Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas for a total length of 700 miles of continuous trail.
Don’t wait to plan your hiking and backpacking trip to the Ozarks until the route is complete! Whether the Ozark Trail in Missouri or the Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas is calling your name, these incredible scenic trails are some of the best in the Midwest – even a short hike is among the best things to do in the Ozarks.
6. Marvel at Hemmed-In Hollow Falls
Billed as the largest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains, Hemmed-In Hollow Falls is one of the natural highlights of the Ozark Mountains. Plunging 210 feet over stunning cliffs into an impressive basin below, it’s a gorgeous sight.
Before attempting this six-hour hike, be aware that this is considered a challenging backcountry hike! Come prepared with supplies and only attempt if you’re physically fit. Remember that the falls are generally only visible during the wetter seasons of the year, so the heat of summer may mean you won’t see them at all.
Despite the challenges of the hike, it’s considered one of the best things to do in the Ozarks if you’re up for it!
Located just south of the small northern Arkansas town of Compton, Hemmed-In Hollow Falls is much more accessible to the rest of the Ozarks region than you might think. Immediately north of the Ozarks National Forest, it’s just one hour south of Branson, Missouri and located directly between Beaver Lake and Bull Shoals Lake.
7. Explore the Caves
One of the most unique and beautiful topographic features of the Ozark Mountains is its incredible array of caves that dot the region. From sprawling cave systems that seem to stretch on for miles to tiny hidden chambers at the base of mountains, you’ll find it all here. Don’t hesitate – exploring caves is among the best things to do in the Ozarks!
While it’s easy enough to stumble across a cave in Mark Twain National Forest or Ozarks National Forest, these are some of the best caves to visit if you’re headed to the Ozarks.
The Ozarks’ favorite amusement park, Silver Dollar City, is home to one of the largest caves in the region and is an absolute must-visit destination if you’re visiting the theme park. Marvel Cave’s entry room – called the Cathedral Room – is known as one of the largest cave entry rooms in all of North America and is large enough to fit the Statue of Liberty.
This stunning natural wonder is a fascinating contrast to the theme park just outside the cave and makes for a memorable addition to your time at Silver Dollar City. It’s just one of the reasons to love this family-friendly amusement park.
Keep in mind that you’ll do a fair amount of descending sometimes slippery stairs as you explore the cave, as well as crouching through sometimes narrow passages. If you’re claustrophobic or have mobility issues, this might not be the cave for you – consider nearby Lost Canyon Cave instead!
Located near the shores of the Lake of the Ozarks, the stunning Bridal Cave is truly one of the most stunning caves you’ll find across the region. Massive cascading stalactites and stalagmites are everywhere, making for dramatic paths through this mile-long cave.
Despite the cave’s length, only about a quarter of it is accessible due to underground lakes, which make for another impressive spot on your Bridal Cave tour. A visit to Bridal Cave is one of the best things to do in the Ozarks to cool off on a hot summer day, though year-round this destination is worth traveling for.
Lost Canyon Cave
One of the easiest ways to visit the caves of the Ozarks? Head to Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail, adjacent to Big Cedar Lodge near Branson. Accessible for travelers of all ages, this cave system is among the most impressive of its kind in the Ozarks.
Visitors can enjoy a 2.5-mile scenic golf cart ride among some of Branson’s most stunning scenery. The highlight of the tour is driving through Lost Canyon Cave, a massive four-story cave with a plunging waterfall inside – it’s just as impressive as it sounds!
8. Visit a Distillery
While it may not have as legendary of a past as Appalachia, the Ozarks has a long tradition of moonshine that lives on to this day. Looking to try some of this legendary liquor? Visit one of the area’s many new legal distilleries, which are reshaping the reputation of moonshine in the Ozarks.
One of the most well-known distilleries in the Ozarks is Copper Run Distillery in Branson. This was the first legal distillery in the Ozarks since prohibition, and now produces small-bath moonshine, rum, and whisky using traditional recipes. Visit the Copper Run tasting room for samples and pairings, as well as complimentary tours.
If you’re not headed to Branson, you’ll still have plenty of chances to check out the growing number of distilleries in the area. Ozark Distillery on Lake of the Ozarks is another popular spot, though there are an estimated to be at least 27 distilleries just in the Missouri Ozarks alone, with even more options if you count craft breweries or wineries.
9. Visit Route 66
While Route 66 is just a shadow of what it once was, this historic highway still has some vintage gems all along its path through the Ozarks. History buffs will consider adding some of these destinations to their itinerary as among the best things to do in the Ozarks.
While there are countless landmarks and points of interest along Route 66 in the Ozarks, these are some of the classic spots:
- Gay Parita, Springfield: A classic replica of a 1930s Sinclair gas station on the same spot
- Jesse James Wax Museum, Stanton: A favorite among Route 66 enthusiasts and a classic roadside attraction, one of the best museums on Route 66
- Boots Court, Carthage: A refurbished motor court that Clark Kent visited
- 66 Drive-In Theater, Carthage: One of America’s first drive-in movie theaters
- Munger Moss Motel, Lebanon: A class roadside motel with a stunning vintage neon sigh
A must for any Route 66 enthusiast is the Route 66 Car Museum in Springfield. From rare classic cars from the beginning of automotive history to muscle cars and even famous vehicles with celebrity owners, this museum will be impressive even to those who aren’t big car enthusiasts. Open seven days a week, it’s a great start (or end) to a Route 66 tour.
10. Explore 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.
11. Explore Ozark National Forest
Located in northern Arkansas, the Ozarks National Forest is a must when visiting the Ozark Mountains. This untouched area 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 of the area include hiking Mount Magainze, 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.
12. Visit Devil’s Den State Park
Among the most beloved state parks in Arkansas, Devil’s Den State Park boasts some of the most gorgeous scenery in the state, making it a highlight for visitors to the Ozark Mountains. Adjacent to the Ozark National Forest, combine your trip for a visit to both or mix and match for an incredible vacation in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.
The park’s namesake Devil’s Den is a highlight, though the unique rock formations, caves, and impressive route of trails makes the entire park shine. The eight-acre Lake Devil is a popular destination for fishing and boating, with canoes and kayaks for rent.
The park is home to several dedicated campgrounds, RV parking areas with hookups, and a number of cabins originally constructed in the 1930s though more recently refurbished. There are a number of hike-in campsites available if you’re looking to get a bit off-grid.
13. Eat Barbeque
Wedged between two world-famous barbeque towns, Kansas City and St. Louis, you know the barbeque in the Ozarks has to be good. While barbeque in the Ozarks does take some influence from its major neighbors, it’s also quite distinct. It tends to be known for its smokey flavors, with a long regional history of smoked meats and sweet and sour sauces.
One of the most well-known Ozarks barbeque spots is Bubba’s in Eureka Springs. Ribs and pulled pork are amazing here, and certainly a great example of local Ozarks style. In Branson, Gettin’ Basted is the best spot in town for barbeque. With its interior plastered with awards from winning years’ worth of local and national barbeque competitions, it’s clear they know their stuff.
No matter where your trip to the area takes you, trying the local barbeque is easily one of the best things to do in the Ozarks. Just don’t wade too deep into the KC vs. STL best barbeque debate.
14. Shop + Eat at Branson Landing
Winding for several blocks along Lake Taneycomo in historic downtown Branson, Branson Landing is a revitalized waterfront area packed with shops and restaurants, quickly becoming one of the best spots to spend an afternoon or evening and among the best things to do in the Ozarks.
There is a fair amount of chain stores and restaurants here – from Victoria’s Secret and H&M to celebrity chef outposts like Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen and Guy Fieri’s Branson Kitchen + Bar, but there are a lot of local gems as well. Gift shops like The Crystal Fish offer gorgeous handmade items and in-store demonstrations and activities, selling a variety of gifts and decor items from dozens of local artisans.
While in Branson we got to eat at the brand-new Bricktown Brewery and had an incredible meal, one of our favorites in town by far. We were really impressed with their selection of locally-produced beers, and their expansive dining terrace overlooking Lake Taneycomo provides the best dining experience on Branson Landing.
Read More: 23 Best Things To Do in Branson, Missouri
15. Play at Payne’s Valley Golf Course
If you’re a golf fan, there are a number of golf courses throughout the Ozark Mountains you’ll definitely need to add to your itinerary. Among them is Payne’s Valley Golf Course, the first public-access golf course designed by Tiger Woods and his TGR Design firm.
Located just south of Branson at Big Cedar Lodge, it’s one of five incredible golf courses the resort offers, all of which have renowned professional golfer designers. Play at Top of the Rock designed by Jack Nicklaus, Mountain Top designed by Gary Player, Buffalo Ridge Springs designed by Tom Fazio, and Ozarks National designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
Payne’s Valley Golf Course is quite accessible from some of the most popular areas of the Ozarks, making it one of the best things to do in the Ozarks for golfers. Whether you stay at Big Cedar Lodge and enjoy several days of golfing at these illustrious courses or just drive in for a round, it’s a highlight.
Read More: 13 Golf Courses in the U.S. Women Will Love
16. Shop at Daisies & Olives
While there is no lack of incredible antique shops, flea markets, and vintage stores throughout the Ozarks, head to Daisies & Olives in Prarie Grove, Arkansas for a special shopping experience with an array of products to choose from.
Home to over seventy distinct vendors, Daisies & Olives has it all. From vintage clothing and books to knickknacks and substantial furniture pieces, you’ll find everything you could possibly be looking for in an antique and vintage shopping experience. Even if you’re not looking for anything in particular you’re sure to come away with some treasures.
Less than an hour south of Beaver Lake and just outside of the college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Daisies & Olives makes for a great addition to a day trip through the area and is the perfect way to break up a week spent on the lake or in the mountains.
17. Visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art
While the Ozarks are best known as a destination for lovers of lakes and the great outdoors, did you know that they’re also home to a respected institution of fine arts? If you’re a lover of the arts or are just looking to add something a little different to your Ozarks itinerary, a visit to Crystal Bridges Museum of Art might be one of the best things to do in the Ozarks.
When the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art opened in Bentonville, Arkansas in 2011, it was the first major museum of art to open in the United States since 1974. Founded by Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune, it’s an impressive and respected institution.
This stunning museum is home to galleries, gardens, meeting spaces and classrooms, and even a restaurant and cafe. In addition to a permanent collection boasting works by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Norman Rockwell, frequent events and rotating expositions mean there’s always something new to see and do here.
18. Explore Mark Twain National Forest
Last but certainly not least on this list of the best things to do in the Ozarks, the Mark Twain National Forest is one of the jewels of the Ozarks you won’t want to miss. Many travelers find that the Mark Twain National Forest is the highlight of a visit to the Ozarks, home to untouched natural gems and wooded landscapes perfect for camping, hiking, fishing, and every outdoorsy adventure you can imagine.
Covering over 1.5 million acres of the Ozarks Highlands in southern Missouri, the Mark Twain National Forest boasts over 750 miles of hiking trails, 350 miles of rivers, and over 35 designated campgrounds in addition to endless spots for wild camping.
Part of the appeal of Mark Twain National Forest is that it has so many hidden corners and remote areas to explore, but if you’re looking for the highlights, head to the Eleven Point National Wild and Scenic River. This gorgeous river has rugged, undeveloped shores and is a popular destination for kayaking and river tubing, though you’re guaranteed not to see many other travelers during your visit.
Best Things To Do in the Ozarks
Whether you’re planning an extended summer vacation to the Ozarks or just a quick weekend getaway to take in the shows in Branson, there are so many things to do in the Ozarks that you’ll always feel the need to add just a few more days to your itinerary. With everything from antique shopping to trout fishing and world-class entertainment, you’ll be surprised at how much the Ozarks has to offer.
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.