About halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City, and just 60 miles north of Branson, lies a world that’s about a million miles away from that manufactured entertainment mecca. True, Lake of the Ozarks is man-made – created in 1931 when the Union Electric Company erected the Bagnell Dam – but it’s an area of unparalleled beauty and diversity. The lake is over 90 miles long and features numerous arms and bays as it winds through central Missouri so tightly, the lake has been given the nickname “The Magic Dragon.”
The main town on the lake is Osage Beach, but there are many small towns and resorts on its 1,150 miles of shoreline. There are also a variety of outdoor activities including boating, swimming, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping, golf, biking and more. While busiest in summer, Lake of the Ozarks has something to offer in all seasons, and fall color is definitely something worth seeing.
From Osage Beach, head south on US-54 to Missouri Highway D, turn right and in just two miles you’ll turn right onto Natural Bridge Road. Just half mile later and you’ll be at the parking not for the castle ruins in Ha Ha Tonka State Park. There’s more to explore in the park or you can head back on Highway D to 54 East. Take a quick left onto Ball Park Road and follow that until you get to MO Bus. 5. Take a left and continue on to Highway 5. You’ll cross two bridges and after 16.5 miles take a slight left onto MO-135 North. In just about 3 miles you’ll turn left again onto Cup Tree Road, where in 5 miles you’ll come upon your next stop, Big Dick’s Halfway Inn. As the name suggests it’s a silly and irreverent place, but one that shouldn’t be missed. Stop for lunch or a snack and then head back out Cup Tree Road turning left onto 135 North. In four miles hang a right onto Highway J and continue on for five miles until you come to a T at Highway 5. Turn right onto 5 and in two miles you’ll turn right on highway TT. In less then a mile, you’ll turn right again to stay on TT and in about a mile you’ll veer right at the big arrow and follow it down the road to Jacob’s Cave. Take a guided tour through the mile-long cave – the largest in the area – and then hop back in the car for the final leg of the drive.
Your final stop will be the origin of Lake of the Ozarks itself, the Bagnell Dam. From the cave, head back out to Highway TT and then continue straight onto Old Five Road as it twists and turns through the forest for five miles. Just before you get to the town of Versailles, you’ll turn right onto Highway W and follow that route for 12 miles until you reach Highway Y. Turn right and then take a left onto Highway W. At the traffic circle, take the first exit onto Bus. 54 and follow it around to the dam. There’s parking on the other side and plenty of places to grab a snack or a coffee. From there, you head back on Bus. 54, to 54 and it’s just a quick five miles back to Osage Beach.
Tan Tar A Resort Osage Beach
A classic family resort complex built in the the 1960s, you could spend the entire weekend at the Tan Tar A with everything there is to do on the property. If you’re expecting a five diamond experience, you’ll be disappointed, but for families looking for a weekend away, it’s perfect. You’ll find a waterpark, marina, golf course, bowling, horseback riding and more all on site. The hotel has 700 rooms and there are cottages with full kitchens available.
The Garden House Rocky Mount
Named the best Bed & Breakfast by MidWest Living Magazine in March 2010 the Garden House offers exceptional views of Lake of the Ozarks. This waterfront inn is on the 4 Mile Marker of the Main Channel. All of the rooms face the lake and have private patios. There’s also a waterfront martini deck, outdoor hot tub, a boat dock, and a hot homemade breakfast from scratch to go with the view.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park Osage Beach
If you’re in the mood for something more rustic, Lake of the Ozarks State Park has plenty of room for both tent and RV camping. You’ll also find eight outpost cabins and two yurts available for rent. There’s electricity in each cabin, but no running water, and you’re not allowed to cook in them. There’s a grill and picnic area outside each. The park also offers miles of hiking trails, canoeing, biking and a cave you can explore.
2260 Bagnell Dam Blvd, Lake Ozark, MO
The undisputed king of find dining restaurants in the area, JB Hooks has been serving great steaks and seafood with a view of the lake since 1995. In addition to fine dining, you can also get a casual lunch or a great happy hour snack at their bar.
Big Dick’s Halfway Inn
1038 Cup Tree Rd, Gravois Mills, MO
This place is fun, loud and irreverent. Come by car or boat and enjoy burgers, sandwiches, salads and pizza. After Labor Day, they’re only open Fridays and Saturdays after four.
The Cozy Cafe
1018 Highway KK, Osage Beach, MO
A classic small town diner that serves a great breakfast and lunch. Cheap, fun, fast and goooood. Don’t miss the biscuits and gravy or fried chicken.
Bagnell Dam History Museum On the National Register of Historic Places, Willmore Lodge is where both the Bagnell Dam History Museum and the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce are located. This museum is dedicated to the amazing engineering feat that took place in 1929. The building of the Bagnell Dam by the Union Electric Company of St. Louis, which cost $30 million, was the last major dam to be constructed in America solely with private funds. After visiting the Museum, stroll through the gardens and enjoy views of the Lake of the Ozarks. Admission is free.
Bridal Cave Because one can never visit enough caves! So named because legend has it native American wedding ceremonies took place in the cave in the 1800s. Now it’s one of the great attractions of the area. Located under Thunder Mountain, guided tours leave every few minutes. You’ll see massive stalactites and onyx formations as well as the beautiful, crystal clear waters of Mystery Lake. Admission $18 for adults $9 for children 5–12.
Thouvenel Stables Though closed for the season until mid-March, these stables offer great riding options for a family outing. With horses that are appropriate for riders of all skill and experience levels, the trail rides are a great way to see the countryside surrounding the Tan Tar A Resort. You don’t have to be staying at the resort to ride, so head on over and giddy-up!