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Exploring the Ozarks: A 5-day Outdoor Adventure
Southern Missouri, located deep in the Ozarks, boasts some of the state’s most magnificent landscapes. Between the outcroppings and bluffs of this 47,000-square-mile region, rivers and streams have carved countless canyons and caverns, creating a gorgeous wilderness with lots of outdoor activities. Go hiking among lush oak and hickory trees or paddling along pristine rivers fed by crystal-clear springs—the opportunities are endless.  

With state and federal parks across this region, it’s not surprising that the Ozarks have become a popular destination. Alongside the natural wonders, you’ll find other attractions like water parks and even an enormous aquarium. For families, the remarkable variety of experiences means there’s something for everyone, whether your posse includes a pint-sized paleontologist, a tot looking to splash in a cool pool, or a teen searching for challenging rapids and peaks to conquer. Of course, it’s an ideal adult destination, too, with captivating sunset-view restaurants and inviting historic hotels.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in the Ozarks
    You’ll start your journey through the parks of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains at Big Cedar Lodge, roughly an hour’s drive south from the Springfield-Branson Airport. It’s hard to argue with Big Cedar’s boast that it’s “America’s premier wilderness lodge”—you’ll find lodges, cabins, and cottages in a variety of sizes. Also on offer: world-class golf, a state-of-the-art spa, and a 50,000-square-foot activity center.  

    Once you check in, go check out the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum for an overview of this pretty part of Missouri. While much of the museum is focused on the animals that once roamed this area—wooly mammoths, cave bears, and saber-toothed cats—other galleries cover human history, including the settling of the American West and Missouri’s role in the Civil War.  

    Then grab lunch at Arnie’s Barn, located in a 150-year-old barn. You’ll find an interesting mashup here: That barn is originally from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Arnold Palmer (hence the name of the restaurant, which overlooks one of his golf courses). The menu, however, is Mexican, with delicious quesadillas, tacos, and other south-of-the-border favorites, including a variety of guacamoles.  

    In the afternoon, you’ll explore Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. While it isn’t the largest park in the region, it manages to fit a lot of natural beauty into its 10,000 acres and offers a surprising range of activities. If you want to take it easy, hitch a ride on the open-air tram. To stretch your legs, choose from biking, hiking, or horseback riding.  

    Return this evening to Big Cedar for dinner at one of the 13 (!) restaurants, with casual and fine-dining options.
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    Day 2
    Discover Historic Springfield
    After you check out of the lodge, drive back to Springfield. Stop in at a local favorite, Hurt’s Donuts, where the 70 varieties include some surprising toppings like maple bacon, Andes mints, and cotton candy.  

    Missouri might not be the first place you’d look for a world-class aquarium, but Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, created the captivating, 350,000-square-foot Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium. A variety of tanks house different aquatic environments: the deep ocean, underwater caves, the rivers and streams of the Ozarks, and more. Wildlife galleries give a nod to land-based animals across the American West, Africa, and Antarctica, among others. 

    Reorient yourself back on terra firma with a burger lunch…but not just any old burger. The patties at Black Sheep come with unique ingredients like jerk seasoning and pineapple jalapeño jam mayo (the “Jamaican Me Crazy”) or topped with short ribs cooked in Dr. Pepper (the “What the Dr. Ordered”). While you’re at it, sample their boozy shakes—hey, you’re on vacation!  

    End your day at Hotel Vandivort. This 50-room boutique hotel celebrates Springfield’s rich history, beginning with the building—a Masonic temple originally built in 1906. The industrial-chic décor gives the rooms a personality that’s contemporary and retro all at once.  

    Spend the afternoon exploring historic Springfield. By the time of the Civil War, the town had emerged as an important trading post, a gateway to the West and the unofficial capital of the Ozarks. Stroll along Historic C Street (short for “Commercial”) to admire the 19th-century buildings, many of them now home to boutiques and galleries.  

    As you wander around town, keep your eyes peeled for the three Pineapple Whip locations, where you can enjoy an only-in-Springfield treat. The shop’s non-dairy, juice-based, soft-serve dessert was invented in 1974 and has become a Springfield summertime tradition. It’s available in the original pineapple flavor as well as five others, including mango-peach, grape, and orange.
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    Day 3
    Jump in a Lake
    This morning, drive north to Lake of the Ozarks, an enormous reservoir with an unusual serpentine shape that covers some 54,000 acres. After you check into the Margaritaville Lake Resort, rent a motor boat, paddleboat, or WaveRunner to explore some of the many stretches of the so-called “Magic Dragon,” the lake’s local nickname. 

    If you’re traveling with kids, Big Surf Waterpark may be an even more appealing way to cool off. This family favorite has a number of water slides, a lazy river, wave pool, and activity pool. There’s a good mix of low-key areas for younger kids and rides where teens can get their adrenaline racing.  

    When you’re ready for lunch, lots of restaurants offer lake views with your burger or sandwich. Baxter’s Lakeside Grille and Redhead Lakeside Grille both serve classic American fare, while Pappo’s Pizzeria is a fun option. Of course, you can’t visit Missouri without trying some of the local barbeque: HalfSauced Barbeque is the place to dig into wings and a variety of smoked meats.  

    Head next to Ozark Distillery—on Saturdays you can take a tour and sample some of their whiskies and flavored moonshines. While that’s the only day tours are offered, you can always buy a bottle as a souvenir of your Missouri adventure.  

    Later in the afternoon, wander the 15 miles of trails at Ha Ha Tonka State Park and explore its natural stone bridges, caverns, and spring. Don’t miss one unusual feature: the remains of a “castle” from 1906, used as a vacation home until it burned in 1942 (the stone walls still stand). And if you want to delve into the world underneath the park, stop at Bridal Cave/Thunder Mountain Park, which has a cool network of paths winding through the cave. It’s an especially appealing option when the weather is warm, since the cavern is a consistently cool 60 degrees.  

    Get to JB Hook’s in time for the sunset views from its blufftop location overlooking the lake. The emphasis here is on seafood—shrimp, oysters, and fish from the ocean, as well as nearby lakes and streams.
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    Day 4
    Rivers Run Through It
    It’s river day! Spend time canoeing, kayaking, or floating in an inner tube through the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. You can also drive to one of the springs or swimming holes and jump in. The park, established in 1964, was the first designed to protect a river system. It includes multiple rivers and many more streams and springs. It’s also crossed by the Ozark Trail, if you’d rather stay dry as you explore. 

    You can also get a dose of history with your recreation. The area is dotted with many historic sites, including pioneers’ homes and one-room schoolhouses. Alley Mill, built in 1894, gives a glimpse into life in the area at the turn of the last century.  

    Spend the night at Echo Bluff State Park—the namesake bluff overlooks Sinking Creek. Check into the iconic Betty Lea Lodge, which has 20 rooms, or choose from nine nearby cabins with fireplaces and full kitchens. Don’t settle in for the night yet, though: Head to the Blue Heron Restaurant at the Landing for dinner. For 20 years, Chef Bobby King has been serving steaks grilled to perfection and a variety of fresh fish, all prepared with southern flair.
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    Day 5
    Visit Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks
    It’s your final day to enjoy Missouri’s great outdoors! First up: Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, to visit the famous formations created by the Black River flowing around ancient volcanic rock, carving out slides, chutes, and pools. The result is a beautiful landscape that doubles as a natural water park. It’s an ideal spot for a swim or a soak—especially after a hike, some rock climbing, or a ride on the 10-mile-long equestrian trail.  

    When you’re ready for lunch, visit Thee Abbey Kitchen, located at a former Ursuline academy that’s been reborn as a vacation destination, with overnight accommodations in antique-filled rooms. The kitchen serves salads and sandwiches, but you’ll want to leave room for a cinnamon bun or other sweet treats baked fresh daily. Another option that combines history and a meal is the Fort Davidson Café, located across from the fort that was the site of a major conflict in 1864, when Confederate soldiers from Arkansas invaded Missouri.  

    After lunch, visit Elephant Rocks State Park. The park is named for enormous rounded pink granite boulders, estimated to be 1.5 billion years old, that have been compared to circus elephants lined up in a row. Some of the rocks have names and comments carved into them by 19th-century miners who worked in the area; a side trail leads to buildings from those mining operations.  

    Five days in the Ozarks gives you an opportunity to hit the highlights, but there’s so much more to explore. Don’t be surprised to find yourself wanting to return.