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The Great Ozarks Road Trip + Itinerary

The Great Ozarks Road Trip + Itinerary

Curvy roads. Unique rocks. And a pound of butter. That’s how I’d sum up our road trip through the Ozarks in Missouri. I’ll elaborate, of course, but if you have a short attention span, our five-day road trip through the Missouri Ozarks 

Disclosure: A portion of our road trip was hosted by Lake of the Ozarks Visitors Bureau and Branson Visitors Bureau, while other places I paid out-of-pocket. This post may contain affiliate links. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Where in Missouri is this trip?

Ozarks is one of those nebulous regions where it’s less defined geographical and more defined as “you know when you see it.” For most of us non-Missouri folk, we kind of assume that central and southern Missouri must be the Ozarks. We could be right or wrong, but you’ll just have to travel there to know when you see it.

But I digress. Here’s where this road trip will take you:

  • Osage Beach in the Lake of the Ozarks region
  • Elephant Rocks State Park
  • Echo Bluff State Park
  • Branson

Who’d like this 5-day Missouri road trip the most?

Three generations were on this road trip through Missouri: My husband and I, our kids, and my dad. I had to plan an itinerary that could please a wide variety, so there’s a little bit of everything to see on this trip: Hiking, local beer, animals, and live performances.

And fudge.

And butter, as I mentioned before. 

What I’m saying is that this is a family-pleasing road trip that can be adjusted for a little more active lifestyles, foodie-centric, or low-key retirees. (No offense to you, Dad, you kept up with us pretty well).

When is the best time of year to visit the Ozarks in Missouri?

It totally depends. My quick answer: Shoulder seasons of summer would be ideal, like early June. There are pros and cons to every season, though.

Spring in the Ozarks (Echo Bluff State Park)

Spring: We took this trip in early March, and its has its perks and downsides. Weather is unpredictable and trust me when I say you do not want to drive in the Ozarks forests in the rain.

It’s off-season so prices are lower and there aren’t crowds, but the flip side is that tourist places like Branson and Lake of the Ozarks on on off-season hours. And many seasonal activities, like boating and amusement parks are not open yet.

Summer: Having spent many summer vacations in Branson with my family, I have a lot of fond memories of being in the Ozarks that time of year. It’s hot, yes. It’s busy, yes. But there is so much to do and see, too! But if you want time on the water, go carts, and dining outdoors with a view, summer is your season.

Paddlers on the Current River in Missouri
Photo courtesy Missouri Division of Tourism

Fall: I’ve yet to visit in the fall, but I can easily imagine the autumn splendor with so many trees in the region. Our stop at Echo Bluff State Park would definitely be a spot for leaf peeping. 

Winter: And lastly visiting the Ozarks in the winter has its own kind of charm, especially Branson with all the Christmas shows. But, you do miss the natural beauty of the green from other seasons.

Of note, both Branson and Lake of the Ozarks have indoor water parks so you can at least pretend you’re on summer vacation somewhere.

Missouri Ozarks Road Trip Itinerary 

Day 1: Osage Beach/Lake of the Ozarks

If you’ve never been to the Lake of the Ozarks, lemme tell you, the lake is huge. So, wherever you choose to stay for the night will determine what you may see or do. We stayed in Osage Beach, nicknamed the Heart of the Lake of the Ozarks. 

What to do: Osage Beach has an abundance of attractions, restaurants and shops, plus plenty of access to the lake, so it’s a convenient location if you want to do a lot of things while you’re there.

We’d just driven six hours to reach Osage Beach so our first order of business was to find an outlet for the kids’ energy. Since it was rainy and cold, one place stood out from the rest. That place has a name: Jolly Mon Indoor Water Park

A girl wearing goggles smiles from a play structure at Jolly Mon Water Park in Osage Beach, Missouri

Lucky for us, it’s located inside the resort we were staying at so we could walk back to our room afterward. There are locker rooms and showers so non-resort guests have a place to change before and after.

Jolly Mon is definitely a hot spot for families to visit, and it’s open year-round. There are two, three-story waterslides, a lazy river, a huge dump bucket and play area with water cannons, and a hot tub where you can pretend to relax while other people’s kids sit too close to you. 

While I weathered Jolly Mon with the kids, my husband found the Margaritaville resort bar (thanks a lot, Jimmy Buffet) and my dad enjoyed peace in quiet in his own room. 

Where to eat: If you’re hungry for barbecue, Lake of the Ozarks has a surprising number of barbecue joints. Choose from two that we tried: Wobbly Boots Roadhouse or Barn-B-Que Smokehouse.

An old Chevy parked in front of Barn-B-Que Smokehouse

Where to stay: Margaritaville Lake Resort in Osage Beach

Day 2: Ha Ha Wonka State Park/Lake of the Ozarks

The rain stopped on our second day, so we eventually ventured outdoors. Briefly. 

But we weren’t quite ready to go outdoors in the morning, so we spent our morning hustling the arcade games at Fin City Arcade located on the Margaritaville Lake Resort complex. My kids were determined to win as many tickets as possible to score some road trip souvenirs. 

Then, we swam at the pool, because it’s the thing my kids live for.

Our outdoor adventure was a quick trip to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, one of two state parks near Lake of the Ozarks. I’ve wanted to see the ruins for years, plus I heard the natural bridges and unique terrain was worth checking out.

The ruins at Ha Ha Tonka State Park near Lake of the Ozarks

Since it was still muddy and wet from the downpour the day before, we skipped the hike I’d planned and opted for a short stop at the ruins.

There are definitely trails for avid hikers to seek out there, but we were cold and a mix of young and old, so we stuck to the paved path that led from the parking lot to the ruins. And that was enough.

The highlight of our day was the tour at Bridal Cave. It’s lasts an hour and during that time, you’ll see some magnificent formations and hear some interesting stories. My daughter is now officially smitten with geography, so thanks a lot Bridal Cave.

(Just kidding. I love that she is now obsessed with it).

Cave tours aren’t for everyone, and one lady on our tour did start to get nervous as we walked deeper into the cave and passed through smaller and smaller tunnels (one nicknamed “Concussion Tunnel”). It’s probably the most well-lit cave tour I’ve ever been on, though, so my group was at ease the whole time. 

Where to eat: My favorite breakfast spot was the Rusty Rooster Cafe, which had a cozy farmhouse look to it and ginormous cinnamon rolls.

For lunch or dinner, I recommend Tuckers Shuckers Oysters & Tap which will please most people in your party (even if they don’t want to try the oysters). The location is along a popular strip of stores and restaurants, as well as right next to a ropes course. 

If you have more time: Certainly, if you plan this trip in the summer, you’ll have a lot more options on things to do. Boating and water sports are popular options, and you’ll have no difficulty finding a boat rental spot.

If you want a beach experience, look into Lake of the Ozarks State Park. If you want a swim up bar, Margaritaville has you covered (seasonally, of course).

Day 3: Elephant Rocks State Park/Echo Bluff State Park

Strap in for a bit of a winding journey through the Ozark hills for this next stretch of the road trip to our next overnight stop, Echo Bluff State Park. From Lake of the Ozarks, you’ll head southeast toward more remote and scenic areas of the Ozarks. We left later than we’d planned, so we only stopped at one of the state parks along the way, 

My daughter climbing the boulders at Elephant Rocks State Park

Elephant Rocks State Park is a fascinating spot to stretch your legs. Home to billion-year-old giant, round boulders, areas of the park are otherworldly and super Insta-friendly. There’s a short, paved trail with interpretive signs that makes for a good, 30-minute or so leg stretch. 

And if your kids are super amped up from being stuck in a car, there are plenty of “small” boulders to climb and jump around. 

We reached our overnight spot in time for a late dinner at the Echo Bluff State Park’s lodge (there are also cabins if that’s more of your style). 

Leave yourself time to explore the Echo Bluff in the evening or plan on waking early for a hike. The creek running through the park has the most amazing clear water, and yes, there are bluffs where your echo is stellar.

The stream by the Echo Bluff State Park lodge

The park has several trails for hiking, including a short and easy trail right behind the lodge that takes you along the creek.

Where to eat: You’re in a pretty remote part of Missouri when you venture to these state parks. On our drive from Lake of the Ozarks to Elephant Rocks, we stopped for a bite to eat in Steeleyville. OK, by bite, I mean ice cream treats. A malt. I had a malt for lunch.

As far as dining at state park lodge restaurants goes, Creekside Grill at Echo Bluff State Park was pleasantly tasty and fairly reasonably priced. And the service was super friendly (shout out to Jennifer). The pizzas are huge, and even with the kids splitting it, we had leftovers for late night snacking in the room. 

If you want to try one of their specialties, order the Ozarks mushroom strudel. I had a local beer, Piney River Brewing Co., the Float Trip Ale, a smooth beer.

The patio at the Echo Bluff State Park lodge

Where to stay: Echo Bluff State Park is Missouri’s newest state park and the gorgeous lodge makes for a good overnight spot. Getting a two-room suite was a good choice midway through this road trip. 

We’re already contemplating a return trip so we can stay at the park and canoe the nearby Current River.

If you have more time: We drove right by Johnsons Shut-ins State Park on our way from Elephant Rocks to Echo Bluff. Had it not been nearing dusk we would’ve stopped to see this unique geographic recreational spot.

Shut-ins are essentially nature’s waterslides. You’ll want to make sure the kids have life jackets for the outing.

Day 4: Branson 

Branson is the quintessential Midwest destination for families. Live shows, abundant waterparks and go kart tracks, and off-the-wall attractions clamoring for your attention. There’s a lot to do in Branson!

My daughter and I at Dolly's Stampede in Branson

You could spend a week in Branson and not check every attraction off your family’s list (seriously, my daughter lobbied hard ADD more things to our itinerary and I finally had to put a stop to it). We had exactly a day and a half for Branson, so we had to be strategic. Weather only cooperated for one of the days, too. Spring, y’all.

You’re going to want to get into Branson early in the day if you have a big wish list. 

We went for a dinner-and-a-show combo to make up for the short first day in Branson (plus a swim at the hotel pool). The show was an epic one: Dolly Parton’s Stampede.

Everything you’ve heard about it is true: Huge portions, trick riding, and a slightly uncomfortable North-versus-South rivalry of game playing. We may have had the rowdiest fans of the show behind us hauling insults across the arena. 

Anyway.

Be warned, or get ready, because there is audience participation both from your seat and for a few lucky kids and adults who participated in a few games. My kids loved all of it. In fact, I think they would’ve been more than happy to have less songs and more pig and dog races. 

Related post: Tips for visiting Dolly Parton’s Stampede

Stage coaches and horseback riders during the show at Dolly Parton's Stampede

Where to eat: You’ll get all of your food for the day at the Stampede. Dinner shows are held at 5:30 p.m. in the off-season, and at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. seasonally. It starts out with the option of getting pre-show snacks and drinks in the waiting room/game area.

Then, your meal starts with thick, cream of vegetable soup and a buttery biscuit. Then, your entree is a whole Cornish game hen, sliced pork, roasted potato and corn on the cob. And then there’s dessert (apple turnover). You can get a take-out box, which you’ll most likely need. 

Where to stay: There are a ton of hotels and motels along “the strip,” Highway 76. We stayed just off the strip at The Radisson. You’re at the center of it all, but not right on the busiest street in the city. Plus its connected indoor-outdoor pool combo is exciting for kids.

Day 5: Branson

Weather is unpredictable in the spring so I’ll give you indoor options and outdoor options for Branson, because we did them both. 

If weather cooperates, you’ll want to visit one of the thrill rides in the area. I can recommend one, but you will find there are several options. On our nice spring day, we went to Shepherd Adventure Park and had a blast zipping down the rail of the Copperhead Mountain Skycoaster. My kids loved it so much, we had to buy a second ride ticket (luckily, it’s nearly half the price of the first ride).

That doesn’t last long, unfortunately. 

The Promised Land Zoo will take up a lot more of your time. I have a conflicted opinion of the zoo, though. The zoo’s tours offer up-close encounters and those truly are memorable. We held a joey, and went on a safari where we could feed camels and emus.

But, while some animals had space to roam, other exotics did not and it just didn’t sit well with me. So, I’ll say if petting zoos make you uncomfortable, then you may want to skip this. 

And, I know you’re wondering: Yes, there is a religious side to the zoo. 

All right, so if the weather isn’t the greatest, Branson has families covered with a TON of indoor attractions. My family’s favorite was Wonder Works, which I can best describe as a science center meets arcade. You could spend all day here (which is good because it’s kinda pricey otherwise).

My daughter loved the rides, like the 360 bikes and astronaut training. My son and husband loved the laser tag. I was a good sport and did all the insane rides with the kids, and all I can say is: Bring a hair tie and don’t eat before you go.

Tip: Purchase tickets in advance

The oldest items on display at the Shipwreck Treasure Museum - Roman olive oil amphora from around 70-90 AD.

We have a huge pirate fan in our house, so visiting the Shipwreck Treasure Museum made sense for us. You can browse displays of treasures recovered from shipwrecks plus play some of the interactive areas. Unfortunately, there’s just one pirate section, so well, just make sure your kids are aware it’s not a pirate museum. 

You can’t really go to Branson without seeing one of the live shows (I mean, you could…). There is genres ranging from oldies to gospel to all-around crowd-pleasing variety shows.  

I spent my pre-teen and teen years traveling to Branson a few times a year with my family, so I feel pretty confident I’ve seen a good variety. And the show we saw on this trip — The Haygoods — took things up a level.

Pyrotechnics, lasers, a dude with a guitar zip lining upside-down to the stage. And spectacles aside, the Haygood family is so talented I’m jealous. They played like 27 instruments each and harmonized like no other.

Sure, it’s got the schmaltz of mast Branson shows, but they won me over. I even liked the tap-dancing, you guys. My kids were on their feet dancing along and somehow knew everybody’s name by the end of the show and all their side jokes (there are six Haygoods).

Exterior of Billy Gail's Cafe in Branson

Where to eat: We went to a local favorite for breakfast, Billy Gail’s. Expect huge, huge servings (I’m talking five-egg omelets and ginormous pancakes). And expect it to be so good you’ll try to finish it all.

The look of the interior and exterior is so fun, it makes passing the time easy while you wait. We played the Alphabet Game, looking for all letters of the alphabet on the signs hung on the ceiling. 

For lunch, you can opt for another locally-owned eatery or head to Branson Landing to try something you can’t find at home. On our sunny, warm day, we had lunch on the patio of Landshark at Branson Landing. You can find just about any cuisine in that shopping center.

If you get tired of burgers and buffets, I highly recommend Casa Fuentes for a quiet Mexican restaurant with addictive chips and salsa. They also have a patio, but it was snowing. (Shakes fist at Spring).

Tacos at Casa Fuentes in Branson

If you have more time: Many of the places we visited had more activities or live shows at the theater. For instance, Shepherd Adventure Park has a ropes course and zip lines. The zoo had a drive-through safari that we could’ve done on our own.

And Branson Landing is just bursting with attractions and familiar shops, with seasonal rides open and year-round stuff like bowling, Build-A-Bear, and 4D rides. Branson Landing is also near the historic part of Branson, with quirky shops and iconic ones like Dick’s 5 and Dime. 

If you have another day (and it’s not off-season), add a visit to Silver Dollar City or Table Rock Lake. Get more ideas on my Ozarks Bucket List!

Itinerary and guide for exploring the Missouri Ozarks! Fun places to see, memorable restaurants, and iconic attractions on this great Ozarks road trip.

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