I have a habit of daydreaming trips that will take more time and more money than I have available. Which is why this might be the most epic Ozarks bucket list ever. I want to do and see all of these things in the Missouri Ozarks region, and I know it’s going to take a few years to every check it all off.
A traveler can dream, though, right?
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Related post: Check out My Missouri Bucket List
Where exactly are the Ozarks in Missouri?
Great question! I’ve researched this because I am planning an Ozarks road trip. And seriously? No one seems to know for sure what is Ozarks and what is not.
If you want to be geographical about it, the Ozarks is a plateau that spans southern Missouri into Northern Arkansas. Some will say it seeps into Kansas, Oklahoma and even Illinois.
Springfield Green Country Library describes the boundaries as “marked in a general way by major rivers: the Mississippi River on the east, the Missouri River on the north, and the Grand River on the southwest. Most of the western boundary follows a line where rocks of the Pennsylvanian period overlap those of the Mississippian period.”
My favorite answer to the question, was from a man who lived in the area for 55 years, who told a reporter that the boundaries based on geology were “nonsense” if they included parts of Kansas and Illinois.
“To him, the real-deal Ozarks is southwest Missouri, including Springfield, northwest Arkansas, and a little bit of northeast Oklahoma. This, he says, is the ‘cultural Ozarks.'”
The best I can determine is that Ozarks is an attitude, a way of being. And the cultural Ozarks is associated with rural life, conservative politics, Evangelical Protestantism, and music (mostly fiddle).
Eat all the foods
The Ozarks isn’t quite a foodie beacon just yet, but I think it’s on its way. It’s similar to American Southern food, and in “An Ozark Culinary History,” it’s referred to as High South cuisine. Some of the more out-there options on my radar:
- 5-pound pie from A Slice of Pie in Rolla
- Seriously good goat cheese at Baetje Farms (their cheese has won more than 70 national and international awards)
- Sawdust pie at Cooky’s Cafe (It’s not as bad as it sounds. The pie consists of coconut, graham crackers, chocolate chips and pecans.)
A Slice of Pie, 634 S. Bishop Ave., Rolla, Missouri
Baetje Farms, 932 Jackson School Road, Bloomsdale, Missouri
Cooky’s Cafe, 519 Main St., Golden City, Missouri
Related post: Great restaurants to try in the Lake of the Ozarks
Find all the quirky restaurants
While it’s never been settled what exactly Ozark cuisine is, there’s one thing Ozark restaurants have going for them: Uniqueness. Among the quirkier finds in Missouri are Hangar Kafe in Miller, a restaurant just a few feet away from the airstrip at Kingsley Airfield, and Undercliff Grill & Bar in Joplin, a restaurant that’s…well, located under a rock overhang, or cliff.
Hangar Kafe, 3103 Lawrence 1070, Miller, Missouri
Undercliff Grill & Bar, 6385 Old Highway 71, Joplin, Missouri
Float on a clear river
Cruise the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which includes the Current River and Jacks Fork River.
One of my earliest memories of dating my husband was talking about our shared love of canoeing. I recalled annual trips to the Niobrara River, he talked about the crystal clear waters of the Current. I’ve wanted to go there ever since.
Get the basic information about the Riverways here. If I’m feeling ambitious, I could do the Current River Challenge consists of hiking from Echo Bluff to Current River State Park, then paddling to Round Sprig, and then biking back to Echo Bluff.
Hiking & scenic adventures in the Ozarks
The Ozark Trail consists of more than 390 miles of trail. This trip planner makes it incredibly easy to plan a visit to see some of the best sights! Check out the Ozark Trail Association’s photos for some inspiration.
With two kids under 12, we’re not all-day hikers by any means, but I think we’ll hike a bit of the Taum Sauk Section of the Ozark Trail, which runs through Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Taum Sauk Mountain State Parks (Taum Sauk is the state’s highest point).
If we managed the whole 35-mile section of the trail, we’d see some of Missouri’s best wonders: Mina Sauk Falls, Devil’s Tollgate and Johnson’s Shut-Ins.
A few hikes I have on my list:
- The Mina Sauk Falls Trail, 3-mile Loop (the falls are wet weather falls so it’s best to visit after it has rained)
- The Shut-ins Trail, 2.25-mile loop
- The Braille Trail at Elephant Rocks State Park is a good one to take to see the trillion-year-old boulders.
- Ha Ha Tonka State Park (there are several to choose from)
Visit sculpture towns, and “The Crapduster”
I’m a sucker for weird art. Make the unique art into a whole town, and I’m so there. I heard about Bo’s Hollow created by the Borel family, who had a hobby of collecting vintage cars. And along with their car collection, they started to just create a town, complete with a post office, barbershop and jail. In non-pandemic times, you can pay to ride around in a Model T while there.
The town kind of reminds me of another model town called “Red Oak II, Missoura” fills a field with antique buildings, a jail, church, and other vintage items. It was created by Missouri sculptor Lowell Davis who wanted to recreate his hometown after returning one day to discover it had decayed.
What I’m equally intrigued by the Davis’s “The Crapduster,” though. This antique manure spreading gem is located over a truck stop north east of Carthage.
Bo’s Hollow, between Salem, Licking, and Houston – 2 miles south of Montauk State Park
Red Oak II is northeast of Carthage. From I-49, take exit 63 for Base Line Boulevard, then go south on County Road 130 and east on Kafir Road to the town.
Flyin W convenient store located at 13011 State Highway 96
Travel by houseboat
It never fails, each summer, my friend group at our pool starts talking about all of our families heading to the Lake of the Ozarks to rent a houseboat and enjoy the lake life for a week. It hasn’t happened…yet.
A few rental options I’ve come across:
- Adventure Boat Rentals (3 locations)
- Bombay Boat Rentals Co.
Venture into a Missouri cave or two
Missouri has its fair share of caves, including caves in the Ozarks with fun names like Bat Cave (better known as Onondaga Cave) and Talking Rocks Cavern in Branson West. There’s Bridal Cave in Camdenton and Ozark Caverns inside Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
Bat Cave, 7556 St. Route H, Onondaga Cave State Park, Leasburg, Missouri
Talking Rocks Cavern, 423 Fairy Cave Lane, Branson West, Missouri
Bridal Cave, 526 Bridal Cave Road Highway 5, Lake Road 5-88, 2 miles north of Camdenton, Missouri
Ozark Caverns inside Lake of the Ozarks State Park
Visit the ruins
My kids love ruins that look like castles but were never castles (maybe because they’ve never been to Europe). We found a small structure in Kansas once and it was like the highlight of the trip. Ha Ha Tonka State Park is home to a turn-of-the-century ruin of a legit castle atop of a bluff.
Tip: I read that the true sights to see at the park are near the wooden stairway that connects the two levels of the park: natural bridges, sinkholes, caves, and a spring that make up the park’s karst topography.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park, 1491 Missouri D, Camdenton, Missouri
A retro day out
Missouri is steeped in Americana tradition, especially with Route 66 passing through. A few of the landmarks that capture a time of long ago is the Dick’s 5 and 10 in Branson and 66 Route Drive-In Theatre in Carthage.
Dick’s 5 and 10, 103 W. Main St., Branson, Missouri
66 Route Drive-In Theatre, 17231 Old 66 Blvd., Carthage, Missouri (open seasonally)