Where’s a man who needs to conceal a mega money laundering operation to move?
To the Ozarks, of course, the same rugged backcountry where the “bushwhackers”—Missourians attempting to escape the advancing Union army—fled during the Civil War. Set in the mysterious, mist-covered plateau that stretches 50,000 square miles across five states (Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois), Ozark, Netflix’s acclaimed crime drama series, recently came to an end after a four-season run.
In the show, Jason Bateman stars as Marty Byrde, a Chicago-based financial advisor who finds himself the unwitting target of a drug cartel, and tasked with laundering $500 million to save his life. Byrde, together with his wife and two kids, hides in plain sight and starts a new life among the Ozarks’ tree-covered mountains, sparkling springs, underground caves, waterfalls, and countless lakes. Created by Missouri-native Bill Dubuque, who worked as a dock hand on Table Rock Lake in the 1980s, the series features plenty of stunning shots of the region’s pristine waters, rugged woodlands, and limestone bluffs.
While most people head to Branson, Missouri—known as the music capital of the Ozarks with 45 theater venues—for live entertainment and other tourist draws such as Dolly Parton’s Stampede, the Titanic Museum, and Silver Dollar City, the region’s natural wonders alone make it worthy of a road trip.
Here are 11 must-see natural sites in the Ozarks.
1. Marvel Cave
At 500 feet, Marvel Cave is the deepest cave in Missouri, originally known as “Devil’s Den” because of its deep and mysterious passageways. The Silver Dollar City theme park grew around the attraction, and guided tours of the cave are included with admission. Be ready to descend 700 steps as you travel below the surface to the floor of the Cathedral Room, the largest cave entrance room in the U.S. at 204 feet.
Descend even further as you follow sometimes narrow passageways to the cave’s other rooms, including one centered by a magnificent underground waterfall, and the Mammoth Room, where the majority of the cave’s bats like to hang out. A circa-1950s cable train takes visitors 1,070 feet back up to the surface at the end of the tour.
2. Smallin Cave
Once used by the Union Army to store artillery during the Civil War, Smallin Cave features intricate formations, including a rimstone dam and a rare example of a “cave mushroom” formation. During the 1-hour, 0.5-mile guided walking tour, you might encounter some of the cave’s wild inhabitants, including crayfish, salamanders, bats, and fossils of the cave’s ancient inhabitants, starfish. For a true spelunking adventure, sign up for the off-trail Smallin Cave Wild Tour, a 2-hour tour through the cave’s narrow, hidden passageways, some of which require walking in up to 2 feet of water.
3. Dogwood Canyon Nature Park
Dogwood Canyon, a 10,000-acre nature reserve founded by Ozark-born Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris, offers a glimpse into what the region looked like before humans arrived. Hike the 3.2-mile trail that runs the canyon’s length, crossing streams 17 times via hand-crafted stone bridges. The on-site working gristmill is powered by the Little Indian Creek, which winds through the canyon.
4. Talking Rocks Cavern
When Waldo Powell set foot in the expansive Talking Rocks Cavern in 1896, he proclaimed: “The rock shapes are so powerful, they talk to me.” Tours of the cave depart from the gift shop at regular intervals throughout the day and take approximately 1 hour. Visitors climb 150 steps to the cave floor from the entrance, where numerous intricate formations await, including “cave bacon” and the Cathedral, a 90-foot-tall flowstone mineral deposit. Above ground, the caverns are surrounded by several trails; a 100-foot lookout tower offers a panoramic vista of the Ozarks.
5. Lake Taneycomo
Stocked annually with approximately 750,000 rainbow and brown trout, Lake Taneycomo is a world-class trout fishing destination. While catching trout here is relatively easy—even for a novice angler—consider hiring a professional instructor to teach you the fine art of fly fishing. Fishing guides and gear are available at Lilly’s Landing Marina, located on upper Lake Taneycomo. If you’re not up for fishing, set off on a peaceful paddle of the lake: White River Kayaking and Outdoors offers kayak and canoe rentals with quick and easy access to the lake.
6. Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery
Each year, the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery (managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation) produces between 350,000 and 400,000 pounds of rainbow and brown trout. The hatchery’s conservation center, open to the public, showcases aquatic resource management, from egg incubation to lake-ready trout swimming in enormous tanks. Three miles of hiking trails wind around the hatchery and along the Table Rock River.
7. Moonshine Beach
Although Table Rock Lake is best known for fishing and water sports, don’t miss a swim in its cool, crystal clear waters. Much of the lake’s shoreline is wooded, but Moonshine Beach offers a stretch of sand ideal for sunbathing or picnicking. The 2-mile-long Table Rock Lakeshore Trail departs from the adjacent Dewey Short Visitor Center, one of the best hiking trails for leaf peeping and bald eagle spotting along the lake.
8. Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area
In the steep oak and hickory tree-covered White River Hills, the 1,534-acre Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area offers a refuge for deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles, and migratory birds. No hunting or trapping is allowed here on the land once owned by Paul Henning, creator of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction television series, and his wife Ruth. Five hiking trails loop through the forest, glades, and along a 0.5-mile stretch of the quiet Roark Creek.
9. Waterfall Trail
The 1.33-mile Waterfall Trail follows a tributary of Roark Creek, leading hikers past several small waterfalls. It’s a relatively easy and level hike, but the creek tends to swell after rain, so be prepared for a possibly muddy trek. The tallest waterfall on the trail lies at the end point and is the ideal spot for a picnic lunch.
10. Beaver Creek
The best way to soak in the beauty of the spring-fed Beaver Creek, which cuts 44 miles through wooded bluffs, is via a canoe float trip. Beaver Creek Canoe Rental, the only outfitter located along the creek, services a 19-mile stretch and offers 5- and 8-mile-long canoe or kayak floats with launch and pick-up shuttle service.
11. Branson Scenic Railway
The Branson Scenic Railway loops 40 miles roundtrip through the Ozarks, crossing bridges, trestles, and tunnels before chugging along for 50 miles over the Ozark Mountains, an area inaccessible by car. The narrated journey begins at the historic 1905 train depot, where you’ll board a mid-century coach powered by a locomotive that runs along the White River Route, the rail line that brought tourism to the Ozarks in the early 1900s. Three dome cars offer incredible panoramic views.