This year marks a notable anniversary for a popular tourism spot in central Missouri, and fall is a great time to visit.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
When Union Electric Company finished constructing Bagnell Dam in 1931 to create the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri, few people would have envisioned it as the popular Midwestern family getaway it has become. Tourism didn’t exist as an industry in this region, and during the Depression few people had the time or opportunity to travel for leisure. But 75 years later, Lake of the Ozarks is now a magnet for visitors, with entertainment options ranging from fine dining, golf, and shopping to caverns, state parks, and boat cruises.
Autumn is a perfect time to explore this area, for the air has cooled, yet temperatures remain friendly for most outdoor activities. Most campgrounds operate through October, and some remain open year-round. It’s a fine time to visit, with colorful foliage and plenty to do.
Make your first stop the historic Willmore Lodge to get acquainted with the area. When it was completed in 1930, this huge log structure served as the administrative and entertainment center for Union Electric. Consisting of 29 rooms, it included five guest rooms named after towns relocated or flooded as the Lake of the Ozarks filled.
Today the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce operates a visitors center and museum out of the old lodge. Come on in for brochures about area attractions and facilities, and take time to tour the exhibits about the area’s pre-lake history, the construction of Bagnell Dam, and the lake’s development through the years.
Make your next stop the nearby AmerenUE scenic overlook, for a bird’s-eye view of Bagnell Dam. Take time to read the interesting signboards in this area. You’ll learn the dam is the largest and last major dam in the United States to be built using private capital. Its size is comparable to a building 12 stories high and seven blocks long. Construction cost an initial $30 million, and another $40 million was spent later to modernize the plant’s control facilities, to add generators, and more.
During the Depression, the Great Osage River Project was the biggest private construction project in the United States, and out-of-work men and their families flocked by the thousands to the area. Today this hydroelectric plant’s eight generators meet the electricity needs of 45,000 average households, and each year save the United States 1 million barrels of oil (or 334,000 tons of coal).
You’ll also learn about the lake. With more than 1,150 miles of shoreline “” longer than the Pacific coast of California “” Lake of the Ozarks is one of the world’s largest man-made lakes. It impounds more than 600 billion gallons of water.
When it’s time to get out on the lake, you’ll be able to, whether you tow a boat or not. Marinas and most resorts rent a variety of watercraft to meet every need, including those who wish to water-ski or go parasailing. Perhaps you’d like to use a houseboat for a few days, or simply cast a line for the afternoon. You will find an opportunity.
Boating is the most popular activity at the lake. On summer weekends, approximately 50,000 watercraft ply the lake, with the number climbing to 60,000 during holiday weekends. Approximately 450 regattas, fishing tournaments, parades, races, boat shows, and other water recreation events occur annually.
The Lake of the Ozarks is recognized by many tournament pros as one of the best year-round fishing spots in the United States. Anglers have excellent luck with largemouth bass, crappie, white bass, stripers, catfish, and others.
Another option is to take a cruise. Tropic Island Cruises’ 75-foot, 150-passenger, two-level yacht departs from the Lodge of Four Seasons at 3:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from April 1 to October 30. The 90-minute fully narrated cruise passes by homes and condominiums ranging in value from $40,000 to $7 million. You’ll pass by the home of retired NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace, and the Anheuser Busch Conference Center. For more information about the cruises, call (573) 348-0083.
Lunch or dinner cruises are offered by Celebration Cruises, but since they don’t run cruises every day, it’s best to check the schedule by calling (573) 480-3212.
The lake area is home to three of the state’s popular show caves “” wild caves that have been “tamed” with the addition of walkways and lighting “” located within 30 minutes of one another. Each is different, but they all maintain a steady year-round temperature of approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bridal Cave, accessible by land or water, is open year-round. Hour-long guided tours take place on demand. The cave derives its name from the legendary Indian wedding ceremony held in the cave in the early 1800s. It now hosts 40 to 50 weddings a year.
I was amazed by the massive draperies, delicate soda straws, and giant columns. It seemed like every inch of this cave was covered with some type of onyx formation. I felt its beauty rise like a crescendo climaxing at Mystery Lake. Bridal Cave has a single block of cave onyx that measures more than 500 billion cubic inches.
Next to Bridal Cave is Thunder Mountain Park, which includes a visitors center, a large gift shop, nature trails, an observation tower, and picnic grounds. The Thunder Mountain Mining Company gift shop offers rocks, minerals, and gemstones from around the world.
Jacob’s Cave is the largest in the lake area. Open year-round, it’s the only walk-through show cave in Missouri that is accessible to baby strollers and wheelchairs throughout the entire tour. It’s famous for its depth illusions; reflecting pools; ceiling sponge-work; prehistoric mastodon and bear bones; what’s touted as the world’s largest geode; and millions of cave formations.
Since 1952 Ozark Caverns, located on the south side of Lake of the Ozarks State Park, has been open to the public. It offers a visitors center with information on caving and three types of tours “” one for kids that lasts a half-hour, a traditional one-hour tour, and a more detailed tour complete with hand-held lanterns. The cave is open the first weekend after April 15 through October 15 (days and times vary). This cave’s best-known feature is its Angels’ Showers, a deep showerhead bathtub deposit. To form the showerhead, water flows continuously, up to 7,000 gallons a day, from the solid rock ceiling. The flow creates flat-bottomed stalactites. It’s one of only 14 known showerhead formations worldwide.
The area’s two state parks help preserve land near the lake and its shoreline for all to enjoy. Lake of the Ozarks State Park, with 17,441 acres, is Missouri’s largest state park. It offers plenty of recreational opportunities in addition to the cave. Hikers enjoy 12 trails, ranging from ¾-mile to 16½ miles in length. The park has two equestrian trails, including one for bicycling. A self-guided aquatic trail for boaters on the Grand Glaize Arm of the lake is marked with buoys.
Two free public swimming beaches include bathhouses and nearby picnic areas. At the park’s two marinas, you can rent a boat for fishing or skiing. Campers find more than 230 sites, ranging from primitive to those with electric hookups, open year-round. Campground facilities include restrooms, laundry facilities, and dump stations. The park even has an airport.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park is noted for the ruins of an early 1900s European-style castle built by Robert Snyder, a wealthy Kansas City businessman. He planned an 80-foot-high water tower, greenhouses, and a carriage house. Construction started in 1905, only to be halted in 1906 with Snyder’s death in one of the state’s first automobile accidents. His sons finished building their father’s dream. Eventually the property was leased as a hotel. In 1942, a fire gutted the entire interior as well as the carriage house. In 1976, vandals burned the water tower.
Take time to hike this park. It’s Missouri’s premier example of karst topography, a landscape with sinks, caves, underground streams, large springs, and a natural bridge. Stop first at the visitors center for a map of the trails and boardwalks, which make it easy to visit these sites.
If you’re driving around the Lake of the Ozarks area with children in tow, they will likely beg you to stop at a few man-made attractions. Several miniature golf courses with varying designs are here; some include go-cart tracks. Water parks are another option in the summer. Timber Falls is an indoor water park that’s open year-round at Tan-Tar-A Resort. It’s available to the general public, not just resort guests. The central feature is the “Ozark Wilderness” tree house with a huge wooden bucket that tips over and spills out 700 gallons of water every two minutes. The park also has water slides, an activity pool with water basketball, a 21-seat whirlpool, and a lazy river. Tan-Tar-A also has a bowling alley and Bears Den Arcade; horseback riding; a golf course and a miniature golf course; boat rentals; and tours of the lake on a yacht called the Ozark Princess.
Adults can take a break at Tan-Tar-A Resort’s Windjammer Spa and Salon, a small spa offering popular salon services, and the Spa Shiki at the Lodge of Four Seasons. The latter is a full-service spa blending Japanese and American treatments. This 15,000-square-foot facility has 16 treatment rooms and offers 100 services.
Another attraction in the Lake of the Ozarks region is religious in nature. When Pope Paul VI designated Mary as “Mother of the Church” as part of Vatican II, citizens of the small lake community of Laurie began a movement to establish an international shrine to the mother of Jesus and mothers everywhere. In 1992 the National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church was dedicated on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. It’s believed to be the only one of its kind in the world.
The shrine features a 14-foot-tall stainless-steel revolving sculpture of Mary standing in a terraced amphitheater surrounded by flowers, fountains, and a waterfall running under her feet. An Avenue of Flags represents 101 nations. During the Christmas season, grounds are decorated with a million lights.
The Mother’s Wall of Life is engraved with the names of mothers from throughout the world on black granite surrounding the sculpture of Mary. Names are added all the time. The most famous name there is that of Pope John Paul’s mother. People of all faiths enjoy services at the church year-round. The grounds are always open to visitors.
If you’re a fan of golf, Lake of the Ozarks is for you. The region boasts 17 golf courses, 15 of which are public. They were designed by such pros as Tom Weiskopf, Bruce Devlin, and Robert Trent Jones Sr. Most are 18 holes; two are nine holes. The Arnold-Palmer-designed Osage National Golf Club has 27 holes with a choice of three 18-hole combinations.
The primary golf season in the area runs from March through November. The courses offer variations in length, degree of difficulty, elevation changes, water hazards, and layouts. For more information, visit www.golfingmissouri.com.
If shopping is more your thing, you’ll want to visit Osage Beach Premium Outlets’ 13 buildings, which contain 110 stores leased by top-name manufacturers. It’s the largest outlet center in Missouri, and one of the biggest in the United States. You’ll find shoes, home furnishings, clothing, gifts, and specialty items.
Another place to shop is Bagnell Dam Boulevard, known as the “Strip.” Located just west of the dam, it’s a family favorite with T-shirt shops, restaurants, flea markets, arcades, antiques stores, fudge shops, and souvenirs.
And, of course, let’s not forget food and nightlife. With more than 100 restaurants in the area “” including more than 35 on the waterfront “” you’ll find something you like. Fare ranges from fast food to gourmet. Choices include a full range of ethnic cuisine as well as traditional American. Many have Ozark specialties, such as catfish, trout, and barbecue. Besides the desserts found on restaurant menus, sweets lovers will enjoy ice cream parlors and custard stands.
The Horny Toad Entertainment Complex at Toad Cove is huge, with dining, entertainment, shopping, and the largest outdoor video wall at the lake. The Horny Toad has a complete menu, and the Frisky Frog, on the lower level, is great for drinks and games. Jeremiah’s is one of the hottest nightclubs on the lake. In summer it hosts popular live music. And through October, those seeking evening entertainment will want to head to Main Street Music Hall for shows combining comedy and music in genres including gospel, country, and rock. From the end of November through the first two weeks of December, the Hall holds Christmas shows.
But try visiting the Lake of the Ozarks when the foliage is at its peak, and you can still explore all it has to offer.
Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau
P.O. Box 1498
Osage Beach, MO 65065
Most area campgrounds are open from mid-March to mid-October. We stayed at Osage Beach RV Park, C7312, open mid-March until the first week in November, and were pleased with the facilities. However, it’s not the only FMCA member campground in the area, and this list is not complete. Please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Deer Valley Park
Lake Road 5-41
1028 Deer Valley Road
Sunrise Beach, MO 65079
Open mid-April to mid-October
Majestic Oaks Park, C8576
P.O. Box 525
Lake Ozark, MO 65049
Open April 1 to October 31
Osage Beach RV Park, C7312
3949 Campground Lane
Osage Beach, MO 65065
Open mid-March through mid-October
Riverview RV Park
398 WoodRiver Road
Lake Ozark, MO 65049
Open March 1 to November 15