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Outdoor Paradise: Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks

Jul 01, 2017 10:28PM ● Published by Vanessa Orr

The natural bridge at Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Gallery: Outdoor Paradise: Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks [8 Images] Click any image to expand.

When visiting Missouri, it’s natural to consider the St. Louis Arch the state’s most amazing man-made attraction. But a recent visit to central Missouri introduced me to another engineering feat that while not as well-known as the arch, is just as impressive.

The Lake of the Ozarks, located about 2-1/2 hours from St. Louis, is a truly impressive sight to behold. Voted as the "Best Recreational Lake in the Nation" by USA Today readers and 10Best, the lake covers 54,000 acres, running 92 miles end-to-end. This lake is so large, in fact, that it includes 1,150 miles of shoreline—more than the state of California.

What’s really unique about this body of water, which was created more than 85 years ago by the construction of the Bagnell Dam, is that it twists and turns through Missouri’s landscape—on a map it resembles a writhing dragon with tail, arms and claws curled around the small towns that line its banks. And while a holiday weekend may bring an influx of up to 100,000 people into the area, the lake’s very vastness prevents it from becoming an overcrowded tourist attraction.

One of the first things you want to do when you see a lake like this is go fishing—and I have to say that this activity didn’t disappoint! Though it’s been years since I put a hook in the water, a little coaching from “Big Ed,” who owns the Bass and Baskets B&B with his wife Deb Franko, had me pulling in the bass (okay, two) with only a few catches on the bottom of the lake. While I was working more on my technique than total fish (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), the lake is a fisherman’s nirvana, hosting more than 500 tournaments a year.

One of the coolest of these is the Missouri Invitational, in which fishermen and golfers team up to try to reach the highest poundage, based on the fish they caught and their scores on the golf course, which are counted as pounds (for example, a birdie equals one pound). This makes perfect sense in a place where golfing is as popular a pastime on land as fishing is on water, earning it the title of the “Best Golf Weekend Getaway” by AAA’s Best of the Midwest

The area’s 14 courses welcome duffers of any level, including the true beginner. I had the pleasure of taking my very first lesson ever with Rob Wilson, one of the golf pros at Old Kinderhook Golf Resort, a Tom Weiskopf-designed course that is ranked in the top five public courses in Missouri. Despite this accolade and the absolutely pristine greens, I did not master the sport, though I had a wonderful time trying. I think we were all relieved when we were able to take a break to enjoy a cool libation from the beverage cart that pulled up beside us on the practice area.

While my time on the golf course was not a success, I very much enjoyed my stay at Old Kinderhook, which is the newest hotel in the Lake of the Ozarks. Located on 750 acres on the southern side of the lake, the resort offers a ton of amenities from golfing to a saltwater pool, to a volleyball court that turns into an ice skating rink in the winter. No matter what type of accommodations you’re looking for, visitors to the area have a lot of choices ranging from mom-and-pop rentals to spacious resorts, to vacation condos and homes.

Of course, being on the lake is all about being outside, and hikers will love the fact that the lake borders both Lake of the Ozarks State Park and Ha Ha Tonka State Park. Called “Missouri’s Karst Showcase,” for topography that includes sinkholes, caves and underground streams among other geological features, Ha Ha Tonka also includes the ruins of a 1905 stone mansion and a 70-foot wide, 100-foot high natural bridge, both of which are only a quick hike from the main parking lot.

Speaking of caves, a must-see attraction is Bridal Cave and Thunder Mountain Park—it literally took my breath away. One of three “show” caves in a state that has more than 7,000 caves, Bridal Cave has been hosting visitors since 1948. The good news is that you no longer have to climb through the original cave entrance, which was 18 inches high and three feet wide, to see the underground splendor.

I was astounded by the variety of formations within the different rooms; everything from drapery foundations, which resemble huge slabs of bacon hanging from the ceiling, to tiny, hollow ‘soda straw’ formations and massive mineral columns. It was hard to believe that the drips of water falling on our heads had started more than a million years ago as rainwater on top of Thunder Mountain, or that it can take up to 100 years for just one cubic inch of a stalactite to form. 

Turns out I’m not the only one entranced by the cave, either—approximately 60,000 people tour the cave each year, and more than 3,000 couples have been married there since it first opened.

 As you would expect with such a large area, I’ve only touched upon all of the things you can do at the Lake of the Ozarks. For more information, visit Or visit:

Bass and Baskets B&B and Big Ed’s Guide Service:, 573-692-6737

Bridal Cave and Thunder Mountain Park:, 573-346-2676

Ha Ha Tonka State Park:, 800-334-6946

Lake of the Ozarks State Park:, 800-334-6946

Missouri Invitational:

Old Kinderhook Golf Resort:, 888-346-4949

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