The strangest thing about Dogwood Canyon is that I saw a snake there. That wouldn’t seem all that unusual when you’re poking among creekside rocks along the Missouri-Arkansas border. But this is Dogwood Canyon, and finding an even remotely unpleasant critter at your feet feels a little like stumbling upon a mugger inside the Magic Kingdom.
This canyon is a genuine natural wonder, mostly. It encompasses 10,000 acres centered on a stream flowing between limestone canyon walls marked with numerous caves and quietly dripping springs. But it’s been “enhanced,” as the brochure puts it, by the wizardry of Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. And that’s why you’ll pay $14 and up to spend time on a property that initially sounds like it would be pretty similar to the places you could hike in any number of free public parks.
The Disney comparisons flow pretty freely when you start touring Johnny’s empire. Walt looked around tiny Marceline in northern Missouri and eventually translated it into the idealized Main Street, USA, in California. Johnny did pretty much the same thing with the natural scenery of his youth in southern Missouri. In the Bass Pro retail stores, for example, all the waterfalls are strong, all the fish in the display tanks are good-looking, and all the mounted deer are above average.
Dogwood Canyon, just outside the small town of Lampe and managed by a nonprofit organization, paints the great outdoors itself with the same brush. And the effect, without argument, is magical. A paved trail runs about 3 1/2 miles up-canyon, bordered by well-mowed grass that’s far more inviting than the underbrush that would normally fill the woods. Along the way, visitors cross numerous stone or wooden bridges overlooking numerous waterfalls built into the streambed with well-placed stones. Not far from the covered bridge built by Amish artisans, a wedding chapel stands by a waterfall that cascades romantically all year, regardless of how much water is naturally flowing through the hills.
For an extra charge, you can sign up for horseback rides, Jeep tours or the right to fish for trout stocked in the stream. Just don’t get excited about the lunkers in the pool known as the Glory Hole. Word is that the only people who have ever cast a fly there are Johnny Morris, President Bush 1.0 and a kid Johnny helped out through Make-A-Wish.
Soon, Dogwood Canyon will become even more jaw-dropping. A working gristmill is under construction near the entrance, promising amenities like a lounge for horseback riders and a better home for the on-site cafe, which already serves an amazing hoagie of elk meatballs with pickled jalapeños. If you look up the canyon wall behind the construction site, you can see what looks like concrete and steel mesh bulging from the limestone, forming the channel for a perfect new waterfall. Walt couldn’t have envisioned anything prettier.