The lakes around Springfield, Missouri, defy a simple sketch. Born of dams imposed upon river valleys in the early- to mid-1900s, the area’s two dozen lakes don’t cover the landscape in a single deep pool so much as lace their way through it, curling around Ozark Mountains and branching into shapes like festive Chinese dragons. Some, like Lake of the Ozarks, are vacation staples; others, like Table Rock Lake, keep many of their secrets (including a town lost below the waterline). Like all sisters, the lakes may share origins, but the personalities are all their own. Here’s your guide to finding your perfect match.
The Lux Escape: Table Rock Lake
Fishing lures have been very good to Johnny Morris. In the 1970s, he parlayed a tackle shop in his dad’s Springfield liquor store into the outdoor-gear empire known today as Bass Pro Shops. Then Johnny turned his attention to building a luxurious outdoor escape so carefully planned and polished you’d think Disney Imagineers were involved. In 1987, he opened Big Cedar Lodge on Table Rock Lake’s eastern shore, just south of Branson. Its upscale lakeside log cabins, lodges and Big Cedar Spa sit near the renowned Devil’s Pool, a water-filled gorge rumored to have no bottom. Then Johnny opened companion destination Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve, golf courses, three restaurants and a museum, situated to showcase every sunset over the lake. Pause to marvel at a subterranean waterfall in Lost Canyon Cave, or relax over a glass of red in a candlelit wine cellar, and you can bet Johnny personally had a hand in crafting the moment. Venture out onto the lake, and you’ll find quiet—its 800-plus miles of forest-shrouded shore preserved thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers and state park lands.
The sun rises behind Big Cedar Lodge.
4 Must-See Sights
1) Views that ruin your putting focus Top of the Rock’s nine-hole course—the only par-3 course ever used in PGA play—tops a bluff overlooking Table Rock Lake. Arnold Palmer designed the practice range, and Johnny Morris relocated a barn from Palmer’s hometown in Pennsylvania to house Arnie’s Barn, a Mexican restaurant near the range. topoftherock.com
Top of the Rock golf course
2) Where the fish hide Known for its clear water and relative solitude (compared to often-hectic Lake of the Ozarks), Table Rock Lake provides some of the area’s most consistent bass fishing. In parts of the lake, anglers can peer down into ghostly forests still standing from when the White River started flooding the lake in the late 1950s.
3) Life on the hilltop Towering above Table Rock Lake’s northeast shore, Chateau on the Lake stacks suites around a soaring central atrium. (It’s owned by the same company as Embassy Suites, and feels like an extra-luxe version.) Guests can borrow canoes from the marina, then enjoy a massage in the on-site spa. chateauonthelake.com
4) A Missouri mammoth The Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum at Top of the Rock shows off woolly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger skeletons, a collection of local Native American artifacts and other exhibits celebrating the geologic and biologic history of the Ozarks. topoftherock.com
For more information: Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau explorebranson.com
The Party Cove: Lake of the Ozarks
Hundreds of speedboats and pontoons, lashed together in two long lines, form parallel floating pleasure islands in the middle of the mile-long Anderson Hollow Cove. Joining the water-skiing-meets-Mardi Gras festivities, revelers in swimsuits hop from barge to barge, making new friends, sharing lunches grilled on-deck and regularly leaping into the warm water. No lake sets up better for a party than Lake of the Ozarks, where tightly controlled water levels and loads of privately owned land have fostered development along most of the 1,000-plus miles of shoreline. More than 4 million visitors come each year to play. (College students, families and empty nesters— you’ll see them all.) With the help of a boat (BYO or rent one from any of the lakeside resorts), guests can easily pass a weekend cruising from Tan-Tar-A Resort or Lake Breeze Resort to 200-some dockside eateries with names like H. Toad’s or Shady Gators. Or hop in the car to explore the kitschy souvenir and fudge shops lining the main drags of small towns Osage Beach, Camdenton and Lake Ozark. If you’ve ever looked for a place to laze on the lake or pose for an old-time Western portrait, this is it.
Lake of the Ozarks’ shape inspired its nickname, “The Magic Dragon.”
3 Places to Explore
1) A state park's aquatic trail A dozen trails weave through Lake of the Ozarks State Park—and one stays entirely on the water. Grab an interpretive map at the Grand Glaize Marina’s general store (mile marker 12 on the Grand Glaize Arm), then pick up the buoy-marked trail at the Grand Glaize Beach to learn about the park’s geological formations and wildlife. Or stay on land for hiking, hour-long guided horseback-riding excursions or a lantern-lit Ozark Caverns tour. mostateparks.com
2) A legendary cavern An Osage Native American tale of heartbreak, love and, eventually, marriage centered on Bridal Cave (mile marker 10 1⁄2 on the Big Niangua Arm). Today, hour-long tours showcase the cascading curtains of stalactites, glittering mineral formations and subterranean Mystery Lake. Boaters can tie up just outside the mouth of the cave and go in for a look. bridalcave.com
Mineral formations with descriptors like "soda straws" and "bacon flaps" attract explorers to Bridal Cave.
3) The remains of a Missouri castle In 1905, businessman Robert McClure Snyder broke ground on a stone mansion modeled after European castles. His creation operated as a hotel until fire destroyed it in the 1940s. Today, it—along with caves and natural bridges—draws visitors to Ha Ha Tonka State Park (mile marker 14 1⁄2 on the Big Niangua Arm). mostateparks.com
For more information: Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitor Bureau. funlake.com
The Rustic Retreat: Pomme de Terr Lake and Truman Reservoir
Toward the western edge of Missouri, a pair of lakes seems utterly comfortable with the soft sell. Along Pomme de Terre Lake (French for potato, an improbable name for this bean-sprout lake) and Truman Reservoir, you won’t find resorts or gift shops, and depending on the day of the week and time of day, you might even struggle to find a sandwich for sale. Campers on these shores—tents or RVs are the only shoreline options here—look up at star-pricked skies and hear only the sounds of the woods laced with passing boat motors and whoops celebrating the landing of a largemouth bass. Truman Reservoir increasingly draws cyclists with miles of new mountain biking trails; swimmers favor Pomme de Terre Lake for its multiple sandy swimming beaches. Fewer than 50 miles separate Pomme de Terre Lake from Truman Reservoir, so if you want both activities, it’s easy to spend a single weekend exploring a pair of destinations unified in a completely authentic spirit.
Find campsites on the shores of Pomme de Terre Lake.
4 Outdoor Adventures
1) Take a hike At Pomme de Terre State Park, Indian Point Trail leads hikers 2 3⁄4 miles through wildflower-dotted woods to a scenic overlook, and the 1 1⁄2-mile Cedar Bluff Trail follows the tree-lined bluff overlooking the lake. mostateparks.com
2) Bike the hills Twenty-plus miles of single-track trails loop up and over the forested hills of the Truman Lake Mountain Bike Park, on the east side of Truman Reservoir. Rent a ride at Truman Lake Bikes, and let owner Mac Vorce tailor a route to your ability. welcometowarsaw.com; trumanlakebikes.com
A bike trail hugs Truman Reservoir and passes through small-town Warsaw.
3) Kayak Truman Reservoir Sterett Creek Marina and Motel outfits kayak adventures on Truman Reservoir. A trip from the thundering Truman Dam to quiet Drake Harbor takes an hour or two, depending on your speed; watch for bald eagles. sterettcreek.com
4) Reel in a muskie Oft-overlooked Pomme de Terre Lake just happens to host a robust population of muskie, the elusive monster better known in northern climes. Bring your gear, or hire a guide to help you hook the “fish of 10,000 casts.” mostateparks.com
Even if you don’t bring in a muskie from Truman Reservoir, you might catch catfish, bass or crappie.
For more information: Missouri State Parks mostateparks.com