In 2015, a sinkhole created a 70x40-foot divot at the highest point above Table Rock Lake in the Missouri Ozarks. Rather than shudder at the threat to his pristine Top of the Rock golf course, or fill it in, owner and Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris envisioned a new attraction. Keep digging. Three years and 72,000 dump truck loads later, the excavation continues. He's looking for a connection to a cave he found decades ago on the far side of the property. The sinkhole project has destroyed a Tom Watson-designed putting green at the golf course.
But under the name Cathedral of Nature, it's already turning heads. If the sinkhole plot line sounds familiar, it should. Branson's staple theme park, Silver Dollar City, was itself built on a natural cavern. Marvel Cave started drawing big crowds when Elvis was still shaking his hips in black and white. Then came roller coasters, kitschy thrills and star-spangled gospel shows. By the late '80s, Branson had lodged itself (in all its gaudy, neon glory) in the soul of the Ozarks.
But the Branson of today is delivering more than mini golf and slapstick comedy. Ziplines swoop down from a 250-foot tower and span lakes. Hikers and cyclists can explore trails along limestone bluffs and hundreds of miles of shoreline. A new wave of tribute shows salutes bands that peaked after the eight-track tape.
Then there's Johnny. On the edge of Branson, his luxury-wilderness resort, Big Cedar Lodge, is carving premier golf courses into the Ozark Mountains. Since 2014, Top of the Rock has drawn some of golf's biggest names for a PGA event each spring. The buzz has even won over Tiger Woods. He's partnering with Johnny to open his first public course, Payne's Valley, with 19 holes set to open next year-barring any sinkhole surprises.
Rock Star Treatment
Top of the Rock ends each day with the bang of a Civil War cannon and bagpipes. The sunset ritual (March–October) graces the Buffalo Bar terrace beside Chapel of the Ozarks.
On the Water
PLAY Just west of Branson, the spidery fingers of Table Rock Lake attract anglers, water-skiers and paddlers. For a cooler (literally) day on the water, visit river-like Lake Taneycomo, chilled all summer long by the cold flow out of Table Rock's dam. You can rent a pontoon or paddleboard and wet suit. Bring bass tackle for Table Rock or a trout rig for Taneycomo.
WINE & DINE Soak up views of Table Rock Lake from the veranda at Chateau Grille with a six-page wine list and optional chef's table dining. Or keep it casual at the White River Fish House. The floating-barge restaurant on Taneycomo offers gator and venison.
Making a Splash
In historic downtown, Branson Landing brings commercial flair to Lake Taneycomo. A Bellagio-style, fire-and-water show goes off on the hour near the Branson Scenic Railway depot, new restaurants, shops and two Hilton Hotels.
Under the Lights
76 Country Boulevard (aka The Strip) is a blur of beloved country shows, new acts, go-karts and bungee drops. But over-the-top fun spills off the main drag, too.
Our top picks
• The old 15-story Ferris wheel from Navy Pier.
• Animals and human actors enacting Bible stories at the dynamic Sight and Sound Theatres.
• Bigfoot on the Strip's 200-foot-free-fall tower.
Coasters & Crafts
Thanks to cars that spin around during the ride, you can witness terror and joy on your friends' faces while riding Time Traveler. It's the new, tallest-and-fastest-of-its-kind roller coaster at Silver Dollar City. Between screams (award-winning Outlaw Run is another hit), check out the park's artists, including glassblowers and blacksmiths.
Buffalo Ridge Springs and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock courses reopened in 2014. Then Big Cedar added Mountain Top. Ozarks National will soon follow. Next year, Tiger Woods' Payne's Valley, a tribute to the late Payne Stewart of Missouri, will seal Branson as a national golf hot spot.
There's Branson. And just beyond it: the nature-inspired, Disney-like creations of Johnny Morris. Pick your adventure from Missouri's native son.
Big Cedar Lodge Dozens of cabins in the woods and three hotel-lodges dot the vast resort on Table Rock Lake. Chill in Cedar Creek Spa's Ice Room and candlelit grotto. Rent a boat at the private marina. Head to Devil's Pool for rustic dining.
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park Some waterfalls, bridges and trout pools may be sculpted, but the canyon, river and wildlife are real. Walk the paths, wet a fly, or ride a tram, bike or horse through the 10,000-acre nature park.
Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail Keep your hands inside the golf cart while navigating a four-story cave (drive-through bar and waterfall inside). Along the 2.5-mile path, look out for canyons, Amish bridges and a fake bear cave.