Road Rally 2021: The Wild Wonder of Missouri's Ozarks
Day 1: Sedalia to Warsaw to Springfield
All aboard … for Road Rally! Our journey starts with a symbolic visit to the Sedalia Katy Depot, a former stop on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas line. Today, the historic railroad station lies near the western end of the 237-mile Katy Trail, a crushed limestone bike path that crosses the entire state. No pedaling for us on this trip, but the first photo op is in the books.
As our fleet of pickups rolls into Warsaw, a new chariot awaits-one without wheels. At Sterett Creek Marina on Truman Lake, Warsaw Adventures guides us on a paddleboard tour. When our energy flags (so windy!), marina owners Cathy and Ken Beyer pick us up via pontoon. Their first mate? A black Lab mix named Dock. After losing his owner, he traveled about 30 miles, swam up to Sterett Creek and now calls the marina home.
Sun-soaked and wind-blown, we head to Springfield, where a pre-dinner stroll takes us past a mural proclaiming Do Good. So we do some good-eating-at Cafe Cusco. Joe Gidman opened the Peruvian restaurant with his mother, Claire, in 2013 at the encouragement of a college friend from Lima. Gidman traveled extensively through Peru and wanted to open an American restaurant there. His friend said, "Why don't you do the opposite?" Expertly prepared Lomo Saltado (beef stir-fry with French fries) and Aji de Gallina (chicken stew with aji peppers) suggest he made the right choice.
Day 1 Highlights
SEDALIA KATY DEPOT Pose with the caboose outside, see the train station's historic dining room and find souvenirs in the gift shop.
THE LANDING BISTRO & LOUNGE Snag a spot overlooking the Osage River in Warsaw and nosh on the popular cinnamon chips with strawberry salsa.
STERETT CREEK MARINA Rent a kayak, paddleboard or pontoon and put in at the marina, which also has a campground and motel.
CAFE CUSCO This Springfield restaurant blends traditional Peruvian dishes with fun takes, like fried guacamole. Don't skip the blackened cobia.
THE GOLDEN GIRL RUM CLUB Flaming, frozen and flamboyant all could describe the drinks from this funky Springfield tiki bar, where a giant disco ball casts dancing light onMonstera wallpaper.
WHERE WE STAYED
Hotel Vandivort A giant iron "V" out front signals that you've found Hotel Vandivort. The mood at this urban hotel in downtown Springfield hovers between industrial chic and luxe hipster. Rooms in the historic building (it's more than 100 years old) and newer second building include record players, and the hotel puts an impressive focus on sustainability.
WHAT WE LISTENED TO
Fleetwood Mac, '90s George Strait, Mac Miller, Hootie and the Blowfish, The Script, Khruangbin, Jurassic 5, Queen, The Rolling Stones
Falling for Lavender
When reading Springfield's Aviary Cafe menu, you'll notice a theme: Lavender Hummus, Lavender Honey and Goat Cheese, Lavender Latte. Catching on? Part owners Catherine and Thor Bersted also run one of the largest lavender farms in Missouri. (Check out Lavender Falls Farm online to browse their lotion, body butter, lip balm, scrubs, and flavored honey and balsamic vinegar.) At Aviary, try dishes with lavender, as well as the signature crepes.
Our crew's picks
LEMONCELLO CREPE Berry compote, lemon curd, toasted marshmallow. Heavenly.
SALMON TOAST Smoked salmon, capers, mascarpone. Salty, slightly sweet and perfectly balanced.
IS IT MORNING? A hearty savory crepe with eggs, bacon, cheddar Jack and caramelized onion. Share it with a friend.
Day 2: Cassville to Branson
A chilly drizzle envelops us as we wind toward Cassville. The Ozark Mountains rise out of the mist, made more dramatic by low-hanging clouds nestled between peaks. Roaring River State Park lives up to its title. Rain-swollen waterfalls tumble into a blue-green river. Looking closer, we see the metallic flash of trout, stocked nightly from the on-site hatchery. Joel Topham, the park's natural resource manager, guides us to Roaring River Spring. Divers have only ventured 224 feet deep in the cave; this summer they'll squeeze through an opening to explore what thus far has been unknown. Deer Leap Trail, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, gives an overhead view of the spring and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Swapping rainwater for salt water, we splash into the Aquarium at the Boardwalk in Branson. (Well, not really, but the 4D movie makes it feel like we do.) More than 7,500 sea creatures live here, including sharks, rays and tropical fish. The phones come out again in the Jelly Infinity Room, where thousands of jellyfish pulse and flutter in slow motion.
1,928 CELL PHONE SNAPS OK, we know we have professional pics, but we couldn't resist capturing our own memories: panoramic views, videos of sharks swimming overhead, group selfies and too many food photos filled up our phones.
The clouds part just in time for our arrival at Big Cedar Lodge, a sprawling wilderness resort with a full slate of amenities and an epic setting overlooking Table Rock Lake. We explore part of the 4,600-acre property on a golf cart tour through Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail, over covered bridges and past geological rock formations. A hilltop sunset ceremony, complete with Civil War-Era cannon fire, ends the day with a bang.
Day 2 Highlights
ROARING RIVER STATE PARK Fish, camp or hike in this nearly 5,000-acre park.
DANNA'S BAR-B-QUE AND BURGER SHOP Nachos, baked potatoes, burgers, Texas toast-you can top them all with this 20-year-old Branson restaurant's 'cue.
AQUARIUM AT THE BOARDWALK Admire coral reefs, climb through a kelp forest, and touch rays and sharks.
DICK'S 5 AND 10 This 60-year-old Branson shop has vintage toys and games, housewares, souvenirs, craft kits, and old-fashioned underwear. (Yes, that's right.)
BIG CEDAR LODGE Choose from more than 300 accommodations, including lodge rooms, cozy cottages and cabins, and luxury glamping tents.
OSAGE RESTAURANT Book a table in the atrium to watch Big Cedar Lodge's sunset ceremony. Save room for gooey apple butter cake.
SPEND A DAY
Branson An upside-down mansion. A giant replica of the Titanic (water and all). A bejeweled octopus clinging to a building. You'll know you're in Branson when you start seeing things that look a little out of the ordinary. Embrace the kitsch and take an old-timey family photo, attend one of the city's famous shows, ride to the top of a 230-foot observation tower, or wander downtown and grab a slice from The Pie Safe-the smell is intoxicating.
Learn about the region's prehistoric creatures and early Native American inhabitants at the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum at Top of the Rock, a personal project of Big Cedar Lodge founder Johnny Morris.
SHORT-FACED BEAR SKELETON This bear once roamed the area and was taller than a. modern-day grizzly.
ELK-TOOTH VEST Women in the Crow tribe wore vests displaying elk teeth their husbands hunted. "Knock-off" versions used seashells.
ARROWHEADS Origin story: Finding an arrowhead sparked 16-year-old Johnny Morris' interest in the history of the Ozarks.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S HAIR A locket sold by Mary Todd Lincoln to settle debts after her husband's death contains a small bunch of his hair.
HELL PIG An incredibly ugly, 7-foot-tall breed of pig-like omnivores terrorized the Ozark Mountain region.
Day 3: Ozark to Eminence to Cuba
Sage and ginger lattes in hand, we amble through Finley Farms' tall rows of chives, their purple blossoms kissed by dew and glittering in the early morning light. The urban farm sits just outside The Workshop, a cafe and gathering place in the town of Ozark that hosts culinary, cocktail and crafting classes. It's all part of a larger plan for the property, which will eventually include a restaurant, outfitter, chapel and cottages.
Fueled by deviled egg toast topped with garden-fresh vegetables, we set out for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, known for its springs and crystal-clear flow. The federally protected river system covers 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. They cut through ancient rock (called dolomite), which gives the rivers their blue hue. "When you float the river and look at the sheer rock bluffs, you're looking at an interior view of the earth," says Josh Chilton, district interpreter at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, as he leads us to Alley Spring and Mill. "The Ozarks weren't created like the Rockies or Himalayas. They were downwelled like the Grand Canyon."
After sampling some Ozark Highlands wine at Belmont Vineyards in St. James (the Norton grape is the Cabernet of the region), we cruise along historic Route 66 to Cuba's Wagon Wheel Motel, the oldest continuously operated motel along the route.
Day 3 Highlights
FINLEY FARMS Try fresh-baked pastries, browse Missouri-made goods or hit the weekly farmers market.
ALLEY SPRING AND MILL After a walk up a 1.3-mile overlook trail, peek into the nearby one room schoolhouse, in use from 1896 to 1957.
OZARK NATIONAL SCENIC RIVERWAYS The park system includes caves, plus Missouri's biggest spring (Big Spring), deepest spring (Blue Spring) and largest natural underground lake (Devils Well).
BELMONT VINEYARDS Follow up a wine tasting with wings. They're ultra-crispy, juicy and dry-rubbed with a seasoning blend of homegrown peppers.
CUBA MURALS Fourteen painted walls around the tiny town depict Missouri history.
WAGON WHEEL MOTEL Channel Route 66 vibes and pose with the neon sign, retro gas pumps and vintage car out front.
Rent a canoe, raft or tube from Harvey's Alley Spring Canoe Rental and put in at the Jacks Fork River. The most popular (and shortest) route carries you for 7 miles and takes about three hours if you paddle, six if you just drift.
Katy Trail bike shirt, Lavender Falls Farm lotion, Belmont Vineyards wine, Ozark Maid saltwater taffy, a bracelet from Dick's 5 and 10
Take Me to the River
We don't usually think of engineering projects as fads, but damming rivers to form recreational lakes was all the rage in the mid-20th century. "I had a colleague who used to say we were dam crazy in the '60s," says Josh Chilton. He explains that after seeing so many rivers destroyed, a local group lobbied Congress to save the Jacks Fork and Current rivers and create the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. They succeeded, and the ONSR became the first federally protected river system in the U.S. Besides conserving the landscape, the designation has saved several species from extinction, including the Ozark hellbender salamander, which lives in only a few streams in the world.
Day 4: Lake of the Ozarks to Jefferson City
A sweet greeting awaits us at Osage Beach at Lake of the Ozarks: Blair and Company Confectionery, home to Ozark Maid Candies and a fixture since 1959. When Jennifer Blair Dowdney took over the business from her father, she expanded its gift shop to incorporate local decor. Dowdney says they go through a couple of hundred pounds of fudge per week (made in 50-pound batches). Last year, they saw even more business. "Coming to the lake is the ultimate form of social distancing," Dowdney says. "And candy and fun stuff is just what people need." Nibbling on dark chocolate bark, peanut butter fudge and caramel turtles, we couldn't agree more.
Truman Lake may be the state's largest body of water, but with more than 1,150 miles of shoreline, Lake of the Ozarks is no slouch. Aboard a SeaRay yacht, we gawk at lakefront homes and drift into some of the many coves found in the snaking lake. As the sun sets on the last night of our journey, we toast our week of adventures in the Ozarks. Tomorrow we'll be wrapping up our trip with a visit to Jefferson City to meet with the governor, but tonight we're on lake time-and soaking up every drop.
Day 4 Highlights
BLAIR AND COMPANY CONFECTIONERY Come for the homemade candy and fudge. Stay for Lake of the Ozarks swag, like cool laser-cut maps.
REDHEAD MARINE YACHT CHARTERS Rent a 50- or 52-foot SeaRay yacht that fits up to 12 people. Captain and cool-kid vibes included.
1932 RESERVE Find an extensive bourbon list in the restored 1932 building that once was a hotel. Chef Kimberly Subject makes everything from scratch. (Her Chilean sea bass is a must.) P.S. Above the restaurant there are six loft-style vacation rentals
THE LODGE OF FOUR SEASONS Opened in 1964, the Lodge of Four Seasons has real-deal midcentury architecture and a resort-like lakefront setting. Enjoy a drink in the sunken lobby or swim through pool grottos behind waterfalls.
HIGH RISE BAKERY Coffee and pastries-like cinnamon rolls and chocolate croissants-are the move at this Jefferson City bakery. But don't sleep on the savory dishes: The miniature breakfast tacos are as delightful as they are cute.
MISSOURI STATE CAPITOL Take a free guided tour to admire the frescoes and architecture of the dome.
THE GRAND CAFE The sidewalk seating at this casual cafe is great for people (and politician) watching.
Keep Your Guard Up
Until it shuttered in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City was the oldest continuously operated prison west of the Mississippi, open since 1836. Today, you can take a two- or three-hour tour of the facility, with former employees often serving as guides. Our leader, Larry Neal, peppers his narration with personal stories from his time as a maintenance worker, as well as infamous prison lore. Expect tales of prisoner escaped, riots, food strikes and basketball court politics. If you're feeling brave, sign up for an eight-hour overnight paranormal investigation.
686 MILES DRIVEN Our marathon drive took place largely on country highways-tracing cliffs, crossing green fields and hopscotching between one-stoplight towns.