The city of Branson was born in the early 1800s on a broad plain along the White River, just south of its confluence with Roark Creek. Buildings and roads eventually overtook the floodplain as the city grew westward up a gradually sloping ridge, creating what is now
Downtown The waters of Lake Taneycomo tamed the temperamental White River in 1913. Now, a patchwork of parks, campgrounds, shops and restaurants line the waterfront, forming a thriving shopping district on the city's eastern boundary. Mile-long Lake Street harbors public fishing docks, grassy parks and remarkable restaurants such as Dimitri's, which serves gourmet meals in a floating dining room on the shores of Lake Taneycomo. Also anchored to the waterfront are the huge docks from which
One block from shore at the intersection of Boxcar Willie Drive and Main Street is the
The Strip This is what modern-day Branson is all about. Crammed into this seven-mile stretch of Missouri State Highway 76 are 60-plus restaurants, 70-plus hotels and motels, and more than 30 live entertainment venues, along with dozens of shopping outlets and amusement parks. This area offers a wealth of live music, food and activities. Traveling treasure hunters—mostly retirees and families—jam all four lanes of this road from April through September. Traffic moves at a snail's pace here on most summer afternoons; if you choose to drive, chances are you will see plenty of pedestrians merrily wave and pass by as you remain stuck in your-air conditioned vehicle.
Do not despair. With a little planning, you can book a centrally located hotel and avoid the gridlock. The
Shepherd of the Hills Congestion on The Strip gave rise to alternate routes through town. The second most popular motorway in the city runs parallel to The Strip along a ridgeline to the north. Missouri State Highway 248 was widened during the 1980s and is now known as Shepherd of the Hills Expressway, where existing shops and attractions were joined by hundreds of others as entrepreneurs clambered for prime space in this booming region.
Separating this region from The Strip is the beautiful Roark Valley, with its tree-lined roadways and peaceful, 62-acre Stockstill Park, where Roark Creek flows through a grass meadow with picnic tables, ballparks, playground equipment and stately oak trees. Gretna Road bisects this northern district from the southwest to the northeast. Along this artery are three major factory outlet mall—
Several fine hotels have been built in this area to accommodate overflow from the bustling Strip.
The Falls/College The lumpy terrain lying south of The Strip and north of Lake Taneycomo is known as the Falls District. This region of town embraces gorgeous scenery and includes intriguing geographic features such as The Falls, Compton Ridge and Cooper Creek. Tucked into the wooded canyons and perched on the ridge tops are numerous resorts, hotels and campgrounds. Cooper Creek slices southward through the limestone hills and runs into Lake Taneycomo. Situated at this intersection,
Taneycomo South Resorts and bed-and-breakfasts line the southern shore of Lake Taneycomo, reaching into the seclusion of the wooded hills. A stay at Kite House Bed and Breakfast provides a taste of upper-crust life in Branson circa the 1930s. A mile to the east is the
Indian Point/West Branson Indian Point offers a selection of lakeside resorts so vast as to border on sensory overload. Hundreds of resorts, each with its own personality, are scattered across this arrowhead-shaped peninsula, which juts south into Table Rock Lake west of Branson. However, the most popular destination here is the landlocked
Branson's frontline industry is, of course, live entertainment, and the town boasts more theater seats than it does year-round residents. However, this little tourist haven may also be the biscuits-and-gravy and buffet capital of the free world, too. It features more than 150 restaurants crammed into an area a little larger than a major airport, so you should have no trouble finding something to eat anytime day or night. The only problems will be where to go and what to order once you arrive.
Local Cuisine If country cooking wasn't invented in the surrounding Ozark Mountains, it was certainly perfected there. To really enjoy yourself while you're in Branson, then forget about the cholesterol count, bag the diet and dig in to some of the best country food around. The battle cry among most restaurants here is, "If it ain't fried, it ain't food."
Many local diners were steamrolled by the hundreds of new restaurants that seemed to open overnight during the rapid boom in Branson's tourist industry. But the Branson Cafe has been serving up hominy and grits since before Branson had theaters and stoplights—almost before there were motorcars, in fact. Open since 1910, this café in historic downtown Branson has a well-earned reputation as one of the most enduring businesses in town. Although the clientele has changed dramatically since the days when farmers and loggers came for country ribs and collard greens, the menu has pretty much remained the same.
As Branson has grown in popularity, more and more visitors have been pouring off the interstate in cars, motor homes and tour coaches each year. The demand to feed these hungry tourists and get them on their way quickly has resulted in a boom of buffet-style country restaurants. At Docker's, a land-locked, full-sized replica of a Mississippi riverboat, a cholesterol-lover's dreams come true via a 30-foot buffet that is filled to the gills with baked, fried and barbecued meats along with all the veggies you can imagine. To add to the great dining experience, Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass perform here on occasion during lunchtime.
Upscale Dining If you have the urge to splurge, Branson and its numerous fine-dining establishments are prepared to oblige. Dimitri's Gourmet Dining, with its floating dining room and open-air atmosphere, is located in historic Downtown Branson, right on the Lake Taneycomo waterfront. Dimitri's patrons can look out across the emerald waters as they enjoy gourmet Greek cuisine.
The luxurious Candlestick Inn is home to what is perhaps the best view in southwest Missouri. Serving fresh seafood and only the finest aged Black Angus beef, the restaurant has a patio that offers a look into the White River Canyon 250 feet below, where the waters of Lake Taneycomo reflect the Missouri sunsets. The sweeping vista includes the entire city of Branson—a sea of lights after sundown.
The Chateau Grill is a gourmet restaurant enclosed within the Chateau on the Lake overlooking Table Rock Lake. Probably the epitome of luxury dining in Branson, this restaurant drips opulence with its cherry-wood walls, massive granite and marble facades, and tuxedo-clad waiters. Meanwhile, the Atrium Lounge Bar offers an astounding view of the Lake, encouraging guests to take their drinks to the top of the 10-story hotel for a spectacular 360-degree view of the Ozarks.
Inside the carriage house at the Stone Hill Winery gourmet meals are served within this massive historic brick building. The chef there does incredible things with trout, quail, baby back ribs and that ever-popular gourmet fowl, duck.
Moving Experiences If looking out across the lakes and hills is not enough, there are several ways to enjoy a great meal as you ramble through the woods or slide across the waves. Railroad lines were once considered standard-bearers of luxury dining, and the Branson Scenic Railway takes guests back to that era every Sunday night. You will appreciate the soft light of the candles as your train passes in and out of tunnels, creating an exciting, yet romantic setting.
Several outfits offer excursions on the water, but two of them stand out, operating as they do from onboard historic stern-wheeled paddleboats. The Lake Queen stirs the smooth waters of Lake Taneycomo from April through December, offering diners a hearty buffet as they get treated to an entertaining 22-mile tour of the Taneycomo shoreline. On the top deck, you can dance to a live band that effectively drowns out the "chuff, chuff, chuff" of the paddles churning the water. Table Rock Lake's stern-wheeler, Showboat Branson Belle, offers a true dinner-theater experience, as its meals are served by singing waiters and waitresses and a complete show takes place during the cruise against the backdrop of a tree-carpeted shoreline. No alcohol is served onboard, however.
Stepping Out The majority of Branson's visitors are retirees and families in search of a friendly vacation destination. But the local population creates a demand for evening entertainment other than Andy Williams and the Baldknobbers. The dedicated pubs and neighborhood bars are sprinkled very lightly across the city, but they are there. At Beverly's Steakhouse, an open stage beckons musicians every night. Since a sizable portion of Branson's population consists of musicians (both aspiring and professional), the jam sessions here are awesome. The crowd mostly comprises college students who have come to dance and enjoy the incredible impromptu musical sets.
On the ground floor of B.T. Bones Branson Steakhouse, an elevated bar looks across the dining room, although the real action takes place upstairs. The house band has developed a cult following among locals, and they draw a crowded dance floor every night with their country and rock music. On Sunday, bar goers get a chance to take the stage and try their hands at karaoke.
There are no records, and only sparse evidence, of the first human occupation of the area surrounding Branson. Scholars theorize that the ancestors of the Osage Indians appeared in central Missouri sometime in the 14th century. These people were nomads, following game around the region east of the Mississippi between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers. The tribe lived this way for centuries, dominating other tribes who shared their homelands and aggressively attacking any others who invaded their territory. When the first Anglo men began to arrive in the region in the early 1700s, the Osage were engaged in war with tribes from the southern woodlands as well as with many of the plains Indians.
After Spain claimed the region, Spanish and French traders began plying their goods with the Osage in exchange for fur, but the warring traditions of the Osage disconcerted the Spanish and contributed to the crown's decision to transfer the Louisiana Territory back to France. One month later, the area was sold to the United States as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The following decades were tragic for the Osage people, as the United States government made and broke treaties and forced the Osage into submission. The subsequent end of Indian occupation opened the door to homesteaders.
Moving west from Kentucky and Tennessee, English, Irish and Scottish farmers carved an existence and created a unique culture in the Ozark Mountains. Pride and individuality came with these people, who thrived on the isolation that the deep woods provided, becoming fiercely independent and suspicious of outsiders. This isolation served to preserve their culture well into the 20th century.
Existence for these settlers was tough, with limited soil for farming along the river valleys and steep, heavily forested slopes that made raising livestock a challenge. In fact, timber was what actually proved to be first practical economic stabilizer. To satisfy the railroad's insatiable hunger for crossties, farmers became loggers and sawyers, while once-forested tracts of land were clear-cut. As more and more farmland became available, strawberries and tobacco became cash crops, contributing to the area's cash flow. In 1837, the Missouri State Legislature created Taney County and named the town of Forsyth as the county seat. The area grew for the next 20 years, as lumber, ranching and farming drove the economy.
This progress would all end in 1861, though, when civil war literally tore the area apart. Taney County lay on the border between the Confederacy and the Union, with the land changing hands many times during the war. Battles left innocent citizens dying and wounded, homes broken and burned, and the area's infrastructure devastated. Once the war was over, the few who remained tried to rebuild, but it would be nearly a half a century before the gashes left by the war scarred over.
Among the war's ill side effects were the renegades and outlaws who used the turmoil of conflict and the ruggedness of the Ozarks as an opportunity to practice their violent ways of life. The region's most feared outlaw during the war was Alf Bolin, who along with his gang ambushed stages and caravans along the roads leading north out of Taney County. (Legends of gold bullion hidden in the hills around Branson still bring treasure-hunters to the area today.) As this lawlessness continued, it eventually gave birth to the band of 13 vigilantes who would become known as the Bald Knobbers (after their meeting place atop Snap's Bald). Dispensing their own brand of justice, the group swelled to include more than 1,000 members in just a few months; the governor of Missouri was actually forced to step in and stop them.
Meanwhile, the region's population continued to grow. A demand for electricity in the towns and villages, coupled with a desperate need to control the devastating floods that ravaged the White River Valley, led to an ambitious plan. As early as 1907, government officials and engineers began masterminding the construction of a dam on the White River, up river from Branson. But the first dam would come four years later, 12 miles downstream, near the county seat of Forsyth. The water that backed up behind Powersite Dam created Lake Taneycomo, the first major lake in Missouri, and began the alteration of the landscape and way of life of Branson. World War II delayed construction of the next dam until 1947. When completed, Bull Shoals Dam backed up the waters of the river 75 miles to the base of Powersite Dam.
However, flooding continued until 1958 when Table Rock Dam was built above the warm waters of Lake Taneycomo, creating a 50,000 surface-acre water wonderland just south of Branson. The new lake changed many things. Cold water from the bottom of Table Rock created a quality trout fishery in adjacent Taneycomo, while the warm waters of Table Rock heated things up in Branson, leading visitors to began arriving in droves.
Entrepreneurs began to take advantage of this influx of tourists. A limestone cave northwest of Branson was eventually transformed into Silver Dollar City, one of the nation's most popular theme parks. A novel by Harold Bell Wright that had drawn attention to the area since 1907 became the setting for the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama. An amphitheater was built in a rolling pasture, and each year, hundreds of thousands of theatergoers come to relive the telling of this story of love, betrayal and forgiveness.
The roots of modern-day Branson's economy lie deep within the hills and culture of the mountains. Ozark Mountain jug bands were always locally popular, and two long-suffering groups, the Baldknobbers and the Presleys, were finally able to build theaters along Highway 76 in the late 1960s. Their popularity was instantaneous, yielding regularly sold-out crowds. Several nationally known entertainers took notice of these groups' successes, moving to Branson to take advantage of the throngs of entertainment-tourists hungry. Today, no less than 40 theaters line the streets of this entertainment mecca.
As Branson grew in popularity and became one of the top tourist destinations in the country, the small Ozark town was transformed from a lakeside community into a full-blown resort. Theaters and theme parks sprouted like feed corn in the nearby fields. The increasing number of visitors created a demand for hotel and motel accommodations. What ensued was an explosion of hotel construction in the late 1970s and early 80s, resulting in more than 23,000 hotel, motel and bed and breakfast rooms, which run from ostentatiously expensive to pragmatically affordable.
Lap of Luxury Located on a hill just above the shoreline of Table Rock Lake, the 10-story Chateau on the Lake represents the finest and most expensive lodging in Branson. With towering architecture reminiscent of the alpine chateaus of France, the Chateau is visible for miles around. This facility boasts the only full-service convention center in the area.
If you think you will have time for a little golf while you're in town, there are several luxury resorts located right on the greens of one of Branson's dozen or so golf courses. The Pointe Royale Condominium Resort, where one to three-bedroom condo units line the fairways of a private championship golf course, is considered the premier golf resort in Branson.
For a little peace and additional tender-loving care, the Emory Creek Bed and Breakfast awaits you. Nestled in the wooded hills, this converted Victorian mansion can only be described as elegant. A four-course breakfast is served on a private patio where raccoons occasionally appear from the trees in search of a handout.
Staying on The Strip The Branson strip is an seven-mile mixture of theaters, restaurants, attractions and dozens of hotels and motels geared at providing quality accommodations to travelers who have come for one thing: entertainment. During summer, traffic snarls along the main street, as tour buses, motor coaches, visitors and residents all vie for limited road space. In this part of town, the hotels are in earnest competition with each other; the real winners, though, are the visitors. Hotels and motel rooms along the Branson strip can be found at almost rock-bottom prices, and they are all clean and cozy with generous amenities. The added plus is that most hotels on The Strip are located within walking distance of numerous theaters, restaurants and shopping, alleviating the need to enter the traffic fray.
The 1st Inn Gold offers comfortable lodging in the midst of the city's show palaces. The priority here is affordable lodging. Single rooms go for less than a good meal for two, and full kitchenette units are available for families. Plus, if you are too busy taking in the sights and sounds of Branson and do not have the time or energy to get tickets to the next show, the staff here will get them for you. Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame Inn, a three-story motel right across the street from the Hollywood Wax Museum, combines affordable rates with luxury accommodations. Several of the suites actually have Jacuzzis in the rooms and large patio balconies.
All in One Place If being within walking distance to shows restaurants and activities still is not enough, there are complexes in Branson that have it all in one building. The Grand Country Inn is an impressive combination of shops, a hotel, a theater, a restaurant and more. A water park on the premises is free to all guests—something you will learn to appreciate during those balmy Missouri summers. At the Grand Country Market, you can view the world's largest banjo (autographed by top names in country music), which is so big the neck sticks 40 feet out the side of the building. One of the oldest entertainment complexes in town is Baldknobbers Motor Inn. The inn here is not luxurious, but the rooms are spacious and comfortable, and the rates are competitive.
Lakeside The Branson area is home to thousands of miles of shoreline along the edges of three diverse lakes, and there are an abundance of resorts and accommodations right on the water. The Villas At Lantern Bay on Table Rock Lake is just a 10-minute drive from Branson, but the quiet atmosphere of this luxury condo resort is worlds away from the fast-paced energy of The Strip. At Cooper Creek Resort, cabins in all price ranges stand less than a stone's throw from Lake Taneycomo. A private boat-and-fishing dock offers a doorway to the peace and tranquility that only a body of water as pristine as Lake Taneycomo can offer.
Cruisers The proliferation of recreational vehicles brings more and more visitors to Branson aboard private motor coaches each year. Branson is prepared to accommodate these guests, as it has some 5,000-plus full-service spaces for motor homes of all shapes and sizes. After a long day on the road, the last thing anyone wants is to have to search all over the busy Branson streets for a place that will accommodate a 50-foot coach with double slideouts.
With 167 sites capable of handling the new monster rigs, America's Best Campground lives up to its name. Shade trees occupy each space, and amenities such as a pool, a game room and a hot tub provide soothing diversions while you wait for show time. West of Branson near Silver Dollar City is Acorn Acres RV Park, a picturesque RV park carved from the hardwood forests of the Ozarks. It offers private, paved sites surrounded by woods where you can picnic beneath the canopy of the trees.