Branson wasn’t on our initial itinerary for this trip, and then the NYT’s list of 52 Places to Go in 2018 was released–and Branson’s on the list! It’s on the way from Medicine Park to St Louis, and the route from Branson to St Louis passes close to the 4th best state park in the US, which we hoped to visit, so we scheduled a couple days in the little city.
Have you been there? It’s a… unique place. Kind of Disneyworld crossed with Old Vegas (minus the gambling and drinking) crossed with Myrtle Beach. At the end of town abutting the White River is Branson Landing, a sterile pedestrian mall with upscale chain stores and restaurants. Just up the hill is the little historic downtown, a couple streets with cute Western architecture, but full of tacky stores. And farther up from downtown is the Branson Strip: hotels, show venues, miniature golf courses, and flashing signs. Pretty much everything on the Strip is closed in January, but it’s probably nuts in the summer.
Speaking of shows, there’s a bizarre timeshare industry in Branson: many of the shops and visitor information centers around town advertise discount show tickets, but the tickets are discounted because the purchaser is required to tour a timeshare and listen to a sales pitch. I guess the scheme is successful, and people end up with timeshares they later realize they don’t want, because Branson also has a bustling timeshare resale industry. Billboards all over town advertise companies like Sell My Timeshare Now! who will get you out of your timeshare agreement.
You may be able to tell that Branson wasn’t really a good fit for us. Maybe if I’d read the below description that I just now came across in a Branson article before we’d gone, we’d have made a different choice, but overall I’m glad we went. We tend to have fun anywhere we go, but we also enjoy alcohol, obscene language, and inappropriate entertainment 😀
“A vacation mecca, Branson is one of the
most family friendly resorts in America. It is a
place where parents can take their children
without worrying about alcohol, obscene
language or inappropriate entertainment.”
Branson has a great campground, right on the river, with a walking path to Branson Landing less than a mile away. You can also catch the free trolley to Branson Landing at the campground. We’d highly recommend staying at Branson Lakeside RV Park.
Coy Bald Trail, a 6.7 mile loop in the Mark Twain National Forest, meanders over a bald with pretty views, through quiet woods, and past a lovely waterfall. Be warned that the access road is in bad shape in spots, and even in the depths of winter we encountered ticks. It’s a super hike, though, and only a 40-minute drive from the campground.
The nation’s #4 state park (according to 2015 USA Today readers), Ha Ha Tonka, is two hours from Branson and three hours from St Louis. They have some trailer parking, so we stopped for some hiking the morning we left Branson for St Louis. After checking with the rangers at the Visitors Center, we dumped the Airstream in one of the larger lots and strung some short hikes together: the Colosseum Trail, which goes under a natural bridge and climbs out of a large sinkhole; the Spring Trail, which passes a gorgeous spring; the Dell Rim trail, with a couple park overlooks; and the Castle Trail, with its ruins of a 20th century castle and views of Lake of the Ozarks. It’s a gorgeous little park (although the castle is a little weird), especially if you love geology, like this geology nerd does.
Eating and Drinking
We didn’t eat any memorable food in Branson, but we did have a dining experience we’ll never forget.
Dobyns Dining Room is the #2 restaurant in Branson on TripAdvisor (behind a pizza place, and we didn’t want pizza) and it’s near Point Lookout, which was on my radar because I love a vista. It turns out Point Lookout is actually the name of the town, but there is a spot on the campus of College of the Ozarks with a big river vista which might also be Point Lookout. Anyway, we drove ten minutes out of town to the college, wandered around a bit and found the overlook in time for sunset. Then we drove back up to the entrance of the campus to Dobyns, essentially a fancy college dining hall! The food was very good and the service stellar, but the atmosphere was unexpected and a little awkward. It reminded me of the dining room at the retirement community where my grandpa used to live–which is a perfectly nice place, don’t get me wrong. We really could have used a drink to ease into the situation, but of course they don’t sell alcohol. The restaurant is run by students; in fact, the entire college is basically run by students, as College of the Ozarks charges no tuition and in exchange, students work jobs around campus. It’s all quite fascinating. If you go there, definitely stop at the College Creamery on your way out for fabulous ice cream made by students, from the college’s cows, milked and bottled by students that same morning.
We also had a decent, but alcohol-free, meal at Noodle 22 on the main drag in the historic downtown.
Our favorite drinking establishment in Branson was The Paddlewheel, a divey joint conveniently located just down the riverwalk, on the campground side of Branson Landing. One side of the bar/restaurant is a neat old paddlewheel boat, and the other is a game room with live music.
In Branson Landing, we checked out Waxy O’Shea’s and Big Whiskey’s, which seemed to be the two places with the best ambience in the shopping center. Waxy O’Shea’s, an Irish pub with live music at night and sports on the TVs, had the Mother’s beer we enjoyed in Fayetteville and seemed like the best place to hang out in Branson Landing. Big Whiskey’s is a steakhouse with a cocktail bar, but after an uninspiring drink we headed back to Waxy O’Shea’s.
So curious to hear from others who have been to Branson. What was your experience there?