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For a place that's tucked away in the mountains in the landlocked heart of the landlocked state of Missouri, the Ozarks are surprisingly dominated by water.
In fact, this fun-loving region might just be more obsessed with water-based activities than most oceanfront beach towns! Perhaps no body of water looms larger in these parts, both geographically and emotionally, than Table Rock Lake, just west of Branson. Created between 1954 and 1958 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam-building project, the massive reservoir boasts an astonishing 800 miles of shoreline — that's more than many states! Dotting these idyllic shores are lakefront towns like Kimberling City, Reeds Spring, and Ridgedale, each brimming with small-town Ozark charm and an open and welcoming spirit.
In these parts, the lake is king, whether you're bass fishing on its shores, boating on its surface, or even scuba diving underneath it to explore the submerged world of petrified forests left behind by the dam's creation. But the fun doesn't end at the water's edge: More than 100,000 acres of the surrounding Ozark hills are designated for outdoor sports — with 200 miles of hiking and biking trails, nature parks for jeep and ATV tours, and massive caves for spelunking.
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Formed by the damming of the White River in 1958, Table Rock Lake is nationally recognized as one of the country's top bass fishing spots, brimming with largemouth, smallmouth, white, and Kentucky spotted bass, as well as crappie, catfish, and large bluegill. You'll be able to find bass throughout the year, but you'll have to know where to look depending on the season. Spring is the best time of year to snag bass near the shores: In the early spring before spawning season, you'll most often find them at the base of cedar trees or in feeder creeks, before they move on to gently sloping gravel banks on the north shore, where the warmer waters are perfect for building nests.
Summer is the best time to explore enormous artificial Table Rock Lake, created with a dam built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-1950s. Though you may think you'll be able to cool off in its waters, be warned that surface temperatures remain a balmy 85 degrees during the summer months. For a truly refreshing dip, you'll have to put on your scuba gear and head down about 30 feet, where the waters dip to a more bracing 60 degrees. Scuba diving is surprisingly popular in these parts, thanks to shockingly clear waters, abundant schools of fish, deep ravines, and forests of petrified trees. You can rent fins, wet suits, and tanks from dive shops all around the lake's shores, including State Park Marina and Indian Point Dive Center.
Find big cats of all stripes at the National Tiger Sanctuary, about 15 minutes north of Branson in the small town of Saddlebrooke. Opened in 2000, this nonprofit sanctuary is home to 15 Bengal, Siberian, and white tigers, as well as a mountain lion named Banshee, a black leopard named Midnight, and a lion named Merlin, in addition to a slew of smaller domestic cats and dogs. Get up close and personal during a Feeding Tour, where the ferocious action will be so near that you'll be able to hear the cats crunching through bones. Or if you're feeling even braver, you can join the staff on a You Feed Tour — if you dare!
Nothing warms the body and soul during those cold Ozark winters quite like a fresh batch of moonshine. Located in Walnut Shade about 20 minutes north of Branson, Copper Run Distillery opened in 2009, becoming the first legal distillery in the Ozarks since Prohibition ended in 1933. In addition to moonshine, the distillery churns out handcrafted, small-batch rum and whiskey, all made with ingredients sourced as locally as possible. After a guided tour of the facilities, stop by the tasting room for imaginative specialty cocktails. A wintertime favorite is the Apple Pie, made with Copper Run Moonshine, cider, brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla, and served hot or cold.