When the music stops

Branson, Mo., has hiking trails as well as stars, sequins and shopping malls

Destination: Missouri

July 14, 2002|By Allen Holder | By Allen Holder,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Back in Branson, Mo., the guitar players are tuning up. The cash registers are ringing. The smell of barbecue is floating through restaurant parking lots.

So what am I doing outside of town in the woods? Riding a bike and enjoying the silence.

Think of Branson and you're likely to conjure up an image of sequins-spangled country stars and water-slide-riding children. But there's another side to the Ozarks fun capital. After you've seen the shows, ridden the bumper boats, shopped the outlet malls and eaten your way to a larger belt size, why not get out and enjoy the wilderness that makes this part of southern Missouri attractive?

On a cool, sunny morning I headed south out of town, away from the Strip, and found myself in 10,000 acres of unspoiled paradise called Dogwood Canyon, the first of three wilderness areas I would visit.

For the next couple of hours, I pedaled over an asphalt path on an old-fashioned, one-speed bicycle, with a fat seat and a wire basket big enough for a sack lunch.

"It's just a breathtaking property," said Kenny Smith, the park's tour manager.

In 1990, Bass Pro Shops founder John L. Morris acquired the first 2,200 or so acres that would eventually become Dog-wood Canyon Nature Park. In 1996 the park opened to guests of nearby Big Cedar Lodge, which also is owned by Bass Pro Shops. The next year it opened to the public.

Last year, about 35,000 people walked and biked the park's trails, toured aboard guided trams, fished for trout in its streams, rode horses and oohed and ahhed at the herds of buffalo, elk and Texas longhorns. And they still had time to hit the shows in Branson afterward.

The park's trails provide a chance to get out and explore. Self-guided walking tours cost $7.95 for adults, and bike rentals are $14.95. If you want to ride a tram, rates begin at $17.95. And fishing starts at $25 for two hours of self-guided catch and release angling.

The park is beautiful, with streams and waterfalls, towering limestone cliffs, handcrafted covered bridges and flowering trees. And you can explore at your own pace. The park's wide, flat trail following Little Indian and Dogwood creeks is gentle enough so that visitors in wheelchairs can navigate it. Along the way, markers point out 23 stations whose significance is explained in a pocket-size guidebook.

Near Station 12, for example, is the Great Spirit Rock Shelter, where the oldest human remains ever discovered in Missouri were found, dating back about 8,000 years. At Station 14 is the Glory Hole, a waterfall and blue-green pool that's home to some whopper-size trout. And at Station 20, just before the Arkansas border, is an enormous sycamore tree that's thought to be more than 250 years old.

Hiking and biking opportunities abound elsewhere in the Branson area as well, according to Ty Lewis, a co-owner of Trek the Ozarks, a 6-year-old Branson company that rents equipment and organizes guided trips on bikes, canoes and kayaks.

"There's a wealth of opportunity here for biking, both mountain and road cycling," said Lewis, who has lived in Branson since he was a child.

The problem, he said, is that many people don't know about all those possibilities. Many visitors come to Branson for the traditional reasons -- the music and the shopping -- and only then discover the area's natural beauty.

"The city and surrounding area are starting to take note of the lifestyle of the residents," Lewis said. "They want to get out. They want a safe place to bike. ... I don't know that we're up-and-coming, but we've got biking as good as anywhere."

The hiking's not bad, either, and it's easy to find. In addition to Dogwood Canyon, trails wind through parks and recreation areas all over the area.

At the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area, a 130-acre park inside the city limits, two trails offer scenic views and sometimes strenuous terrain.

Walk a short distance along one trail and you may see a field of wild irises in bloom. Farther on, a lookout platform affords a clear view of Lake Taneycomo far below. You will also come upon a cave and small waterfall.

A second trail, 1.3 miles long, loops through the park. Although there are some small hills, this is pretty easy stuff. A picnic area with tables awaits at the halfway point. If you've packed a lunch, this is the place to enjoy it.

More good hiking can be found west of Branson at the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area, named for the Independence, Mo., native who created The Beverly Hillbillies and other TV shows in the 1960s.

Wander on the short, woodchip-paved path leading from the parking lot, and soon you'll come to a tower -- 55 steps to the top -- that offers a nice view of Branson.

Several other trails wind through the Henning area, which is operated by the Missouri Conservation Department. If you're a determined walker, you can hike both the Glade and Streamside trails in about 45 minutes.

When you go

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