It’s easy to get out and play in the Ozark Mountains. Spanning nearly 47,000 square miles (75,000 square km) from central Missouri to northern Arkansas (and even far eastern Oklahoma), the Ozarks are a land of awe-inspiring natural wonders, home to wild rivers, incredible lakes and popular parks. Here’s a quick guide on what to see and where to go.
Parks, preserves and forests
The Ozark National Forest covers more than 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) in northern Arkansas and includes incredible opportunities for camping, hiking, fishing, boating, wildlife viewing and much more. The forest is also home to Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas, and the underground wonder of Blanchard Springs Caverns.
Two state parks in the Missouri Ozarks also offer photo-worthy sights and fun outdoor recreation. Elephant Rocks State Park is home to giant, 1.5 million-year-old boulders that stand end-to-end in a unique formation like elephants in the circus. Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in southeastern Missouri is home to a natural waterpark at the “shut-ins,” where the East Fork of the Black River flows through rock that’s resistant to erosion, creating a swimming hole that’s popular in the summer.
Other options include the Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve, which offers outstanding views of the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake, and Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, which is home to hiking trails, caves and an elk and bison pasture.
Caverns and show caves
Meramec Caverns, about an hour’s drive south and west of St. Louis, is Missouri’s largest show cave and is open for tours year-round (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas). Highlights include the “Wine Room,” which features unique rock and mineral formations, and an underground light show in the cave system’s “Theatre Room.” The Meramec Caverns complex also has on-site lodging and camping, as well as a zip line system and float and riverboat trips along the Meramec River.
Just a short drive north of Mountain View in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains, Blanchard Springs Caverns is a “living cave”—that is, a cave whose stalactites, stalagmites and other mineral formations are still being created by the deposits in dripping water. The cave is part of the U.S. Forest Service, and tours are given by dedicated Forest Service interpreters
Lakes and rivers
Table Rock Lake on the border of Missouri and Arkansas, is a massive man-made lake that was created by the damming of the White River. The lake covers more than 43,000 acres (17,400 hectares) and is a popular recreation option for travelers visiting nearby Branson. Missouri’s Table Rock State Park is home to a marina, boat launch, hiking trails, mountain biking trails, picnic sites and more. The greater Table Rock Lake area is home to welcoming resorts, restaurants and more.
The Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas was the first National River to be designated in the United States, earning the classification from the National Park Service in 1972. The National River designation applies to the lower 135 miles (217km) of the Buffalo River, and the waterway is a popular destination for fishing, floating and camping.