Want to get a fresh perspective on Midwest lake vacations? Visit Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, about seven hours southwest of Chicago, for a hilly change of scenery. Voted “Best Recreational Lake” in the nation by readers of USA Today and 10Best, a summer vacation here is filled with boating, tubing, spelunking and golfing. Plus, there’s a water park with an insane waterslide, an outlet mall with Wusthof knives, and restaurants with sensational scenic views. Everyone in the family is sure to have their hair blown back and enjoy a great time.
Nicknamed “The Magic Dragon,” Lake of the Ozarks looks like a Chinese dragon-shaped river compared to our wide Lake Michigan. That’s because it was created by impounding the Osage River, resulting in a tree-lined waterway that is loved by boaters and beachgoers alike.
Stay at Tan-Tar-A Resort. Built into the rolling hillside and right on the water, this resort has everything a family could possibly want: five pools, a water slide, a playground, two golf courses, a horse stable, mini golf, bowling, an indoor water park, marina, spa, on-site restaurants, updated rooms and a fantastic view of the lake. You will get a workout walking up and down, back and forth, but it’s worth it for everything that’s offered at this incredibly family-friendly accommodation.
A visit to Lake of the Ozarks is all about spending your day in or on the water. Rent boats, tubes, water skis and WaveRunners at the full-service Tan-Tar-A Marina or take a ride on Tropic Island Cruises. Jump into the cool of the pool or enjoy a cocktail in the hot tub while kids glide down the water slide. If it’s a rainy day, no worries — Timber Falls Water Park offers pools, waterslides and a lazy river all indoors.
I saw Big Surf Waterpark’s giant yellow Half Pipe from the highway and just had to go. But check your bravery at the top, because Zambezi Falls features a three-story drop. My husband was quite the sport and only let a few involuntary screams out on the way down. Kids 48” inches and above can take the plunge with a parent or on their own. Or just float the day away in the lazy river or bob in the waves at the wave pool.
Outside of the water, Bridal Cave was our kids’ favorite attraction. While you wait for your guided tour, mine for gems in front of a beautiful backdrop. On tour, enjoy the cool dark of the gorgeous, lighted cavern with an interesting and informative guide. Stand in the spot where couples have exchanged vows under stalactites since the early 1800’s. Be enamored by the tiny opening people used to army crawl through to enter this magnificent cave. Be grateful for the two years worth of development that allow you to walk through this incredible cavern to crystal clear waters without crawling.
Hidden Lakes nine-hole golf course (ranked as one of the best nine hole courses in the country) is perfect for father-son bonding time. My husband has played more than his fair share of courses, but loved the scenic views and Zoysia fairways. Ha Ha Tonka State Park has some short picturesque hikes. There’s also Miner Mike’s, an indoor family fun center with a Chuck Wagon Ferris Wheel, the outlet mall and Main Street Music Hall, a family-friendly place that puts on live music and variety shows.
Stop by Bagnell Dam for scenic views of the water and a walk down the historic strip. Arcades, diners and T-shirt shops provide a kitschy tourist stop. Stewart’s Restaurant is recommended for their colossal cinnamon rolls. Want a souvenir sepia-tone photo of your family? Old Time Photos has endless props for a fun photo session.
Food-wise, my family loved Lil Rizzo’s. Their pasta is fresh and delicious, plus kids can order “Gummy Bear Pizza” (the bears come on the side, but still, a total delight). Captain Ron’s is a great place to relax and eat, with tempting seafood dishes on the menu, live music, plus a sandy beach for the kids to play while the parents sip drinks. Randy’s Frozen Custard is a sweet way to top off a hot day. Their creamy custard can be mixed with anything from Nerds to Jolly Ranchers, or topped with my personal favorite, salty pecans and gooey caramel. Cheers to summer!