Best Things to Do At Lake Of the Ozarks: Ultimate 3-Day Travel Itinerary
This post is sponsored by Lake of the Ozarks.
About Lake of the Ozarks
Nestled in the heart of Missouri, Lake of the Ozarks (LOTO) is an alluring reservoir created by the Bagnell Dam on the Osage River. Spanning over 90 miles in length, the lake boasts a sprawling shoreline and covers an impressive 54,000 acres. The total shoreline is actually longer than the state of California! I don’t think I realized just how large this lake actually is until I saw it for myself. It can take hours to get from one part of the lake to another. That means endless opportunities to find your own little slice of paradise on Lake of the Ozarks!
LOTO is not just a lake; it's a destination offering a perfect blend of natural beauty and recreational opportunities. There are so many things to do on and around the lake! From boating to hiking to exploring caves, there is something for every type of traveler to enjoy. You know I instantly fell for the beautiful landscapes and hiking trails! LOTO provides a unique experience for the history buffs too. The lake is steeped in history, with the Bagnell Dam's construction (more on that later) dating back to the 1930s as part of the New Deal initiatives. Completed in 1931, it was the largest man-made lake at the time. Now, it is the second largest man-made lake in Missouri, behind Truman Lake.
Getting to Lake of the Ozarks
While there isn't a major airport directly serving Lake of the Ozarks, visitors can fly into Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) or Kansas City International Airport (MCI). The drive from either airport takes approximately 2.5 to 3 hours. To cut down the drive time, you can also fly into Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF). We chose this option (flying from DC), and it took us just over 1.5 hours driving to reach Lake Ozark (where our accommodation was). Depending on where you’re coming from, I’d suggest checking the flight routes and prices for each of these airports to determine the best option for you. You’ll have some driving to do either way, but at least there are scenic views (and Scooters Coffee)!
Best Time to Visit Lake of the Ozarks
While summer is peak season in LOTO, fall is truly an underrated time to visit! Even though it’s “low season,” the lively and fun atmosphere is definitely still there- just a little toned down. I personally prefer off-season travel when places are less crowded, as I tend to have a more enjoyable experience. If you’re like me and prefer a bit more of a relaxed vibe, definitely opt for a fall trip! Missouri may not come to mind first when you think about fall travel destinations in the US, but the fall foliage around LOTO is absolutely beautiful! The orange and red hues contrasted by the deep blue color of the water is something to see. Even better, the weather in October/November is perfect for exploring all of the natural beauty around the lake. Visiting the first weekend in November, we had the unique opportunity to participate in Fall Crawl (more on that later also)!
Where to Stay On Your Trip To Lake of the Ozarks
For the ultimate experience, consider staying in the Bagnell Dam area. The Resort at Lake of the Ozarks, with its interesting history, provides a central location for easy access to bars, restaurants, shops, and various outdoor adventures. Boasting 155 rooms, The Resort is just 2.6 miles from Bagnell Dam in Lake Ozark and Osage Beach. The rooms are spacious and well-equipped, providing everything you need at a very affordable price. The Resort also features an indoor pool, fitness room, and onsite restaurant called The Encore Lakeside Grill and Sky Bar. We found it super convenient to walk a short distance from our room to The Encore for a drink or a bite to eat with beautiful lake views! I also have to mention how friendly the staff were- though this is true for everyone we encountered around LOTO!
Best Things to Do at Lake of the Ozarks: The Ultimate Three-Day Itinerary
To really experience the best of Lake of the Ozarks, you’ll need to spend at least 3 days there! Below, I’ve outlined the optimal 3-day itinerary, hitting on all the best things to do on and around Lake of the Ozarks!
Arrive at Lake of the Ozarks and check into your accommodation. If staying at The Resort, grab a bite or a drink at The Encore (if time allows) before settling in.
Breakfast at the Rusty Rooster:
Kickstart your day with a delicious breakfast right by the Resort. Roughly .5 miles away, the Rusty Rooster Café is what dreams are made of when it comes to breakfast food! Take your pick of biscuits and gravy, big fluffy pancakes, stuffed French toast, tasty omelets, or the “Mother Clucker-“ chicken and waffle sliders with bacon jam. Great! Now I’m drooling. They also have excellent coffee, which we all know is the most important component of my breakfast.
Hike at Ha Ha Tonka State Park:
Immerse yourself in the beauty of nature while exploring the many hiking trails in this Missouri State Park. There is quite a range of hike options depending on time, ability level, and how much you ate for breakfast. I highly recommend (at least) hiking the Spring Trail, Island Trail, and Castle Ruins Trail. They’re each at the high end of easy (with a few steep-ish parts), or you can combine all three for a moderate 2-3 hour hike, depending on how quick you are. I, for one, took way too long with all the photos I took of the beautiful scenery!
This scenic trail winds through the lush beauty of Ha Ha Tonka State Park, offering a refreshing journey along vibrant spring-fed creeks. The main feature is, unsurprisingly, a natural spring! It honestly took my breath away. Though it’s the 12th largest spring in Missouri, it dumps roughly 48 million gallons of water a day into Lake of the Ozarks. It is exceptionally clear and a stunning shade of blue from every vantage point. The Spring Trail Loop hike is 1.5 miles total and includes a long boardwalk with stairs that descend 200 vertical feet. Do the loop counter clockwise to avoid coming back up the stairs.
Island Trail leads you to the park's island area surrounded by the clear waters of the Lake of the Ozarks. You’ll find Balanced Rock along the way, as well as more views of the spring-fed creek. This Trail is only .5 miles, so it’s an easy addition to the Spring Trail!
This trail is a must-visit for history buffs and those seeking a touch of mystique. The Castle Trail takes you to the remains of a 20th-century stone mansion, providing a glimpse into the park's intriguing past. The castle ruins perch high on a bluff (above the natural spring), offering panoramic views of the lake and surrounding landscape. We were lucky enough to be eye level with a large group of birds soaring around. It was quite a magical experience!
Natural Bridge and Colosseum:
The Natural Bridge and Colosseum are fascinating geological features. The Natural Bridge showcases the forces of nature at work, while the Colosseum is a rather enchanting sinkhole. These natural wonders add an extra layer of intrigue to your exploration, making it a great spot for both geological and scenic appreciation. The Natural bridge is only 300 feet from the parking area, so I didn’t list this one as a “hike.” It's also conveniently very close to the Castle Trail, so you can stop here afterwards. Continue along the trail beyond the bridge to witness the Colosseum!
Kayak Ha Ha Tonka Cove and the Niangua River
We couldn’t just explore Ha Ha Tonka by foot- we had to get out on the water! We rented kayaks from the State Park and explored Ha Ha Tonka Cove, and then we ventured into the Niangua River. The park employee we spoke with was incredibly sweet and told us about a natural cave we could kayak into on the river! Unfortunately, the wind was too much for us to make the 2-mile (one way) trek to the cave, but I would have loved to check it out! We did a 2-hour rental and found that to be enough time to get some good exploring in. We were awestruck paddling along the tall bluffs. The contrast of the fall foliage and the blue-green water made for an exhilarating and enjoyable paddle.
Explore Bagnell Dam Strip
Bagnell Dam Strip is a vibrant area on the Lake of the Ozarks, known for its lively atmosphere and diverse attractions. Today, it's a bustling hub featuring a mix of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, and waterfront activities. You can explore unique boutiques, grab a bite to eat at waterfront restaurants, and enjoy the scenic beauty of the lake. There is a scenic walk with lake views that also features an incredibly old redwood tree. When it was cut in the 1960’s, it was over 1,000 years old!
The Bagnell Dam has a rich history dating back to its construction during the Great Depression. Built from 1929 to 1931, it was named after the nearby town of Bagnell. The dam was a monumental project aimed at generating hydroelectric power for the region. During its construction, thousands of workers were employed, and the resulting reservoir brought economic development to the area. The Bagnell Dam played a crucial role in providing electricity and fostering growth in the surrounding communities.
Over the years, the Lake of the Ozarks and the Bagnell Dam area have become synonymous with relaxation, water activities, and a thriving tourism industry. Today, the Bagnell Dam stands not only as an engineering marvel but also as a symbol of the region's resilience and transformation.
Dinner at Tuckers Shuckers Oyster Bar
Tuckers Shuckers is a lively and laid-back waterfront restaurant that combines delicious seafood with a relaxed, casual atmosphere. The name itself gives a nod to its love for fresh oysters, which are not my thing, but they may be yours! I personally enjoyed the Cajun shrimp pasta, and my husband said his salmon was delicious!
Breakfast on the Strip
I would be lying if I said we branched out for breakfast on Day 2. We loved the Rusty Rooster Café so much we went back a second time! I just couldn’t resist their hearty breakfast plates and delicious coffee.
Tour Bridal Cave
Nestled in the Ozarks near Camdenton, Bridal Cave is situated on Thunder Mountain. The cave's location, surrounded by lush forests and overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks captivates you the second you arrive! I was already taking pictures the moment I stepped out of the car! The fall foliage around the lake was absolutely gorgeous here. Bridal Cave is considered one of the most scenic caves in America, as it features more formations per square inch than any other known cave, including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and delicate soda straws. The tour itself doesn’t traverse all that much ground- just .25 miles, but the cave actually spans about a mile in total. The rest isn’t accessible to the public due to underground lakes. Fortunately, you can see one of the lakes on the tour, and it’s fascinating! The water is a deep, clear blue thanks to the acidity as well as the minerals in the water. This cave tour does include narrow passageways and small tunnels, so just keep that in mind if you’re claustrophobic!
Lunch By the Lake
Head back toward Bagnell Dam to have lunch at Encore Lakeside Grill and Sky Bar. The outdoor bar has a beautiful view of the lake and a cozy atmosphere with a fire pit and stage for live music. There’s also a huge pool with a swim up bar that is open until October! The menu has a large variety of options, whether you’re looking for a full meal or something to hold you over until dinner. We shared a flatbread pizza and seared ahi tuna- both were delightful!
Sunset Dinner Cruise
For a relaxing and unique way to experience the lake, partake in a sunset cruise with Celebration Cruises. Trust me, there’s no better place to experience a LOTO sunset than from the water! Boarding 30 minutes before departure, you have time to order a drink from the second-floor bar and find a spot to settle in. Even though the temperature had cooled down as the sun started to fade, we felt a strong pull to sit outside! Sitting there with a drink in hand as we cruised by the shoreline, dotted with vacation homes, docks, and fall foliage was such a dreamy experience. Shortly after, we were called down to our table for dinner. We split the barbecue plate and the meat lasagna, and then had a hard time fitting in our brownie dessert! After dinner, and after the sun sank below the horizon, we watched as the lights along the shore illuminated the water in the darkness.
Participate in a Festive Event Like Fall Crawl
Bagnell Dam area commonly hosts events and festivals, creating a fun experience for both locals and tourists My husband and I visited on the perfect fall weekend- during the 2023 Fall Crawl! Put on by the Miller County Business District and presented by Ugles Cantina, Fall Crawl brought the Bagnell Dam strip to life, encouraging locals and tourists to come out and enjoy the many restaurants and pubs. Several locations had live music and drink specials, and there were opportunities to win all sorts of fun prizes for participating! I especially liked that they offered a bus service to take you to different stops along the crawl so you didn’t have to drive. The Encore (right at The Resort) was also a stop on the Crawl, hosting a Pre-Crawl event with live music and drinks.
Breakfast or Brunch at The Encore
While The Encore typically doesn’t open until 11am, the day after Fall Crawl was a special occasion. The Kansas City Chiefs were playing the Miami Dolphins in Germany at 8:30AM local time. The Encore opened early to host a watch party and wow, was it a hit! Thankfully the Chiefs won, so we were surrounded by happy and excited Chiefs fans!
Visit Lake of The Ozarks State Park
Spanning over 17,000 acres, Lake of the Ozarks State Park is one of the largest state parks in Missouri. It is situated along the shores of the Lake of the Ozarks, adding to the park's scenic beauty. Unsurprisingly, water-based activities take center stage at this state park. The Lake of the Ozarks offers opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming, and other water sports. Numerous marinas and boat ramps make it easy for visitors to access the lake. The park is home to a variety of wildlife, making it a haven for birdwatchers and nature photographers. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, deer, and a plethora of bird species! For those who prefer to explore on land, the park boasts a network of trails winding through diverse landscapes. These trails cater to various skill levels, offering hikers and nature enthusiasts an excellent opportunity to explore the park’s natural beauty.
Hike the Rocky Top Trail
For a relatively moderate and short hike with a big payoff, check out the Rocky Top Trail. This 2.2 mile trail combines two loops with quite a variety of terrain and scenery. One of my favorite features is a stunning and expansive overlook of the lake from atop a rocky bluff. It’s a great place for a rest. The forested sections of the trail are also beautiful, especially with the trees in all their fall glory. Finally, one of the most unique features of this trail is the section of dolomite glades- one of the largest in the park. Due to cedars encroaching and impacting the native vegetation, these glades are now becoming rare and are managed with periodic fires.
Visit a Brewery or Winery Near the Lake
Lake of the Ozarks has a growing and vibrant craft beverage scene, with several breweries and wineries offering unique and locally crafted drinks. At the top of our list as craft beer lovers was Ozark Distillery and Brewery. We had seen it on google maps, but what took it to the top for us was one of the local shop owners recommending it to us! We actually spent a good 15 minutes chatting with him about the area and how much it has grown over the years. His friend happens to own the brewery, and we were intent on checking it out! Unfortunately, we missed our opportunity before it closed until the following week, so we searched for additional breweries in the area. They weren’t hard to find and we ended up at Shortleaf where we sampled a variety of beers from IPAs to lagers to stouts. We liked the chill vibes and the welcoming space- both inside and out!
Time to Head Home
Unfortunately, our weekend in LOTO came to a close and it was time to head back home. It’s always sad when a trip ends, but once you visit LOTO, you’ll definitely be planning a trip back!
That’s a wrap! I hope this post is helpful to you as you plan your own adventure at the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks. Happy travels!