As a little girl growing up in Southern Illinois, we spent a lot of summer weekends at Crab Orchard Lake, Lake of Egypt and at a sandbar in the Mississippi River near Grand Tower city park. These local waters were where my friends, my siblings and I learned to swim and water ski and roast marshmallows to a perfect golden brown.
But about once a year, my parents and some of their friends would pack up the boats, the picnic coolers and the kids, and caravan west for a weeklong getaway at Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri.
It seemed like a long drive then, but on today’s better highways, it’s only a little less than five hours from most parts of Southern Illinois to the Lake of the Ozarks. Although the calendar tells us that summer is over, there are still plenty of reasons to head west to Lake of the Ozarks in the coming weeks.
First of all are the Ozarks themselves. Thanks to the very wet spring, the colors should be spectacular this year. The small sumac are the first to turn, creating a purple base for when the more prevalent walnut, oak and hickory bring yellow to the hills. But those bright bursts of red and gold? That comes from the hard and soft maples that cover the forests.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park is the best place to experience those brilliant colors. Did you know it was originally developed by the National Park Service? True story. It was originally called the Lake of the Ozarks Recreation Demonstration Area in 1933, and it was all a part of the federal work program to lift the United States out of the Great Depression. The WPA and CCC built trails, cabins and most of the amenities we now enjoy before the federal government turned it over to the state in September 1946. There were 46 such recreation demonstration areas that are now state parks in 24 states.
At 17,440 acres, Lake of the Ozarks State Park is the largest in the Show Me State’s impressive state park system. They’ve got it all, from boating resources to mountain biking to overnight accommodations to caves. Missouri is known as the Cave State (take that Kentucky!) and you can see a bunch during a weekend getaway in the Ozarks. The tour of Ozark Caverns at Lake of the Ozarks State Park is only $10, a bargain compared to some of the privately-owned caves nearby.
A second state park in the lake region is Ha Ha Tonka State Park, which is accessible by water or land. One of the region’s iconic images, the ruins of what appears to be an ancient castle or fortress, can be found here. While it’s a lot of fun to brainstorm creative stories of feudal lords and Olde World kingdoms here in the Ozarks, it was actually built in the early 1900s by a Kansas City businessman named Robert McClure. He brought in Scottish stonemasons to ensure it looked authentic, and he named it Ha Ha Tonka. A spark from one of the many fireplaces started a fire in the 1940s, which destroyed the lodge, and McClure simply abandoned his dream.
The state of Missouri bought Ha Ha Tonka in the 1970s, along with 3,500 acres of surrounding land that includes some beautiful bridges, caves and other geological wonders. Although it wasn’t a national park, it’s still a magnificent place to enjoy the Ozarks outdoors.
If you ride a motorcycle, you may already know about the Lake of the Ozarks Bikefest, scheduled this year for Sept. 17-20. The winding, hilly back roads of the Ozarks are perfect for great rides, and this event has three designated routes that include Ha Ha Tonka State Park, Route 66 and the Devil’s Elbow Bridge on the Big Piney River. Many of the area restaurants and bars create special dishes and discount pricing for those who arrive on two wheels that weekend.
If you’re not a fan of bikes and the noise made by 10,000 or so motorcycles in one spot, this is not the weekend for you to visit the Lake. Instead, you might want to come for the downright wholesomeness of the Eldon Turkey Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26. Wild turkeys are abundant throughout the Ozarks, thus the inspiration for this turkey-themed event. Parades, craft shows, a quilt show, music and more all have a bit of gobble-gobble in the fun.
And because you’re in the area on Sept. 26, your best bargain for lunch or dinner is Franky and Louie’s Grill in the Deer Park Campground near Sunrise Beach. While many restaurants and businesses are open year ’round at the Lake, just as many are seasonal and close for the winter. Franky and Louie’s is one that closes, and their last day is Sept. 26. Everything on the menu costs $2, except for the pizza, which is $6. So you want a burger and a beer, it’s $4. Seriously, $2 for a beer, that’s a bargain. And, it’s a lot of fun with a great view of the lake as you eat.
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If you’d like to bring home your own turkey for the upcoming Thanksgiving celebration, October is turkey hunting season in the Ozarks. It’s also a good time to find quail, rabbit and deer, among other critters. Hunter Ridge Ranch, located just outside of Camdenton, is a rugged, but comfortable destination for hunters. Hunt on your own or go on a guided hunt. Check in with the Missouri Department of Conservation for all of the permits.
Now, if you love Murphysboro’s Apple Fest (Sept. 16-19) and can’t get enough apple celebrations this time of year, two lake communities have separate festivals for you to choose from. The first is the City of Versailles Olde Tyme Apple Festival is the first weekend in October. If you think you make a pretty good apple pie, enter it in the pie baking contest, a highlight of the weekend. There’s also an old-fashioned car cruise night at the drive-in followed by a sock hop.
Come back on Oct. 16-17 for Apple Butter Days in Linn Creek. The event includes your basic craft vendor fair and homemade apple butter demonstrations; but, for the serious garage saler, you might love the citywide garage sale also this weekend. It might be your last big bargain hunt of the season.
Furthermore, if you love wine, you will have a good time at the six wineries that make up the Lake of the Ozarks Wine & Dine Trail. My favorite, from a historical perspective, is the Casa de Loco in Camdenton. The property was first developed by a family from St. Louis, but for more than 30 years, it served as a mental health facility for people of central Missouri, thus the name, Casa de Loco. It’s a little bit of an effort on gravel roads to get there, but once on the property, you’ll enjoy wood-fired pizza and other goodies, along with some amazing wines and views of the Niangua arm of the lake.
So, even though the days and nights are a little cooler, autumn is the most refreshing and peaceful time of the year to be out on the water at the lake -- except maybe for Saturday, Oct. 10. This is the 30th annual Harbor Hop, a sort of floating poker game involving 40 businesses around the Lake. You can drive via automobile, but it’s really more fun in a boat. Pay $20 for your hand and the first card. You’ll draw another card at each of the businesses you visit. Cash prizes in the form of gift certificates to the participating businesses are awarded at the end of the day for the best hand. How fun is that?
Since I was a little girl vacationing at the lake, a number of things have changed, most specifically the shopping, unless my parents were holding out on me with cheap souvenirs! Bagnell Dam Boulevard is the original shopping destination, and you can still get fudge, T-shirts and swimwear, as well as a tattoo, and have your fortune told. Take a stroll just for the nostalgia. Not much has changed there.
But for many people, the Outlet Mall in Osage Beach is the reason to come to the lake at any time of the year. With more than 100 stores, you should be able to get most of your holiday shopping done without leaving Osage Beach.
Personally, I like the Landing on Main Street in Osage Beach. These are independently owned businesses, for the most part, that feature many locally made products, like jewelry and home décor. Several years ago, I purchased a wonderful ceramic Pilgrim couple that is still a part of my autumn décor at home. But you’ll also find dozens of antique shops and flea markets all around the lake and its wonderfully quirky small towns.
Take time to explore those shops and just about everything else in mid-Missouri’s Ozarks this fall. You’ll thank me later.