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This 92-square-mile lake records highs in the 70s and warm water when others are still thawing out. Not only that, Lake of the Ozarks is blessed with some magnificent scenery: 1,150 miles of shoreline (more than California's Pacific Coast), cedar forests, limestone bluffs, echoing caves, and water, water, everywhere.
Mother Nature is responsible for this region's fascinating landscape, but the lake itself is the result of good old American ingenuity. When Union Electric built the Bagnell Dam in 1929, they were hoping to harness the power potential of the Osage River and create jobs. A lucky by-product was the birth of the largest man-made lake in the world -- or at least it was back then.
These days, families come to Lake of the Ozarks for the water stuff -- boating, fishing, water-skiing, and swimming. But just in case your crew needs some dry-land diversions, there are also caverns, amusement parks, golf courses, live entertainment, and great outlet shopping.
This is one big body of water -- with winding arms stretching in every direction. It takes about one hour to drive from one end to the other, so plan the location of your base camp carefully. And keep in mind: Where you stay depends on how close you want to be to the action.
Lake Ozark, Osage Beach, and Camdenton on the east side, are the most popular (and crowded!) communities. For a more laid-back visit, head to Laurie or Hurricane Deck on the west side. Wherever you set up base camp, don't worry about missing a thing. The Grand Glaize and brand-new Community Bridges make getting around a breeze; you can cross the lake to most any spot in under an hour.
Lake of the Ozarks also has lodging for every family and budget: 100 resorts and motels, 20 private campgrounds, and scores of condos and cottages. You can even rent a houseboat and stay on the water. (Tip: Don't attempt this unless you're traveling with a crowd; the smallest craft sleeps 10).
For day cruising, most folks bring their own boats. If you don't have one, rentals are available from marinas in Laurie, Sunrise Beach, and Hurricane Deck on the west side, Lake Ozark, Osage Beach, and Camdenton on the east side.
When it comes to natural attractions, Lake of the Ozarks State Park is the place to go. Missouri's largest state park has two public beaches and hiking/biking trails. Plus, it's free! There is a small fee for boat launches, horseback riding tours at Ozark Homestead Riding Stable, and spelunking. Yes, spelunking!
Didn't you know? Missouri is "the Cave State." So it's not so surprising to find three big caverns near the lake, each offering a cool break (50-60 degrees) from summer heat.
While you're in the "south," make a half-day visit to Ha Ha Tonka State Park. There's no beach, but you can picnic in the shade of a ruined, 60-room castle on a bluff overlooking Ha Ha Tonka Spring, or "laughing waters" in the Osage Indian tongue. Sinkholes, small caves, and a 100-foot natural bridge round out the scenic highlights here.
Let's face it. Natural wonders won't keep pint-sized tourists captivated for a full week. So factor in a visit (or two) to several of the area's amusement parks.
Big Surf Waterpark in Linn Creek has 20 acres of flumes, waterslides, and wave pools. The hot ride is Zambezi Falls, a four-story, sidewinder chute ridden on inner tubes. "Space Bowl" sends little thrill-seekers careening down a tube, spiraling around a basin, and splashing through a hole at the bottom. Just next door, they can ride go-carts and bumper boats at Big Shot Raceways and Funpark.
On rainy days, Miner Mike's and Buster's Adventure Zone in Osage Beach is the place to be. This indoor amusement center keeps young ones busy with a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, motion simulators, arcade games, and a quarter-mile maze. Kids under 12 love the "Fun-blaster Range," where they can bean each other with air-fired, nerf-shooting bazookas. Across the street, adults can battle for bargains at Factory Outlet Village, Missouri's largest outlet mall. More than 100 big-name retailers, a movie theater, and a food court easily fill a day indoors.
At the end of the day, sink into a soft theater seat and be entertained. Lee Mace's Ozark Opry in Osage Beach has been dispensing foot-stomping country music and comedy for almost 50 years. The newest venue in town is the Main Street Music Hall, where you'll find '50s doo-wop, country and western, and comedy.
Type of trip: Outdoor, water sports, caving, scenic drive Best for ages: All Length of Trip: Long weekend to one week Distance: Kansas City (165 miles); St. Louis (175 miles); Tulsa, OK (295 miles) Best time to go: During the week in summer; any time in "shoulder season" (late spring and early fall) Weather: 85- to 90-degree highs in summer, mid to upper 70s in spring and fall. Missouri lies in "tornado alley," so watch those forecasts April through June. Lodging: Budget motels, luxury resorts, condos, cottages and campsites are all available.
Lake of the Ozarks Marina N. Hwy 5 at Niangua Bridge, Camdenton Phone: 800-255-5561 Note: Houseboat rentals (sleeps 10)
Watercraft Rentals Check Lake of the Ozarks website for a full listing of marinas and rentals. Note: Fishing boats, water-skiing boats, three-person wave runners.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park Hwy 42, Kaiser Phone: 573-348-2694
Jacob's Cave 23114 Hwy TT, Versailles Phone: 573-378-4374
Bridal Cave 526 Bridal Cave Rd., Camdenton Phone: 573-346-2676
Ha Ha Tonka State Park State Hwy D, Camdenton Phone: 573-346-2986
Big Surf Waterpark and Big Shot Raceways and Funpark Hwy 54 and State Road Y, Linn Creek Phone: 573-346-6111
Miner Mike's and Buster's Adventure Zone Hwy 54, Osage Beach Phone: 800-317-2126
Factory Outlet Village 4540 Hwy 54, Osage Beach Phone: 573-348-2065
Lee Mace's Ozark Opry Hwy 54 at Mace Rd., Osage Beach Phone: 573-348-2270
Main Street Music Hall Main St., Poverty Flats Village, Osage Beach Phone: 800-348-9501
Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Phone: 800-451-4117
Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-FUN-LAKE
If you're visiting the lake in June or August, don't miss a side trip to Sedalia. This sleepy hamlet, 60 miles northwest of Lake of the Ozarks, comes alive twice a year with the sound of music, cows, and racing cars.
In June, music fills the air during the Scott Joplin Ragtime Music Festival. The composer, who lived and worked in Sedalia, named his "Maple Leaf Rag" after the town's Maple Leaf Club. The only ragtime music festival in the world is now held on the former site of the old saloon. Free concerts, a catfish fry, and ragtime dances keep visitors tapping their toes. A free museum about the composer is open year-round.
In August, the Missouri State Fair fills the sprawling 396-acre fairgrounds in Sedalia with carnival rides, livestock competitions, races, and musical performers. One of the biggest state fairs in the U.S., it's a classic slice of old-time, family Americana.
Favorite local spot: Ozark Bar-Be-Que, Route TT-75, Sunrise Beach. Call 573-374-7769 for more information. Catfish, fried chicken, burgers, and barbecue keep locals and tourists licking their chops at this lakeside family restaurant and market. There are senior specials, a kid's menu, and a huge dining deck over the water.
Best souvenir: Geodes (crystal-filled rock formations) from the Jacob's Cave gift shop. Kids think they're as precious as the Hope Diamond.
Annual event: Dogwood Festival, third weekend in April, Stoneridge Amphitheater, N. Hwy. 5, Camdenton. Call 800-769-1004 for more information. This 50-year-old weekend festival celebrates the peak of the dogwood blooms each April, with live entertainment, carnival rides, craft shows, and barbecue.
Traffic alert: On summer weekends, stay close to home base; traffic on small lakeside roads can be a headache. On the water, avoid boat gridlock by sticking to the lake's western arms.
Safety tip: Take a boating safety course if you plan to be on the water a lot. You'll find one online at the following website.
Reviewed May 2004.