Editor’s Note: Due to COVID-19, be sure to check hours of operation for restaurants and attractions described below, as they may have changed since time of publication.
With the alluring promise of swimming, boating, fishing or just simple relaxation, a lake getaway in the summer is practically a rite of passage for many Missourians. In an hour’s drive from Columbia, you can be at the Lake of the Ozarks, a 55,000-acre body of water that the Missouri Division of Tourism calls the state’s “most popular lake destination.” Nicknamed the Magic Dragon because of its serpentine shape, this massive waterway winds through four counties and has 1,150 miles of shoreline — longer than the coastline of California.
While the water is the biggest draw, there’s also plenty of eating, shopping and exploring to enjoy on dry land. Ready for an unforgettable weekend? Follow our two-day itinerary that plots a Lake of the Ozarks journey fit for everyone from foodies and thrill seekers to outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs.
Fuel up for your first day at the Lake with breakfast at Stewart’s Restaurant on the Bagnell Dam Strip. This quaint diner satisfies with classic comfort foods such as biscuits and gravy, country fried steak, buttermilk pancakes and hearty omelets. You can top anything on the menu with chili, sausage gravy, shredded cheddar or grilled onions. Order the “Biggest Cinnamon Roll at the Lake” for a massive morning treat.
After your meal, take a stroll down the strip, a historic district packed with restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment venues. Grandma’s Candy Kitchen can tackle any sweet tooth with its selection of 40 taffy flavors, 20 varieties of fudge, chocolates, bulk candies and more. Old Time Photos will transport you to bygone eras with portrait sessions that feature period costumes, accessories, sets and props. Dogpatch is a 10,000-square-foot general store that’s been a fixture of the strip since 1947. Here you’ll find souvenirs, home decor, toys, jewelry, pottery and more. Next door is Dogpatch Arcade, where you can play classic games including pool, pinball, air hockey, Skee-ball and ring toss.
The Bagnell Dam area is the launch point for a variety of tours that highlight some of the Lake’s top attractions. Step aboard the Celebrations II yacht for a 90-minute narrated cruise or book a Lake Ozark Helicopters ride. The company’s most popular tour is a 19-mile excursion that provides a 360-degree aerial look at Bagnell Dam, the Grand Glaize Bridge, the mansions of Million Dollar Row and the Osage Beach Outlet Marketplace. Soar as high as 500 feet above the water for a one-of-a-kind view of the Lake on a Paradise Parasail adventure. Early-morning flights are recommended for the best weather and most peaceful experience.
For a panoramic perspective on solid ground, head to the Ameren Scenic Overlook, which has informational kiosks, a fish and bird observation area and one of the original turbines used to power the dam’s electric generators. Nearby, the Adirondack-style Willmore Lodge offers amazing views from its back deck atop a wooded hillside. The log structure, built in 1930, also has a history museum dedicated to the creation of Bagnell Dam and the Lake of the Ozarks.
Drive 3 miles south on Bagnell Dam Boulevard for lunch at Baxter’s Lakeside Grille, where you can dine on steak, seafood, pasta, soup, sandwiches, burgers and salads surrounded by an epic waterfront vista. The scenic eatery also provides plenty of options for vegetarian and gluten-free customers.
Watch a breathtaking sunset and enjoy a world-class dinner at JB Hook’s, which gets rave reviews for its hand-carved steaks and fresh seafood. End the evening with cocktails at the upscale 1932 Reserve bar. The modern industrial space also has a farm-to-table restaurant and six boutique lofts for overnight stays.
The carrot cake at Paint Box Cafe is enough reason to stop by for brunch, but you’ll also want to devour the tasty sandwiches, soups and salads. You won’t be far from Lake of the Ozarks State Park, where you can take a hike or ride your bike through open woodlands and sunny glades. Go fishing for bass, crappie, walleye, bluegill and catfish, rent kayaks and paddle boats, climb the awe-inspiring rock formations or enjoy a swim at the park’s two sandy beaches. Within the grounds you can also explore the Ozark Caverns, known for its unique Angel Showers, a never-ending flow of water that seems to come out of the solid rock ceiling. The park also rents yurts and rustic cabins to campers who don’t want to pitch a tent.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, browse the aisles at Harmy’s Cheese Store & More, where you can sample nearly everything in stock including local wine and spirits and more than 150 types of Wisconsin cheeses. There’s also a large selection of nuts, sauces, meat products, crackers, jams, pickled items and seasonings. Nosh on a cheese curd panini or share a charcuterie board on the roomy deck. Buy snacks to go for the perfect picnic lunch.
Travel west on highway 54 through the town of Linn Creek, home to the action-packed Big Surf Waterpark and the Camden County Historical Society & Museum. Continue on to Camdenton to visit the Funky Buffalo Brew House and Trading Company for shopping, coffee, sandwiches, pastries, soups, wraps and desserts. Three miles away is Ha Ha Tonka State Park, where the ruins of a majestic stone castle overlook sinkholes, caves, a massive natural bridge and Missouri’s 12th-largest spring. The park’s hiking trails traverse wooded areas and open rocky glades while its picnic sites offer spots to sit back and take in the pristine beauty. More natural wonders are just up the road at Bridal Cave, where you can take a guided tour to discover the history, geology and biology of the cavern’s multiple chambers.
Dinner at The Trophy Room at Old Kinderhook Resort is sure to please with tempting dishes such as wild mushroom flatbread, lobster fettuccine alfredo, filet mignon, jalapeno cheddar grits and gluten-free chocolate cake topped with berries and whipped cream. The drink menu showcases traditional favorites such as cosmos, Manhattans and martinis alongside more creative fare like the adult root beer float, which includes vanilla vodka and anise-flavored liqueur.
When you’ve soaked up enough sun, find your way to the village of Laurie on the Lake’s west side for dinner at JJ’s at the Copper Pot. The fine-dining establishment impresses with small plates like brie cheese, diced apple, and prosciutto-wrapped in puff pastry with raspberry jalapeno sauce. The street tacos filled with Hawaiian-style pork, guacamole, pineapple salsa, pickled red onion, chipotle sauce, and cotija cheese are also divine. Chef and co-owner Joseph Cope list the deep-fried lobster served atop shoestring potatoes, and the roasted rack of New Zealand lamb, presented over mushroom risotto with goat cheese, beets and balsamic glaze, among his favorite entrees. The restaurant’s beverage book showcases coffees, cocktails, beers, and over 180 different wines, earning it an award of excellence from Wine Spector in 2019. You can end your meal on a sweet note with a boozy float or choose from other dessert options like chocolate lava cake, bread pudding bites, and lemon poppyseed cheesecake.