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Planning Your First Lake of the Ozarks Vacation

Last Updated on August 3, 2020 by Jody Halsted

Looking for a fabulous lake getaway in the Midwest? A Lake of the Ozarks vacation offers more activities than you imagine!

Lake of the Ozarks plays host to more than 5 million visitors each year, with a large percentage of those travelers planning their trip during the warm summer months and into fall for the spectacular foliage.

Lake of the Ozarks_Missouri_sunset
sunset over Lake of the Ozarks. Photo credit FunLake.com

We would like to thank the Lake of the Ozarks CVB and The Beenders-Walker Group for arranging our campground and organizing our Lake of the Ozarks itinerary!

Fun Facts & Handy Tips for Your Lake of the Ozarks Vacation

The Lake of the Ozarks has only been in existence since 1931. Prior to that it was merely the Osage River, a tributary of the larger Missouri River, a meandering watershed in the hilly central Missouri Ozarks.

Located midway between Kansas City and St. Louis (both approximately 2 hours away), not far south of Interstate 90, it's an easy Midwest destination to reach by car, RV, or flight (the state capital of Jefferson City is a mere hour away) and perfect for long weekend getaways.

Quick History of Lake of the Ozarks

The construction of Bagnell Dam, begun August 6, 1929, would create the largest man-made lake in the United States (at that time) when the Osage River was impounded on February 2, 1931.

Bagnell Dam. Image courtesy of VisitBagnellDam.com

This massive project brought growth and prosperity to the rural, and mostly cashless, area during the Great Depression, employing an average of 4000 people at any given time. More than 20,000 people were hired to work on the dam, in one job or another, 1929 and 1931.

As a private project the shoreline of the newly formed lake was ripe for development. Towns appeared at the edge of tranquil coves offering necessary services and expanding to meet the recreation needs of the tourists that followed.

How Large is the Lake?

If you're picturing a large, somewhat circular, body of water, let that image go immediately. Lake of the Ozarks resembles nothing so much as a long, very spikey, dragon twisting through the Ozark mountains.

Lake of the Ozarks map

The main channel of the lake, known as the Osage arm, extends 92 miles. Multiple tributaries create smaller ‘arms' of the lake and extend the shoreline to 1,150 miles.

Lake of the Ozarks remains one of the largest man made lakes in the world, covering 55,000 surface acres. Average depth is 70 feet, with the deepest spots diving to 130 feet.

Lake Activities

If you're planning a Lake of the Ozarks vacation water activities are at the front of your mind! And you'll find plenty of aquatic adventures to enjoy!

Boating

As mentioned above, the lake is huge and long! Boating is probably the most popular activity and you'll see everything from sightseeing cruises and relaxing pontoons to super-fast cigarette boats skimming over the wakes and self-powered kayaks exploring smaller coves.

Boat rentals of all types can be found around the lake. One tip- book early!

pontoon boat _ Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
We spent a day on the lake in a rented pontoon from Alhonna Resort (the resort inspiration for the Netflix series Ozark).

Beaches

Relax and take a dip in the lake at two public beaches, both located in Lake of the Ozarks State Park, or search for beach-side bars & restaurants with smaller private beaches.

Franky & Louie's describes their vibe as ‘Key West in the Midwest'

Stand Up Paddleboard

I love the versatility of a stand up paddleboard. Stand, sit, or just lay down and relax. It's a terrific way to enjoy a quiet cove!

SUP rental from Super Dave's Paddle Craft Adventures

Other Lake Activities

Want to kick up your adrenaline level a little bit? Rent a jet ski (or as my daughter calls them, a boatercycle) or strap into a parasail and rise above the water.

parasailing _ Lake of the Ozarks _ Missouri
parasailing above Lake of the Ozarks

Lake of the Ozarks also holds a reputation as one of the top fishing lakes in the country. Largemouth bass and crappie are the most sought-after fish, but anglers may also land catfish, white bass, walleye or sunfish.

Land activities

With such an abundance of shoreline you can only imagine the vastness of the hilly Ozark land that surrounds the lake – and all the fun you'll find on land, as well as below!

State Parks

Two state parks can be found tucked into the bends of the lake.

Lake of the Ozarks State Park is Missouri's largest, covering over 17 thousand acres. It even has its own airport! Campgrounds, two free public beaches, miles of trails – on both land and water- as well a a cavern tour, make it possible to spend your entire vacation within the park's boundaries.

deer_ Lake of the Ozarks State Park campground _ Missouri
campground views at Lake of the Ozarks State Park

Ha Ha Tonka State Park may have 16 miles of hiking trails, multiple caves, a beach, and kayak rentals, but what draws people is the castle.

Built of native stone and timber, the three and a half story mansion overlooking the Niangua Arm of the lake burned in 1942. A shell of its grandeur, the castle ruins are an incredible site to view, high atop a bluff.

castle ruins_Ha Ha Tonka State Park_Lake of the Ozarks_Missouri
ruins of the ‘castle' at Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Most of the trails at Ha Ha Tonka State Park connect with one another, making it easy to end up on a trail you didn't expect to hike! We began on the Colosseum Trail, to view the natural bridge and sinkhole, which joined to the Devil's Kitchen Trail, with sinkhole and small shelter cave, and then passed the end of the Spring Trail and it's 316 steps – 200 vertical feet (we did them down and up!).

Caves

There are over 300 ‘wild caves' registered and mapped, surrounding Lake of the Ozarks. For those who don't relish the thought of spelunking into the semi-unknown you'll also find 4 spectacular ‘show caves'.

Bridal Cave_Lake of the Ozarks_Missouri
stalactites deep in Bridal Cave

Bridal Cave may be the most famous show cave in the area, hosting 50-80 weddings each year in front of the majestic stalactite in the Bridal Chapel.

The cave floor is paved and an easy walk, though maneuvering through narrow spaces and under short stone ceilings is necessary, making the cave non-ADA compliant. The pay-off at the end is a view of the crystal clear, Caribbean blue Mystery Lake, deep in the heart of the cave.

Ozark Caverns in Lake of the Ozarks State Park is a walk-through cave and ADA accessible.

Golf

Golf is a three-season sport at Lake of the Ozarks and with 14 pro-designed courses wending through the foothills you're guaranteed beautiful surroundings no matter which course you choose!

Dining around Lake of the Ozarks

Non-stop activity and adventure is going to build up your appetite! Luckily you'll find plenty of variety in the over 100 restaurants that surround the lake – and more than half are located lakeside or have amazing lake views!

big onion ring _ Wobbly Boots BBQ _ Lake of the Ozarks _ Missouri
Order the onion rings at Wobbly Boots BBQ!

The difficult question is: what do you want to eat? You'll find everything from fine dining to barbeque, Cajun to Mexican, and more lake-side bar & grills than you could visit in a month.

One of our favorite dining features of the lake-side restaurants is a marina where you can park your boat and pop in for a meal and entertainment. It's enough to make you consider living the ‘lake life' on a more permanent basis!

Round up of our favorite Lake of the Ozarks restaurants coming soon!

giant cinnamon roll_Stewart's Restaurant_ Lake Ozark_Missouri
You'll need a few people to finish this cinnamon roll

Where to Stay at Lake of the Ozarks

How do you like to vacation? Do you prefer a luxury resort or a laid back vacation rental? Maybe you own an RV or want to rent a cabin? No matter your accommodation preference you'll find the perfect place to lay your head.

My tip: choose your top 2-3 activities then choose your accommodation! Because the lake is long you are guaranteed a bit of drive time no matter where you stay and what you do!

Jeep Gladiator_Thor Windsport motorhome_campground
our campsite at Majestic Oaks Campground

Our stay was at Majestic Oaks RV Park, just 5 miles from Bagnell Dam. The location at the ‘head' of the lake was perfect for most of our activities. The campground was quiet, peaceful, and very family friendly. (Full review coming soon)

Alhonna Resort_Lake of the Ozarks_Missouri
Alhonna Resort has been welcoming guests for over 60 years!

For those who like a bit of nostalgia (and a wee taste of TV magic), the Alhonna Resort is just what you're looking for! The inspiration for the resort in the Netflix series Ozark, you can choose from motel, condo, or cabin rentals at this family-owned & operated property. Swimming can be found at the indoor and outdoor pools, as well as a sand beach, and the resort rents evertyhing you need for water adventures, including pontoon boats, kayaks, and stand up paddleboards.

Ready to plan your own Lake of the Ozarks Missouri vacation?

Lake of the Ozarks was named “Best Recreational Lake” in the nation by readers of USA Today & 10 Best.

When you're ready to plan your own lake escape you can view the Lake of the Ozarks Vacation Guide online or order a printed copy. I recommend the printed travel guide – you'll find a lot of pages to mark, share with your travel companions, and make notes on!

Midwest Drive Times to Lake of the Ozarks

Are you ready to try this ‘refreshingly different' destination? Located in the heart of Missouri, Lake of the Ozarks is less than a day's drive from most Midwestern cities! Drive times are approximate.

Kansas City, MO2.5 hours ~ 175 miles
St. Louis, MO2.5 hours ~ 180 miles
Rogers, AR4 hours ~ 205 miles
Tulsa, OK4.5 hours ~ 296 miles
Des Moines, IA5 hours ~ 340 miles
Wichita, KS5 hours ~ 357 miles
Omaha, NE5 hours ~ 361 miles
Memphis, TN6 hours ~ 340 miles
Little Rock, AR6 hours ~ 317 miles
Oklahoma City, OK6.25 hours ~ 395 miles
Chicago, IL 6.5 hours ~ 467 miles

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