Big Cedar Lodge & Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve
by Tonya Kerr
Getting there from Houston:
- Approximately 600 miles/10 hour drive
- United, Delta & American fly into Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF)
In your wildest dreams, you can’t imagine the ultimate family playground that is Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock in Missouri. Less than a ten-hour drive from Houston, this 4,600-acre oasis nestled in wooded hollows of the Ozark Mountains and on a bluff overlooking Table Rock Lake is what locals and tourists, alike, call “a little piece of heaven.”
My own three-day retreat last fall turned this skeptic into a believer as I passed through the billboards and hype of Branson and took my first turn onto the winding roads and covered bridges of Big Cedar Lodge. I had to catch my breath as I passed through the vibrant crimsons, golds and fiery oranges of the fall foliage- something this native Texan had only seen in the movies.
Decades ago, Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, began acquiring the land, first as his own family retreat, and today, as his life’s legacy to sustain and share the treasures of the Ozarks. While Morris’ vibe is everywhere with nature-inspired architecture, furniture and, of course, strategically placed taxidermy, the charm of original buildings and landscaping laced with the new additions feels like a home-away-from-home.
My rustic-chic, log cabin with its own fireplace, full kitchen, and French doors was breathtaking, especially in the mornings with mist lifting off the water and smoke rising from other chimneys. A maze of hiking paths from the cabins and resort rooms will lead you to multiple award-winning restaurants; swimming pools; two full-service marinas for boating, fishing, and water sports; horseback riding; five golf courses; a renowned spa & fitness center; five chapels and a conference center.
For inclement weather days, (just over the hill and through the woods) Fun Mountain comes complete with kids’ club, arcade, bowling, laser tag, go-carts, multi-story rope course and zip line. As crazy as the lists may sound, everything on property is built with a natural aesthetic to tastefully blend with Morris’ tribute to the family fun of the Ozarks.
That same vision extends to the Top of the Rock which is the ultimate birds-eye-view of this mountain bluff where you’ll find the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail which you can hike or tour with a golf cart to see waterfalls and streams (some natural and others creatively built to enhance the experience); the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum; a civil war era cabin and chapel; three more restaurants each with its own spectacular views of the lake, golf course and excavation of the Cathedral of Nature (a network of ancient caves).
Separate excursions which I explored and are also part of Morris’ tribute and legacy included the state-of-the-art Sportsman Lodge and Shooting Academy; the 10,000 acre Dogwood Canyon Nature Park for hikers, bikers and even Segway tours; and the massive “Grandaddy of all outdoor stores,” Bass Pro Shop National Headquarters and Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield. The newly constructed Camp Long Creek wasn’t open on my visit, but it’s open now and features 40 luxury glamping tents, cabins and huts with amenity access, down-filled linens and daily housekeeping. Now, that’s my kind of camping!
Watching the sunset sweep over the mountains and lake, with a wine glass in hand and bagpipes playing from Top of the Rock’s Osage restaurant, I was overcome by the history and awe-inspiring beauty of everything Morris had built so that others, like me and the families around me, could enjoy it all at our own pace. Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock and everything affiliated with Morris’ Missouri legacy is truly an incredible playground and retreat for all ages as you connect with family, nature and the history of all that came before us.
FALL & WINTER HAPPENINGS
Big Cedar Lodge
Cedar Fest: Saturdays in October
Enjoy hayrides to the pumpkin patch and activities like pumpkin decorating, a mechanical bull, lawn games, an inflatable corn maze and more. Complimentary s’mores over a bonfire and a Great Pumpkin Hunt using black lights after the sun goes down.
Big Cedar Ice Skating Rink: November- January
Illuminated by Christmas lights and a festive fir tree, the ice-skating rink overlooks Table Rock Lake.
Big Cedar Sleigh-Bell Scurry: December
A holiday-themed scavenger hunt which concludes with hot chocolate and s’mores.
Meet Santa, Mrs. Claus & the Elves: December
Meet Santa during festive morning breakfasts, enjoy afternoon story time with Mrs. Claus, and say goodnight with Santa’s Elves, complete with hot chocolate and holiday cookies!
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park
Autumn Watercolor Walks: Weekends in October
Collect leaf rubbings on a nature walk to create a colorful watercolor paint masterpiece
Owl Prowls: Weekends in October
Live Owl encounter, s’mores around a bonfire and a guided twilight hike to call and listen for owls.