Off the beaten path in Branson, Mo. |

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Off the beaten path in Branson, Mo.

Special to the Daily

Editor’s note: This is the

second in a two-part series on travel to Branson, Mo.

Long before tour buses exited all roads towards Branson, Mo., outdoor enthusiasts came to the area to launch their motorboats on quiet lakes and cast their fly-lines into pristine streams. They still do.

Those who think of Branson only as the home of music shows would do well to tear themselves from their armchair seats and go in search of the superb outdoor possibilities nearby. Within a half hour’s drive of the town’s neon-lit “strip,” nature lovers may find a production of an entirely different kind, one with a cast of thousands, lighting of the most exquisite quality and a score that’s truly the equivalent of the original “surround sound.”

My own first encounter with the beauty of the Ozarks takes place in serene Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. There, I bike a dozen miles along a paved path that follows a gently flowing creek through a valley carved between limestone cliffs. Other options in the park include horseback riding, wilderness hiking and dropping a fishing line in one of the park’s designated creeks.

Although I pass up an early morning fishing expedition with friends, I feel their excitement when they give me their end-of-the-day report and my friend Rob whips out a photo of an 18-inch trout he’s caught and returned to the lake. Thanks to the Missouri Department of Conservation, Lake Taneycomo is annually stocked with more than 750,00 rainbow and brown trout. Fishing opportunities at the lake are reported to be “world class.”

With a shoreline of some 800 miles, Table Rock Lake provides the area’s prime recreational opportunities, with plenty of elbow room for campers, pic-nickers, swimmers and those who simply want to appreciate the beauty of a lake “as big and blue as the Ozarks sky on a summer afternoon.”

At the Branson Zipline and Canopy Tours facility at nearby Wolfe Creek Preserve, I wait with five other weak-kneed participants for our two-hour eco-adventure to begin. Canopy tours consist of traversing multiple sky bridges and zip-lining through hundreds of acres of thick Ozark woods from platform to platform, all under the supervision of certified guides. Mine teases me about my “death grip” on the hand-hold on my first leap into thin air. But by my second go-round, I’m clowning for the photographer, and feeling no fear. I do draw the line at the grande finale option of a 100-foot vertical free-fall from a tower taller than that. As a grandmother many times over, I must draw the line somewhere!

But wouldn’t the grandkids love everything about Silver Dollar City?

What started out simply as a geological wonder – Marvel Cave – is now the keystone feature of this popular year-round theme park. The property spans some 50 acres and features a 1880s Ozark Mountain village staffed by authentically-garbed artisans demonstrating their crafts, hair-raising thrill rides, dozens of live entertainment shows, family-style “good eats,” and numerous themed festivals throughout the year.

My vote for best-of-the-lot goes to Marvel Cave itself, a natural wonder discovered in the 1500s by Osage Indians. A tour of the cave, with its still-growing limestone formations is included in the park’s entrance fee. But be forewarned: The climb to the bottom of the 500-foot-deep cave includes that many stairs. Ah, but the sights below – the hollowed out Cathedral Room, large enough to house the Statue of Liberty, and a waterfall at the bottom – are worth every step.

In an effort to relive my youth, I try two of the park’s wildest rides. The Barn Swing launches me into a 45-mph ride that soars seven stories high in the sky. The Powder keg Roller Coaster propels me from 0 to 53 mph in just 2.8 seconds. Thankfully there’s a heavily padded roll bar behind my neck! But only to impress my grandkids would I repeat such folly a second time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of Branson’s biggest attractions – literally – the TITANIC, billed as the “World’s Largest Museum Attraction.” Housed in a building nearly the size and shape of the luxury liner’s prow, the collection inside includes more than 400 artifacts and replications of the ship’s interiors, including staterooms of the wealthy passengers, as well as those not so fortunate in steerage below. There’s also an ornately designed and sumptuously decorated “grand staircase.” Poignant stories of passengers and crew come to life in the letters and personal items taken off the ship by survivors or found in its wreckage. Allow two to three hours to wander through a thought provoking exhibit that pays tribute to one of history’s saddest events.

Carolyn Schwartz is a travel journalist who attempts to explore destinations near and far, bringing fresh perspectives and an open mind.