When we Natural State folk think of taking a trip to our closest northern neighbor, a particular tourist destination with shows and shops and Silver Dollar City might immediately spring to mind. Or perhaps another city, one filled with barbecue, jazz and the home of the now Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs.
But there’s another Missouri town that should not be overlooked. Like the late Perry Como crooned in his expanded version of the classic jukebox joint, “Route 66”: “… Springfield, Missouri, too.”
The Baker clan recently set off on this road-less-traveled to Springfield, and we made sure to take advantage of a can’t-miss stop along the way, just about an hour outside of town: Dogwood Canyon Nature Park.
Dogwood is a 10,000-acre paradise that straddles the Missouri/Arkansas border, making it actually closer for Arkansas residents than even Branson. The land is owned by Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO, Johnny Morris, and the park is managed by the Dogwood Canyon Foundation. And because of its geographic location that spans the border, its operation is a joint partnership between the two states.
Among the spectrum of outdoor activities available at Dogwood are hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, wildlife tram tours and segway tours.
The wildlife tram tours are what the park operators refer to as, “a ride on the wild side.” The open-air trams take travelers on a 2-hour, narrated tour through the beauty of what makes the park so special. The journey winds along the canyon floor, cruising past bluffs and waterfalls. Scheduled pit stops along the way include the 1800s style Hope Wedding Chapel, feeding the fish at Thunder Falls Crossing and the Glory Hole, a beautiful pool of blue-green water where some of the largest trout imaginable live. A short trek across the Arkansas border offers encounters with bison, elk, whitetail deer and Texas longhorn.
The segway tour is a little shorter, spanning 90 minutes. The excursion is a guided tour that teaches the history of the park while also providing the opportunity to experience the beauties of it. This option also pit stops at the Glory Hole to see and feed the monstrous trout which were the biggest I had ever seen. Throughout the entire visit to Dogwood, the ride on these fancy motorized scooters was my family’s favorite.
A museum and the Mill and Canyon Grill Restaurant anchor the home base of the park where it overlooks a waterfall. It was at the restaurant that I tried a bison burger for the first time, and the verdict: It was delicious! There are also spectacular treehouses on the property, all of which were built by Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters.
After visiting Dogwood, just a short drive eastward on the meandering journey up to Springfield is another must-visit destination: Top of the Rock.
When we approached Top of the Rock from Highway 65, an enormous gate framed the entrance to the properties with one side leading to Top of the Rock, and the other to Big Cedar Lodge.
Top of the Rock was an unfamiliar destination but now it’s one of my favorites. It is a heritage reserve-meets-amusement center and is another product of Morris. Its elevation presents visitors with spectacular views of the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake, in addition to the host of available attractions such as a golf course, multiple restaurants and bars, room and board at Big Cedar Lodge, nature trails, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum. The resort also offers a plethora of shopping options.
The Ancient Ozarks Museum was one of our favorite parts of this visit. It is the largest native history artifact museum in the entire world. There are galleries with American Civil War collections, like Abraham Lincoln’s first desk, and so much more. It is definitely not something you’re going to experience anywhere else.
After visiting Top of the Rock and Big Cedar Lodge, we had to make one final stop at Lambert’s Cafe on the home stretch to Springfield. My kids love any opportunity to get some rolls thrown at them, and no one does it like Lambert’s.
Once wze arrived in Springfield, we immediately crashed in the comfortable beds at the DoubleTree by Hilton — partly because we were dead tired from the day’s activities, but also because we were so excited about what was to come the next day: Wonders of Wildlife.
The Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium is a nonprofit educational and conservation-themed attraction in Springfield, located next door to Bass Pro Shops’ flagship store.
You literally see the wonders of wildlife. There are rooms that have the world records of different types of animals, from deer to goats to narwhals. And then, of course, there are historical artifacts as well because Morris loves natural history. There’s just so much stuff to see.
And that’s just the land portion of the exhibits. There is also an aquarium side that features both fresh and saltwater displays, including everything from alligators to penguins to sharks and stingrays. It’s basically a journey around the world, without having to leave Springfield.
Since the properties are all Morris commodities, you can purchase a three-attraction combo ticket to Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum and the Wonders of Wildlife for just $60 (for adults).
After experiencing all that this leg of our journey had to offer, a short drive northwest of the city brought us to Fantastic Caverns, a show cave located in Springfield. Fantastic Caverns is the only cave in North America to offer a completely ride-through tour, a 55-minute adventure in a Jeep-tram. As our friends know, we Bakers are a Jeep-loving family, so we could not get enough of that excursion. Nor could we car-aholics resist the next item on the checklist: the Route 66 Car Museum which features plenty of old and historic cars — and is actually located on the historic Route 66. Como was right when he added Springfield, Mo., to the song.
But a good vacation is nothing without some good eats to accompany the sights. Fortunately, on the way into town, we saw many billboards advertising Black Sheep as Springfield’s best burger. We had to see for ourselves. After downing a few burgers and shakes, we feel it certainly lives up to the clout, and then some. We jokingly said it got the ‘Hunter Baker Stamp of Approval’ because my son is the self-professed hamburger king.
With a belly full of burgers and courage, the time was right for one final stop on this Springfield outing. The latter is a requirement because this one is not for the faint of heart. On Pythian Street sits the duly named Pythian Castle, a certified haunted castle that has been featured on television shows and referenced in books. Ghost tours are available — if you dare.
We dared — and definitely saw some shadows of ghosts. I would even swear that a ghost communicated with me through one of the devices we used on the tour. But, if the scares aren’t your flavor, the Pythian Castle also offers history tours, escape rooms, murder mysteries and holiday events.
As much as you should, you don’t have to take the Bakers’ word for it. Book a trip to Springfield for yourself. Create your own cherished memories. And don’t forget to tell us, and your friends, all about it.