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Branson’s great outdoors

Marvel Cave

Branson celebrates its centennial this year, and with 100 years of history have come 100 different ways to enjoy this beloved tourism destination.

The past century has brought a world of change to Branson, which started as a sleepy Ozark Mountain railroad town and has grown to become a powerhouse in the group travel industry. Today, more than 100 shows take to stages across Branson every day, giving visitors a choice of classic country music, modern hit revues, clean comedy, magic and other entertainment.

Live entertainment is only part of Branson’s appeal, however. The area first attracted visitors for its unspoiled lakes and Ozark scenery, and today’s groups will find several ways to savor the natural beauty around town. There are also opportunities to visit museums, theme parks and other attractions that help diversify the Branson experience.

When your group makes its next trip to Branson, consider indulging in some of these great experiences during the day before venturing out for your evening shows.

A milestone museum

As part of their celebration of the town’s 100th anniversary, Branson locals opened the Branson Centennial Museum on April 1. Located in a small building in Branson’s historic downtown district, the museum aims to educate visitors about the roots of the city with historic artifacts, photographs and oral histories.

“Almost everything we have has been donated by Branson’s founding families,” said Mary Ann Sharp, the museum’s assistant manager. “We have things that I think are pretty unusual. And a lot of people told us stories about their mothers’ and fathers’ memories of Branson.”

Because the museum building has limited space, the staff is showcasing Branson’s 100-year history in a series of exhibits that will rotate every six weeks or so. The opening exhibit featured maps and photography that showed Branson as it looked when the town was incorporated in 1912. Objects on display included antique farming implements, as well as memorabilia from the White River Railroad, which was instrumental in the establishment of commerce in the area.

Upcoming exhibits for this year include looks at school life in historic Branson, the damming of the White River to form Lake Taneycomo, the Branson Fire and the roots of tourism.

Trains, tracks and trestles
It didn’t take long for vacation and tourism traffic to eclipse the railroad as Branson’s chief economic engines. But the railroad never went away, and today, the Branson Scenic Railway offers groups a train excursion that blends midcentury charm with the natural beauty of the Ozark wilderness.

Dubbed the Ozark Zephyr, this tourist train departs from a historic station not far from the Centennial Museum. Passengers begin the ride with a view of Branson Landing, a modern retail and dining complex on the banks of Lake Taneycomo, and continue on a two-hour excursion into the woods.

Upon boarding the train, riders will find themselves surrounded by a mid-20th-century environment. The train features a collection of classic cars, some that have been in service for decades, and a couple of special dome cars that offer great viewing opportunities.

As the train chugs its way through thick forest and along the hilltops, visitors enjoy the same landscape that rail travelers saw as they rode through this area 100 years ago. Along the way, the train passes over a number of high trestles that give gorgeous views of the valleys and canyons below and through tunnels carved out of the local limestone hills.

A hidden canyon
If the nature-lovers in your group enjoy a train ride through the woods, they’ll be giddy over a visit to Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, an attraction outside Branson that offers several ways to explore some of the most beautiful scenery in the area.

It’s a bit of a drive to get to Dogwood Canyon, which sits on the border of Missouri and Arkansas. Groups that make it are in for a treat, though. This 10,000-acre nature preserve highlights some of the most beautiful geological features of the Ozarks: deep limestone canyons, caves, ponds, waterfalls and other impressive formations.

Paved sidewalks and rougher trails wind throughout the park, giving visitors a variety of ways to explore. Groups can enter the welcome center together and then split up to do different activities, such as walking, hiking, bicycle tours, all-terrain-vehicle rides and Segway tours.

More intrepid visitors can choose to explore the park on horseback. Guided horseback tours take riders to the topside of the park, where they follow trails that cut through bison and elk pastures atop the Ozark hills overlooking Dogwood Canyon.

Bigger groups can have their own experiences on tram rides through the park, which last two hours and include visits to the bison and elk pastures. During the summer months, groups can have a chuck wagon dinner in the fields during the tram tour of the park.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.