The main attractions of Branson seem to fall within the spheres of “show” or “ride.” What’s there for those who would like a break from all the traffic and lights? If only there was someplace boasting lush forests, serene picnic areas, diverse trails, and stunning vistas with a rich history to boot.
Branson’s Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area
Well, fortunately there is! Tucked away between Hurts Donuts and the Branson Auto and Farm Museum lies a real breath of fresh air, Branson’s Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area.
A nature escape with 140 acres of wooded and rugged hill country as well as 5.3 miles of trails. This unique park features nine woodland trails that wind through forest, along bluffs and across glades, 338 stone steps laid by hand that weave down toward Lake Taneycomo, almost 2,000 feet of hand-built stone wells, and several caves leading to a grand waterfall.
No matter if you decide to take your dog, your family, or your best friends to this spot, the first thing you’re all going to see is the large entrance feature with a large wooden log archway over an ornamental iron gate with a decorative native stone veneer.
Immediately to the left, you’ll notice the freshly installed nature playground and pavilion. After walking for five to ten minutes, you’ll arrive at the central hub of the park, the original home site of the Owens family.
History of the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area
Peppered behind the breathtaking view of Lake Taneycomo and the mossy green rolling hills are quaint plaques sharing various stories about the Winchester, the Gayler, and Owen families, who have all lived within the wilderness area at one point or another throughout history. From the stories of Dr. Lyle Owen’s adamant land preservation to how the Old Soldier’s Cave got its name, they’re a fascinating read and put every acre you’re about walk into perspective.
Now for the meat and potatoes of this place. The actual trails. Are they mapped out, named, and do they have benches and picnic tables to take breaks at? The answers are “Yes, Yes, and Yes!” In fact it’s quite a clever system.
Nine Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area Trails
Each of the nine trails has been assigned a color on the maps and an arrow of the same color on each of the directional posts strewn throughout the park. The Upland and Owen drive trails highlighted in yellow or dotted green are the “easy” trails (3/10 – 2/5 mile long). The moderately easy trails are the Stone Wall and Ridgetop trails, which are highlighted in solid red and green (2/5 – 1 3/10 miles), while the typical moderate Bent Tree Loop and Bluff trails are highlighted in purple and dotted yellow (1/5 – 1/2 mile).
South Loop and Rock Step Trails
But if none of these trails seem your speed, there are two paths classified as difficult. The South Loop Trail and the Rock Steps. Even though both paths are only a 1/2 mile or 338 steps long, they provide drastically different experiences from anywhere in the entire area. I like to split these two paths in terms of what they provide, a scenic work out and a perilous adventure.
The Rock Steps are easily accessed from the Owens home site and the trip down begins as a calm and relaxing change of pace from the dirt paths and suddenly shifts into a high-intensity work out provided by nowhere else in the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area or any other trail around Branson. There is such a giant sense of triumph achieved from completing this gauntlet of steps. With each stone step laid by hand, the journey back to civilization is a daunting and imbalanced one that’s sure to make even Rocky Balboa proud.
The South Loop Trail is my personal favorite due to how it almost feels as if the trail is rewarding you for completing it. It feels like a grand adventure having to tiptoe along narrow ledges, crawl under massive rock formations, and interpret your own stepping stones over streams.
The scenery feels more surreal as you progress through it. The frail, willowy trees become thick and lush, and the rock formations transform into boulders impossibly balancing on pebbles. It really is something special to experience but doesn’t hold a candle to the breathtaking waterfall at the end of the trail. Easily towering fifteen feet at the very least, this natural waterfall makes the hour or two of exploring worth every second.
Plenty of Benches Throughout
Now, what is there for the less adventurous? For those who only wish to walk their dogs and eat their lunches in front of some beautiful scenery? The entire wilderness area is covered in sturdy benches and tables. No matter how deep you decide to delve, you’re always going to feel rewarded after hiking for miles and suddenly being given a place to relax, eat, and take a breather.
No matter if you’re a local or just stopping in for the shows and the rides, The Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area is sure to a be a relaxing and rewarding change of pace from all the hustle and bustle of the strip it sets behind. A place to explore, to unwind, to learn, and experience. This little slice of paradise is a real breath of fresh air.