Free Things to Do in Branson
Branson – the live music show capital of the world has much more than just shows to offer. We have a vacation condo lakeside on Table Rock Lake in the area and have explored and want to share with you some of the less expensive entertainment options available.
Of course, if you want to spend money, the area has a lot more to offer, including the shows, Silver Dollar City, fine dining, many golf options, water-parks, zip lines, train and helicopter rides, horseback riding, yachting, para sailing, scuba diving and more.
If you live in the Midwest, you are probably within a few hours drive of this Ozark mountain town, perfect for a family weekend getaway.
Here are a few of the activities we found enjoyable and free or inexpensive.
Shepard of the Hills Fish Hatchery.
Free. The Missouri Department of Conservation built and maintains the hatchery, located just under the Table Rock Lake dam. It is the largest in Missouri.
Take the kids and some quarters and spend an hour or more wandering through the outdoor fish tanks. The tanks hold either rainbow or brown trout of varying sizes. It is a great thrill for the kids to watch the trout attack the food! We just spent several hours and about $2.00 in fish food, which dispenses from quarter machines. Bring a baggie or a cup or you will end up with smelly hands from holding the food. The grown and ready to release fish are favored by trout fishermen and women for practice catch and release at the river close to the hatchery. Bring a picnic lunch, let the kids run, then watch the fishers.
There is also an indoor educational facility with tanks, displays of area animals and a movie.
Keeter Center – College of the Ozarks.
Free to visit – pay if you eat or stay there.
The Keeter Center houses a fine restaurant, a rustically elegant lodge, as well as shops and a museum of the College. The décor inside the lobby is especially pretty at Christmas time. It is located just south of Branson, at the intersection of Hwy 65 and Hwy 165.
You can get dinner and a show (students from the college) in Dobyns Dining Room Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Students at the College of the Ozarks work for their tuition – the college is also known as Hard Work U. Part of that work is producing foodstuffs and crafts to sell in the Keeter Center. The student made fruitcake is my very favorite holiday food.
Dewey Short Visitor’s Center.
Free – unless you take the dam tour.
My son and I dropped in here the last part of April with my grandkids. This US Army Corp of Engineers facility has three stories of exhibits and interactive displays, an out door viewing platform at the top – with superb views of the dam, a gift shop, a movie presentation and (for $14.50) a tour of the dam – including the inside.
Tablerock Lakeshore Trails.
Free. In spring, my grand kids and I walked part of the Lakeshore trail – which follows the shoreline of the lake. It was asphalt all the way, fairly level, around 3 feet wide and had benches and bathrooms available at several places. From the State Park Marina, you walk towards Highway 165 to the trail head. The trail goes along the lake all the way past the Show Boat Branson Belle to the Dewey Short Visitor’s center. The kids ran down to the lake several times to do a bit of rock throwing! There are campgrounds on the other side in several spots with bathrooms. There is a nice picnic area between the Marina and the Showboat Branson Belle, just about a mile from the Marina end.
On the other side of Hwy 165 there is a trail system that is a bit more advanced, the White Valley trail system. It is around 10 miles long and is a natural surface, rugged, single-track trail.
Lakeside Wilderness trail runs along Lake Taneycomo and extends along the lake onto the Branson Landing development area. There is a picnic area, docks with benches and a paved trail.
Even more trails.
The official tourism site for Branson has more trails for you to discover.
State Park Marina Exploration.
The State Park Marina, off Hwy 165 south of Branson, has public and private boat dock areas, picnic areas, a gift shop, scuba and yacht excursions and boat rentals of all sorts.
Free to walk around on the lot, nearby camping area, public docks and gift shop, it is a fun excursion for the little ones. There is a snow cone shop in an old silver camper too!
The water in Tablerock Lake is among the clearest you will find. Just off shore on the docks at the Marina, you can look down through 30 – 40 feet of clear water to see the fish swimming and the bottom of the lake.
Fees charged: The Spirit of America Yacht is a huge sailing ship that offers care free excursions. We took the family out for the hour and a half excursion. The owner did the sailing for us!
Low fee: For $4.00 a carful, you can spend the day enjoying swimming in the lake at the beach. Years ago, when my kids were little, we went and the beach was sandy. We had a great time. Two years ago, my son and I took the grandkids. It was the year after the flooding and the beach was fine gravel. We had to clean up some goose poop, but it was still a great time.
There are BBQ pits and covered picnic benches.
Our condo is directly across the cove from the State Park Campgrounds. It looks like great fun. There are paved parking slots, BBQ grills, fire pits, bathrooms with running water, sinks and showers. We see the campers early in the morning lining the lakeshore to fish and throughout the afternoon, swimming and floating of rafts.
Low fee: For around $25 you get a site with electric, sewer and water.
Tour of Chateau on the Lake.
Free unless you stay, eat or buy at the shops. This five star resort is open for your self guided free tour. Come at Christmas for a special treat. I went last year and it was decorated with multiple trees, statues, many gingerbread houses, lights and more. It was one of the prettiest holiday setups I saw in Branson.
The lobby features a 10 story atrium with a huge artificial deciduous tree, a stream (complete with goldfish) running through the bottom two levels, and love birds in huge cages. There are shops, a sweet shop, a spa, meeting rooms, an outdoor wedding area complete with white gazebo high on the hill overlooking the entire valley and benches shaped like doves. The back deck overlooks the lake, with a telescope (free to use) for a deeper look. The hotel features an indoor and outdoor pool, three tennis courts, a gym and more. There are multiple bars and restaurants.
The kids even enjoyed walking through it!
Free to look! Branson is not famous as the live music capital of the world, but is also known for it’s many shopping venues. There are craft shops, antique stores, high end modern stores, factory outlet stores as well as artist shops. There is even an old fashioned 5 and dime store.
The Branson Landing is a modern day shopping venue, with a Bass Pro Shop and other high end stores. The landing features a Vegas style water show (free), set to music and lights. The Landing borders Lake Taneycomo in downtown Branson. There are restaurants, bars, candy shops, clothing stores, toy stores and more.
Take a free ride on the little trolley that goes continually fro one end of the landing to the other.
Catch the free trolley to go from the Landing to historic downtown Branson for even more shopping and eating.
Walk free along Lake Taneycomo the length of the landing and on into a nice undeveloped city park.
The Landing is beautiful at Christmas. You can stroll the avenue, seeing the decorations, listening to the carols coming from speakers scattered all along it and seeing Santa and the water show.Historic Downtown.
At the end of the 76 Hwy strip nearest highway 65, you find historic old Branson. There are homestyle cafes featuring fried catfish and homemade pies. There are artist shops, such as the one we like – J. Morgan Craine – a painter who regularly is published in Field and Stream and other popular outdoor magazines.
Dick’s Five and Dime is chock full of old time dime store treasures and is usually packed. Sometimes there is street entertainment on the sidewalk outside as well.
Drive the Strip.
Highway 76 runs along the top of an Ozark ridge. The strip is where it all started. There are music theaters, a wax museum (with a huge gorilla on the outside of the building); hotels, shopping strip malls with Amish made quilts, hand made dulcimers and more. Andy Williams Moon River Theatre, the Presley’s theater, the Legends and more of the live musical shows are along the strip, including Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. A ride along this two way highway (with a center lane for turning) requires a full tank of gas, lots of oil and coolant and a great deal of patience in high season. It once took us an hour just to drive the 2 miles.
Scenic View drives.
We drive into Branson heading south on US Highway 65 – which is a 4 lane interstate type highway. At Hollister, we hop off onto Hwy 165 and follow it to our condo. It winds through hill and dale revealing pretty valleys and Ozark hills. About 2 miles from 65 there is a scenic overlook with parking (conveniently located across from an ice cream shop!). From the overlook you can view all of downtown Branson as well as Table Rock Lake Dam. When water is being released from Table Rock Lake, you can see it cascade down the side of the dam’s several release gates. If you continue on highway 165 you will wind around towards the State Park Marina, the Showboat Branson Belle, the Dewey Short Visitor center, the Table Rock Lake dam and on up to the high hill on which Chateau of the Lake sits.
More scenic drives can be found on the Go Missouri site.
Historic Eureka Springs.
Known as The Little Switzerland of the Ozarks, the entire historic downtown area is on the National Historic register. It has shop after shop of unique crafts and gifts. Park at the top of the hill and either walk down or ride the tram. Warning, it gets crowded on holidays!
This is an easy day trip into Arkansas – around 50 miles each way.
Branson is a nice place for family style fun. It can be expensive, but as you see, doesn’t have to be. If you would like to come, shoot me an email and we can talk about special deals at our condo!
What other activities in the Branson area are fun and don’t cost a lot?