Best 12-Day Ozarks Road Trip

The hills of the Ozarks roll up from the beds of sparkling rivers and peaks as the grand oak and hickory trees seem to sway on the ledge of limestone bluffs. The region winds its way through the southern portion of Missouri and into northern Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, just barely touching the edge of southeastern Kansas.

The air is as pure as the hearts of the people in the region, where mom-and-pop shops thrive alongside boutique hotels, chef-driven restaurants, and world-renowned art museums. A road trip through the region offers the chance to uncover the charming folklore, natural beauty, and undiscovered gems of the Ozark Mountains. 

DAY 1: LITTLE ROCK, AR 

Start your journey in Little Rock, Arkansas, a city of tales and trails. The tales begin with the Little Rock Central High School on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, and the trails begin with the Big Dam Bridge that connects 14 miles of riverside trails throughout the city. The trail connects Little Rock’s bustling River Market District to countless breweries and restaurants and even provides pedestrian-cyclist access to the Clin- ton Presidential Center. 

Grab a bite at The Fold: Botanas & Bar, a repurposed gas station with modern Ark-Mex at its finest. Spend the night at the Empress of Little Rock, listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its pure representation of Victorian architecture. 

DAY 2: BUFFALO RIVER, AR 

Drive two hours north to for some epic canoeing on the Buffalo River. The country’s first designated “National River,” Buffalo runs for 135 miles through the spectacular Ozark Mountain region. 

It passes some of the region’s most majestic waterfalls and sheer bluffs before it flows into the White River near Buffalo City. A canoe trip down the river with Buffalo Outdoor Center, perhaps within sight of a tremendous herd of elk, is one of the best ways to experience the Ozark Mountains. 

DAY 3: EUREKA SPRINGS, AR 

Hit the road early and drive two hours to Eureka Springs. More than 60 natural springs bubble and spring from this quirky Victorian town, where a series of winding staircases guides visitors up and down the steep terrain to boutique shops, family-owned restaurants (chain stores are banned), and miles of hiking trails. 

An active artist enclave colors the town with an artsy vibe, but it’s the underground catacombs and sinister story behind the town’s largest hotel that keeps intrigued alive. Stay at the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, known as “the Grand Ol’ Lady of the Ozarks” and grab coffee and cinnamon rolls from the Eureka Springs Coffee House in the morning. 

DAY 4: BRANSON, MO 

In the morning, drive about an hour and a half to Branson, Missouri, a fun-filled destination that’s like a family-friendly Las Vegas. AR 23, one of the state’s most scenic drives, connects with the fastest way to get to Branson via 86 East and 65 North. 

Upon arrival, you’ll notice Branson has an authentic American small-town charm like few other towns can even imagine. Pies are sweeter in Branson, shopping is friendlier, and the entertainment is as clean as the streets of its historic downtown. 

Branson Landing is where the nightlife action happens in town, but for an authentic Branson meal, head to the Farmhouse Restaurant to fill up on chicken-fried steak, fried okra, and the famous blackberry cobbler. Stay at the lakefront condos at Still Waters Resort overlooking Branson’s Table Rock Lake. 

DAYS 5 AND 6: ST. LOUIS, MO 

Hit the road for a six-hour drive to St. Louis, breaking up the day with a stop in Thayer, Missouri. This small town is just 10 miles from Grand Gulf State Park, which is more commonly known as the “Little Grand Canyon.” On your first night in St. Louis, check into the charming Fleur-de-Lys Mansion, Luxury Inn at the Park, and try the award-winning St. Louis barbecue at the Shaved Duck. 

On your second morning, head to the only National Blues Museum in the country and ride to the top of the city’s famous Gateway Arch via tram. St. Louis is also naturally suited for adventures, with its Citygarden, caverns, and nature reserves. 

DAYS 7 AND 8: LAKE OF THE OZARKS, MO 

Say goodbye to the city and drive three hours to Osage Beach, one of the quaint towns surrounding Lake of the Ozarks, where everything revolves around the water. Speedboats, pontoons, fishing boats, and Jet Skis can all be rented at an hourly rate, and even the local spas offer floating therapies. Stay at the Inn at Harbour Ridge, located just outside the city limits of Osage Beach on a lakefront property nearby a community dock and swimming platform. 

On your second day, hit the water again or take a break from the summertime heat and join a guided tour of the 60ºF Bridal Cave at Camdenton, Missouri, about 20 minutes away. It features mineral deposits shaped like giant columns and massive draperies. Bridal Cave has more onyx formations than any other cavern. 

DAY 9: BAXTER SPRINGS, KS 

Head two hours and 40 minutes to the historic town of Baxter Springs, Kansas. It’s just a few miles from the OK-KS-MO Tri-State Marker (stand in three states at one time!), where it sits along Historic Route 66 with preserved gas stations and vintage service buildings. The town’s Native American and Route 66 history are preserved within the Baxter Springs Heritage Center & Museum. Stay the night in Rose Cottage and eat at Rita’s Roost Bistro & Sweet Shop for diner-style hot dogs and burgers. 

DAY 10: TENKILLER STATE PARK, AR 

Drive Historic Route 66 as you pass over the Kansas border into Oklahoma toward the Blue Whale of Catoosa (one of the kitschier roadside attractions along this historic route). From there you’ll begin to weave your way back and forth over the Arkansas River before arriving in Tenkiller State Park. There are more than 130 miles of shoreline surrounding Lake Tenkiller. 

Along with water sports and fishing, the clear waters of the lake provide ideal conditions for scuba diving to the lake’s sunken airplane fuselage, school bus, helicopter, and two boats. Boats and Jet Skis can pull right up to the floating deck at Clearwater Café at Pine Cove Marina on Tenkiller Lake, where steaks are cooked to order and onion rings come stacked a foot high. RV and tent campgrounds line the park grounds, but it’s the state park’s 38 cabins that offer the best views and plots along the lake.

DAY 11: HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, AR 

Today your drive is about three hours. Follow Interstate 40 through Oklahoma, and, just before crossing the Arkansas River, veer onto U.S. 71 South into Fort Smith, Arkansas, where you’ll soon be driving out of the Ozarks and into the Ouachita National Forest. Arrive at Hot Springs, home to some of the most prized thermal waters in the country (143ºF and packed full of minerals). 

Run the bases around one of the first MLB spring training fields in the country or soak in the gangster history at Bathhouse Row—once a favorite vacation spot for legendary criminals Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel. 

The Superior Bathhouse Brewery serves upscale pub food and craft beers brewed from the thermal waters of the national park inside a renovated bathhouse. Former speakeasy and mobster hangout, the Ohio Club, is still a hot spot for nightlife in Hot Springs. Stay at the chic Hotel Hale, which operates inside a renovated bathhouse along Bathhouse Row. 

DAY 12: LITTLE ROCK, AR 

Head back to Little Rock to end your trip. During your 1½-hour drive, keep an eye out for roadside stands selling quartz crystals as you drive along Arkansas’s scenic Highway 7 toward Owensville, then cross through the last stretches of the Ouachita National Forest before taking the scenic route into Little Rock on Kanis Road. Grab brunch at At the Corner, a Modern Diner or all-you-can-eat pancakes over at Mugs Café.

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