Top of the Rock Branson Missouri
After seven-and-a-half years, Johnny Morris' Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve reveals the majestic beauty of the Ozarks as it has never been seen before. This landmark first for the region will be home to remarkable restaurants, world-class golf, and extraordinary attractions.
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Unique Missouri wilderness resort wows with new feature
RIDGEDALE, Mo. -- Jurassic Park was fiction. Big Cedar Lodge is very real. But suddenly the two are inviting comparisons thanks to some surprising and unique resort offerings.
Big Cedar's latest addition, Top of the Rock, includes automated electric carts that whisk guests down a 2 1/2-mile nature trail, past caves and waterfalls, to a museum depicting long-extinct local denizens of Missouri's Ozarks, like the giant American cave lion and hell pig. The golf clubhouse may well be the only one on earth greeting players with a full-sized woolly mammoth skeleton. And there are similar one-of-a-kind attractions and experiences at every turn, from Segway tours of a 10,000-acre nature preserve to cabins theme-decorated and named for famous guests, from Kevin Costner to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to President George H.W. Bush.
|(Photo: Big Cedar Lodge)|
The resort has long been popular with avid anglers and locals throughout the Upper South, but earlier this month it hosted the network telecast of the Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf presented by Bass Pro Shops, a new PGA Champions Tour (formerly Senior Tour) event. Making history as the first PGA Tour-sanctioned event to include a par-3 course, the tournament was played over both the Top of the Rock par-3 layout designed by Jack Nicklaus and another Big Cedar course, Buffalo Ridge, a full-sized Tom Fazio design named for its free-ranging bison. The 45 holes, plus a 70,000-square-foot grass putting course by Tom Watson and elaborate practice facility by Arnold Palmer, have moved Big Cedar Lodge into the nation's pantheon of top golf resorts. But there is much more than golf.
|(Photo: Big Cedar Lodge)|
Big Cedar is easiest to understand for the millions who have visited a Bass Pro Shops retail store – the flagship location in nearby Springfield, Mo., is the state's most visited tourist attraction, eclipsing the Gateway Arch. Known for "bringing the outdoors inside," each of these 70-plus mega-stores is a fantasy of elaborate aquariums, mounts, and artwork depicting the natural features of the area in which it is located. Most locations boast live feedings, educational classes, restaurants, shooting ranges, and some even have museums and in one case, a bowling alley. The common theme is entertainment in the form of extremely elaborate displays. The same approach was employed at Big Cedar.
Bass Pro Shops founder and owner Johnny Morris is a low-key billionaire who annually makes the Forbes list of richest Americans. Big Cedar Lodge is his Xanadu, a labor of love he has been working on for more than a quarter of a century. Morris roams the property incognito, tweaking details and watching guest reactions to everything from meals to the endless artwork; he personally painted the hand-lettered signs on his new nature trail. When asked about his philosophy for the resort he replies simply that he wants guests to go home and tell their friends, "Hey, you got to see this."
Born and raised in the Ozarks, Morris purchased the historic but defunct Devil's Pool dude ranch on Table Rock Lake's shore, and after mixing restored century-old stone and wood buildings with new facilities, he opened Big Cedar, just 10 miles from tourist epicenter Branson, in 1988. A fishing-centric property with a marina on the pristine and nearly 70-square-mile lake, it spanned 850 acres, but has grown nearly tenfold in recent years.
(Photo: Big Cedar Lodge)
Besides a fleet of rental fishing boats, there is water skiing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and leisure cruises on water, and stables with trail rides, cowboy dinners, wagon and carriage tours on dry land. A brand new luxury spa has fireplaces in every treatment room, while an elaborate fitness center offers a wide range of public classes daily, from yoga to guided hikes around the vast property, which is laced with nature trails. The focus is on active outdoor recreation, but there are also a half dozen varied restaurants and bars, live entertainment and a billiard hall.
While not expensive by luxury hotel standards, lodging spans a wide range of price points, with a mix of 139 hotel-style rooms in three large lodges and 90 individual cabins, many with whirlpool tubs, kitchens and decks with gas grills.
A few miles away sits Dogwood Canyon, a 10,000-acre non-profit nature preserve created by Morris that runs from near Table Rock Lake all the way into Arkansas. The canyon is vehicle free except for electronic tram tours on a 3.2-mile trail running its length, which crosses streams 17 times on hand-built stone bridges while passing six waterfalls. The trail can also be explored on foot, rental bicycles or even Segways.
The big additions this year include the opening of a new Outdoor Academy and Top of the Rock. This 462-acre playground includes a castle-like clubhouse that combines a giant stone building evoking medieval Tuscany with a 200-year-old Amish barn relocated piece by piece from Pennsylvania. This imposing edifice includes two restaurants, the Buffalo Bar with a 13,000-year-old Bison Antiquus skeleton, and the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, a full-blown museum celebrating the history and nature of the region. It has several galleries devoted to Native American art and artifacts, plus large enclosed dioramas showcasing the once local cave lion, hell pig, terror bird, Missouri ground sloth, short-faced cave bear and bear dog. The clubhouse entrance has the Missouri mammoth skeleton, and in the midst of all this intrigue is a typical golf pro shop. Immediately outside are the Nicklaus-, Watson- and Palmer-designed golf facilities, while Buffalo Ridge and a second full-sized course under renovation to reopen next spring sit a few miles away. Resort guests arrive at Top of the Rock via its other major attraction, a 2 1/2- mile electric cart ride on Lost Canyon Nature Trail, through natural rock formations and past a large cave.
The 900-acre Outdoor Academy opens this fall, focused on shooting sports with upland bird hunting, sporting clays and skeet, firearm safety classes and a BB gun range. It has its own clubhouse featuring bowling alley, billiards, and bar with card tables and big-screen TV.
With such an extensive and varied array of facilities, Johnny Morris has created a resort that pays homage to his beloved Ozarks while appealing to a broad audience of anglers, golfers, hunters, outdoor lovers or anyone seeking rustic peace and quiet, with an equally varied range of accommodations and dining. The result is unlike anything else in the nation.
If you go
Big Cedar Lodge (800-225-6343; big-cedar.com) is less than an hour from the Springfield, Mo., airport and just 20 minutes from the smaller Branson airport, served by Southwest and Frontier. Lodging is all in the original part of the resort, and rates for standard rooms begin at less than $100 on off-peak dates, while private cabins run from about $240 to $440 in high season. The new Top of the Rock section of the resort has golf and a museum (big-cedar.com/Page/Top-of-the-Rock.aspx). Nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a separate non-profit and not part of the resort, is a popular amenity with Big Cedar guests (dogwoodcanyon.org).