The Ozark and Ouachita mountains are unknown to most people outside the south-central U.S. Yet these mountain ranges covering portions of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma were once part of the Appalachian chain, and were as high as the Rockies. Then geological fate intervened. Tectonic activity separated the chain from the Appalachians and over millions of years erosion wore the once-mighty peaks down to rolling hills. Today, the U.S. Geological Survey classifies this region as the Ouachita-Ozark Interior Highlands. If you’re looking for the thrills of 14,000-foot peaks, best look elsewhere. But the Ozarks and Ouachitas feature plenty of interesting attractions, from scenic drives and pristine rivers to the town that bills itself the “Entertainment Capital of the World.”
10. Buffalo National River
Located in Northern Arkansas, the Buffalo N.R. is regarded as one of the best canoeing rivers in the U.S. There are several concessionaires in the area renting out canoeing and outdoor equipment.
9. Talimena Scenic Drive
This scenic byway climbs, dips and twists through a 54-mile route in the Ouachitas along the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. The Ouachitas (wash-i-taws) are the rare mountain range in the U.S. that runs east-west, rather than north-south. For an even better look at these mountains, get off the road, which follows Arkansas Highway 88 and Oklahoma Highway 1, and take a hike along the Ouachita National Recreation Trail.
8. Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The confluence of Central and Spring streets in Eureka Springs is representative of the other intersections in town — none of the major streets meet at 90-degree angles. This resort town in Northwestern Arkansas is an interesting blend of historic Victorian buildings and tourist kitsch. The hilly streets laid out in the rolling Ozark landscape truly give this town a unique feel.
7. Ozark Scenic National Riverway
Students participate in a ranger-led tour of Round Spring Caverns in Southern Missouri. Created in 1964, Ozark National Scenic Riverways became the first national park unit to protect a river system, the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. It’s a popular destination for boaters, hikers and fishermen.
6. Arkansas Highway 7
A hang glider soars off a bluff in the Ozarks just off Highway 7 near Jasper. Hwy. 7 is a sublimely beautiful drive in Western Arkansas featuring plenty of views such as the one above.
5. Broken Bow Lake
This scenic lake in the Ouachitas of Southeastern Oklahoma almost became part of a new national park proposed in the 1920s. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed the bill.
4. Branson, Missouri
Branson’s neon signs light up the night sky along the town’s Highway 76 “Strip.” Imagine a mini-Las Vegas — albeit much more family friendly — with a county music theme, sprawling in the middle of the Ozark Mountains. The city bills itself as the “Live Entertainment Capital of the World,” and while Vegas and other cities might dispute that title, Branson has enough star power and shows to make a strong argument. Beyond the music venues you’ll also find everything from theme attractions (Ripley’s, etc.) to golf, boutiques and art galleries. Tour town and Table Rock Lake on a “Duck Tour.” Trying to describe this town in words or even photos is virtually impossible.
3. Hot Springs National Park
The Lamar Bathhouse is one of several historic bathhouses in Hot Springs, Ark. The eponymous springs that gave the spa town and park its name were first protected in the 1830s, the first area in the U.S. to be preserved for its natural features. Hot Springs National Park is nothing like most visitors would expect. There are no spectacular Yellowstone-like springs or geysers amid a mountainous setting. Instead, the park protects a historic district showcasing those famous structures along Bathhouse Row where noted figures such as Babe Ruth and Al Capone once relaxed.
2. Mount Nebo State Park
The aptly named Sunset Point draws a crowd of onlookers wanting to catch the last rays of the sun. Originally developed as a resort, this park in central Arkansas offers numerous camping options, including cabins. Oh, there is a Sunrise Point there, too.
1. Showboat Branson Belle
Channel your inner Mark Twain on this 1880s-replica paddle-wheeler that cruises Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo. We’ve never been on this excursion, but TripAdvisor.com gives it a 4.5 out of 5 stars (a very good score), with high praise for the food, which always seems to be an afterthought on cruise tours of this nature.