Explore the Ozarks with Big Cedar Lodge
A guide to the crown jewel of the Ozarks
Nature can be so loud. This is what I thought to myself as I drove down Route 86, one hand catching the breeze out my open window. Oak, pine, dogwood and maple trees loomed tall above the vehicle, and between the foliage, we could catch glimpses of jagged rocks and, occasionally, a sparkling blue lake. Mostly, though, we wondered at the thousands of shades of green surrounding us. There weren’t enough crayons for all those colors.
Still, the silence is what impressed us first. “Listen to those cicadas,” we would say, hushing each other. Our necks would whip around at the rustle of the leaves. Birds trilled from the trees, swooping low in front of the car. I slowed so that the engine was just a dull purr; the mechanical noise felt out of place.
There were a few cues to let us know we were on the right path. “Ya shoulda been here yesterday,” a sign read, block letters cut into steel. “The fish were bitin’ like crazy!”
Eventually, the way cleared, and a wooden arch bore a promising greeting: Welcome to Paradise, the awning read. Just beyond, the Ozark. Mountains split, framing Table Rock Lake like two ancient palms open in prayer.
We stopped the car, got out, took a photo. “Beautiful,” we said breathlessly to each other. A few minutes later, we passed under another, grander archway — the entrance to Big Cedar Lodge.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed at the registration desk. Big Cedar Lodge encompasses over 4,600 acres, and there are countless activities and amenities included — no single concierge could hope to tell guests about everything.
Thankfully, our greeter gave us the highlights: On a map, she outlined the route to our one-room log cabin, the most popular attractions and restaurants, where to find the various outdoor and indoor pools, how to get to the beach and the marina, where to find the canoes and boats to rent, how to access the world-class golf courses. In our welcome packet was the number to call in case we forgot anything she told us.
“This is your place now,” she said, beaming as she handed over our card keys. “Don’t be shy. Explore. Relax. Have fun.”
We drove the short way to our cabin. I clutched the map as though finding our temporary home would be an expedition worthy of Lewis and Clark, but I hardly needed to glance at it: The regular signs spotting the road told us exactly where to go.
Big Cedar Lodge calls its log cabins “authentic,” and that’s true — but these are not the dirt-floor, one-room spaces early settlers called home. Here, “authentic” means something else — something that suggests a deeper connection to the Ozarks, to the land that provided the wood for the walls and the floor and the roof.
I took our cabin in: the high ceiling, the king-sized bed, the wood-burning fireplace, the jacuzzi-style bathtub, the shower built into the steam room and the grill located on the walk-out deck that overlooked Table Rock Lake. “This is my place now,” I thought to myself. I smiled.
Fun Mountain, and They Mean It
UNCLE BUCK’S FISH BOWL
Gray clouds appeared, and raindrops started to fall. Lightning struck, and boats were called back to shore. But we weren’t threatened. We were headed to Fun Mountain.
This indoor facility is built to appease the child living inside us all, as well as any real and actual children. The opportunities for diversion are staggering. There is a 4,000-square-foot arcade boasting more than 60 video and arcade games, both modern and vintage. There is an augmented, interactive climbing wall appropriate for young children and those young at heart. There’s a golf simulator that families or groups can book. There are bumper cars and laser tag and pool tables. There’s even a pirate ship suspended from the ceiling, outfitted with climbing ropes.
As I looked around, it seemed more and more like Fun Mountain was designed by Peter Pan’s lost boys — if the lost boys had an eye for state-of-the-art equipment and the good sense to build in a bar.
The show-stopper is, of course, Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl. Walking into this bowling alley is like being blessed with mermaid vision. The 16 lanes are cast in deep, oceanic blues that shift like waves, and the sharks, fish and other sea creatures suspended from the ceiling move with the water. It’s enough to make you feel like you’re sending bowling balls down a dock at the bottom of the sea.
Maybe it was the frozen strawberry margarita from Uncle Buck’s Grill, the bucket of those incredible fried pickles our server brought directly to our lane for us to munch on or the way the score-keeping screen kept offering encouragement, but I’ve never bowled a better game than at Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl. Even the teenagers in the next lane over were impressed, though they were casually pretending not to be jealous of the tally of spares and strikes next to my name.
My server high-fived me when she saw my score. “You’ve done this before,” she said, winking. Must be something in the water.
Not Your Average Nature Trail
By the time I’d emerged as Uncle Buck’s most esteemed bowler three games later, the skies had cleared up and nature was calling. The two-and-a-half-mile Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail promised us a look at some of the Ozark’s natural plants, animals and rock formations — all from the comfort of a golf cart that I got to drive myself.
Arrowhead signs dotted the trail, and our map told us what they stood for such as red buckeye, which gets its name from the white scar on the seeds that mimics the eye of a male deer. In the spring, the buckeye’s red flowers draw hummingbirds. Black-eyed Susans grow wild here, and so does the white dome hydrangea.
Wildlife is common on this trail, we were told, and we should keep our eyes peeled for gray and red foxes, raccoons, Virginia opossums and Whitetail deer. The first animal we saw was a woodchuck, happily ignoring us as he nibbled industriously on something in a patch of greenery. The second animal, an Eastern gray squirrel, lobbed acorn shells at us from high in an oak tree.
It was the geology that made us stop the cart for one captivating scene after another. We took our time at each of the waterfalls, listening to the sound of the water as it rushed along the limestone. I placed my hand on the naturally formed rock shelters jutting out from the sides of the earth. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans and early settlers took refuge in the cool shadows of these very structures. The view hasn’t changed much in all that time, and there was something humbling about that realization.
The Lost Canyon Cave is the centerpiece of the trail, and it is a stunning discovery. There’s a convenient Bat Bar at the entrance, where fresh-squeezed strawberry lemonade (or vodka-lemonade, if that’s your pleasure) is poured into a plastic cup to be enjoyed for the rest of your journey. This was perhaps the most glamorous roadie I have every enjoyed, though I nearly dropped it moments later when we encountered the posed skeleton of a six-foot-tall short-faced bear. The remains of this extinct species were discovered in Ozark caves, and the bones are terrifying enough.
Big Bear Cave was awe-inspiring in a different way. Toothy stalagmites extended from ceiling to floor in this dangerous and elegant cavern. Extending a hand into the depths felt a bit like reaching into a bear’s mouth. The rocks didn’t bite back, though, and moments later, I was parked by Clark’s Cliffs — named for Dr. M. Graham Clark, former president of the nearby College of the Ozarks — shading my eyes from the sunlight and inhaling the fresh air.
A few feet away, a family with two small children had also stopped, and I watched as the daughter stood on her father’s shoes and leaned over the railing to get a better view. As I drove away, I heard him pointing out fairies hiding among the ferns. On this nature trail, at least, fairytales seemed entirely probable.
The Legacy of the Ozarks
Big Cedar Lodge has a sister property just a couple miles away called Top of the Rock. It’s in full view of the resort; in fact, the impressive structure sits on the bluffs overlooking the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake. It contains three separate dining options, a wine cellar, a golf course and a premier history museum.
The Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum has an astounding collection, spanning prehistoric and historic Native American culture from the Ozarks and across North America. It starts with a skeleton of Woolly Mammoth, whose gargantuan tusks curve toward the ceiling. I couldn’t help but feel the magnitude of the animal’s stature.
More fossils populate the subterranean galleries: a saber-toothed cat, a giant ground sloth, prehistoric cave bears, a terror bird — that’s its real name; it looks like a cross between a dinosaur and an ostrich — and the long-gone Hagerman horses it would feast upon. All of these skeletons have been masterfully reconstructed by the same designers from the world-renowned Chicago Field Museum, and they look as lifelike as if they were about to bust through the glass case that protects them.
The collection progresses through the millennia. There are thousands of arrowheads, vessels, Native American dress items and instruments. Incredibly, there is a Natchez canoe fashioned out of a cypress tree with stone tools that is in near-perfect condition, despite dating back to 1465. The galleries take the visitor straight up through the end of the Civil War in the Ozarks, where regimental swords and cannons are displayed alongside archival photos.
More than 12,000 years of history are represented in these galleries. To say that the experience is thorough would be a gross understatement. More than a collection of fossils and artifacts, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum is a celebration of Ozark life.
I found myself lingering over a coat that had belonged to Joseph the Elder of the Nez Perce tribe, one of the first peoples to broker peace with settlers to the region in the mid-1800s. I stopped at every illuminated plaque bearing quotes and passages from Native American chiefs of the White River Basin tribes. I poured over Chief Seattle’s profound 1854 speech to President Franklin Pierce, “This Earth is Precious,” and I understood what he meant when he said the rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony and man all belong to the same family.
I thought back to the rock shelters my palms had touched just hours earlier, grateful that the Native American spirit of conservation is alive and well in the Ozarks.
Such reflection is always better when accompanied by good wine, and the Buffalo Bar, Top of the Rock’s al fresco dining option, has a long list to choose from. I sunk into the plush leather chair, looked across the view of Table Rock Lake reflecting the hazy sherbet orange of the sinking sun and took a deep sip of my pinot noir.
There’s something for everyone on the Buffalo Bar’s menu, which is shared with Top of the Rock’s fine dining option, Osage Restaurant. I’m going to be dreaming about the wood-fired pizza, layered with overnight-roasted local pork, sorghum BBQ sauce, pickled corn kernels, fresh red onion and cilantro and a veritable mountain of pepperjack cheese. The entrees are not designed for polite appetites, either: five plump, perfect scallops perched atop generous dollops of butter-whipped mashed potatoes, arranged like a bouquet around a nest of wilted spinach and English peas. And when my knife sliced into my filet mignon and the rosy red center smiled up at me, my heart skipped a beat.
It’s hard to know if the food tasted so good because of the view, or if the view was especially moving because we were enjoying an excellent meal. It was probably a bit of both. In the outdoor lounge area, at the base of an impressive iron-wrought buffalo sculpture, logs crackled in an elegant fire pit, infusing the crisp air with a heady whisp of smoke.
Sunsets at Top of the Rock are an event, and just as the sky was flushing with deeper hues, the pianist — who had been playing elegant jazz standards throughout the evening — introduced a new guest: a bagpipe player, whose rendition of “Amazing Grace” both paid homage to golf’s Scottish roots and served as a stirring salute to the setting sun. As the last note lingered in the air, a Civil War cannon was fired, and the great boom echoed throughout the trees.
Later in the evening, I found the End of the Trail Wine Cellar below the Buffalo Bar. The bartender poured me a glass of sparkling wine and encouraged me to explore the underground quarry, and I stepped outside to an elegant sculpture of a Native American on horseback, erected in the center of a shallow pool and bathed in moonlight. I inhaled: sweet grass, musky soil, a rumor of rain. Fireflies danced to the soundtrack of buzzing cicadas and chirping frogs. Farther in the distance I heard a rhythmic roll of thunder. That night, I fell into a deep slumber as these sounds poured into my cabin through the open windows.
A Royal Brunch
It was hard to part with our cloud-stuffed mattress in the morning, but the promise of brunch was too tempting to pass up. I called the number for the Big Cedar Lodge shuttle service with an innocent question: When would the next shuttle be coming by our cabin?
“The shuttle comes whenever you order it, ma’am,” a soothing voice answered. “Would you like to be picked up?” Yes, I said, as long as the shuttle would take us to the restaurant. “The shuttle will take you wherever you like, ma’am,” the voice answered, as though the idea of a personalized shuttle service at my beck and call was like any ordinary thing.
In under 10 minutes, we had been scooped up and whisked away to breakfast.
The phrase “breakfast buffet” does not usually inspire confidence, but Devil’s Pool Restaurant did not disappoint. Rows of silver chafing dishes revealed Southern-style biscuits and gravy, homestyle skillet potatoes with peppers and onions, a tower of Belgian waffles with fresh cream and fruit, pastries still hot from the oven, fluffy scrambled eggs with cheese and housemade breakfast sausage links. At another station, a chef carved up country ham and making omelets to-order.
I watched my omelet being built and chatted with the chef. Like nearly every staff member I had met at Big Cedar Lodge, she was a veteran of over a decade at the resort. “I fell in love with this place one summer,” she told me, sliding my omelet onto my plate, “and I’ve been here ever since.”
I like hot sauce with my eggs, and I grabbed a bottle on my way back to my table. A few minutes later, the chef appeared at my side with a ramekin of blazing orange liquid. “Try this,” she said. “It’s a buffalo hot sauce that we make with butter.”
A few minutes later, our server appeared, cheerfully checking up on us. “Why is everyone who works here so happy?” I demanded to know. Our server was in his 23rd season at Big Cedar Lodge. “Why have you all stayed here so long?” I asked him.
“We’re a family here,” he said. “And you’ve really got to try to be unhappy with a view like this.” He nodded his head out the window, where several boats were lazily disembarking from the marina, their motors rippling through the glittering lake.
Relax, Rest, Rejuvenate
Cedar Creek Spa is a special place. Staff speaks of it in reverent tones: “Oh, you’re going to the spa,” they whisper excitedly. “Lucky you.” You can tell, too, when a guest has just enjoyed a spa session: They emerge fresh-faced with soft eyes, as though their whole existence embodies peace.
I booked a massage and a facial. Cedar Creek Spa has a signature massage that blends Swedish technique with hot towel compression, so once my therapist had worked over every kink and sore spot I had outlined, my muscles entered a state of ultimate relaxation. During my facial, my aesthetician gently exfoliated, moisturized and rejuvenated my skin, kneading a rose hip oil into my cheekbones and finishing with a scalp massage. The treatment was personalized, and the products felt luxurious.
But that wasn’t all. Guests of the spa are encouraged to enjoy an array of amenities. I could kick back in any one of the numerous private lounge areas and stare up at the hand-hewn timber ceilings and chandeliers. I could further soothe my body in one of the saunas or hot spas or steam rooms. I could take a private, open-air shower on one of the walk-out decks. I could order a glass of wine and indulge in the snacks and accoutrements spread throughout the facility. If I had time, I could have gone in for a manicure, a pedicure, a brow-waxing and a hair or makeup makeover. I paused in front of a few paintings — serene and modern oil studies of timber trunks flanked the grand hall and double staircase. Those were done, I was told, by Jeanie Morris, wife of Johnny Morris, the founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops and the visionary behind Big Cedar Lodge.
After my treatments, I sunk into the gurgling water of the spectacular indoor grotto pool. A few minutes later, I craved the relief of cold therapy of the adjacent Ice Room. I could have spent the day drifting back and forth between these two. Later, as I checked out of the spa, the hostess suggested I return later that evening for another dip in the pool. “You should stay comfortable,” she said.
Everything about Cedar Creek Spa suggests it is a sanctuary for your spirit, much like Big Cedar Lodge itself is a sanctuary of Ozark wilderness. Here, between moments of explosive joy — the thrill of “underwater” bowling, the excitement of discovery on the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail, the sublime pleasure of toasting to a heart-soaring sunset — I found a peace I haven’t known in years. That little blossom of tranquility will keep until I return to Big Cedar Lodge, which I know will be very soon.