Back on Missouri Highway 76, the guitar players are tuning up. The cash registers are ringing. The smell of barbecue is floating through restaurant parking lots.
So what am I doing out in the woods? Riding a bike. Enjoying the silence.
Think of Branson and you're likely to conjure an image of sequin-spangled country stars and water slide-riding children. But there's another side to the Ozarks fun capital. After you've seen the shows, ridden the bumper boats, shopped the outlet malls and eaten your way to a larger belt size, Branson says: Take a hike. Ride a bike. Get out and enjoy the wilderness that makes this part of southern Missouri attractive to many people.
So I did.
On a cool, sunny morning I headed south out of town, away from the Strip, and found myself in 10,000 acres of unspoiled paradise called Dogwood Canyon, the first of three wilderness areas I visited in mid-May.
And for the next couple of hours, I lost all track of time, pedaling over an asphalt path on an old-fashioned, one-speed bicycle, with a fat seat and a wire basket big enough for a sack lunch.
"It's just a breathtaking property," said Kenny Smith, the park's tour manager who has been at the site for nine years.
In 1990 Bass Pro Shops founder John L. Morris acquired the first 2,200 or so acres that would eventually become Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. In 1996 the park opened to guests of nearby Big Cedar Lodge, which also is owned by Bass Pro Shops. The next year it opened to the public.
Summers can be busy, so it's a good idea to call before you visit (417-779-5983). Last year about 35,000 people walked and biked its trails, toured aboard guided trams, fished for trout in its streams, rode horses, and oohed and ahhed at the herds of buffalo, elk and Texas longhorns. And they still had time to hit the shows afterward.
The park's trails provide a chance to get out and explore--something that active travelers are increasingly looking for.
"I truly believe we epitomize `soft adventure,'" Smith said.
The adventure comes at a price on this privately owned property. Self-guided walking tours cost $8.95 for adults, and bike rentals are $17.95. If you want to ride a tram, rates begin at $25.95. And fishing starts at $25 for two hours of self-guided catch-and-release angling.
"You'll get not very far down the road to see we spent a tremendous amount of resources," Smith said.
But what a place--streams and waterfalls, towering limestone cliffs, covered bridges and flowering trees.
And you can explore at your own pace. The park's wide, flat trail following Little Indian and Dogwood Creeks is gentle enough that visitors in wheelchairs can enjoy the considerable beauty.
Hiking and biking opportunities abound all around the Branson area, said Ty Lewis, a co-owner of Trek the Ozarks, a 6-year-old Branson company that rents equipment and organizes guided trips on bikes, canoes and kayaks.
"There's a wealth of opportunity here for biking, both mountain and road cycling," said Lewis, who has called Branson home since he was a child.
The hiking's not bad, either--and easier to find. In addition to Dogwood Canyon, trails wind through parks and recreation areas all over the area. Two of the most worthwhile trails are so close that it would be a shame not to take advantage of them.
At the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area, a 130-acre park inside the Branson city limits, two trails offer scenic views and what's called "rugged" hiking. Experienced hikers may argue with that description, but there can be no disagreement with the beauty of the views.
For more views, head west out of Branson to the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area, named for the Independence native who created "The Beverly Hillbillies" and other TV shows in the '60s.
Wander on the short, wood chip-paved path leading from the parking lot and almost immediately you'll come to a tower--55 steps to the top--that offers a clear view of Branson. At sunrise or sunset, this would be beautiful, but even in midafternoon, the heavily forested areas below are worth a look.
Several other trails wind through the Henning area, operated by the Missouri Conservation Department. Venture out on to the Glade Exploration Trail, which overlooks an open space just outside the forest. Or try the Streamside Trail.Now, who says you have to sit in a dark theater to be entertained?
Contact the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-296-0463; www.explorebranson.com.