First built in the early 1930s to provide hydroelectricity to central Missouri, the Lake of the Ozarks has become a top-tier recreation destination known and loved throughout the Midwest. For generations, the area has attracted boaters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Now, golfers and even foodies flock here as well for the lake’s extensive amenities and summer fun.
But the Lake of the Ozarks really shows off its true colors in autumn. There are fewer crowds, the weather is cooler (but not cold enough to keep you off the water!), the area’s bluffs are ablaze with gorgeous fall color, and there are still plenty of activities to keep you busy.
Here are nine reasons why fall is our favorite time to visit, and why you might want to consider a visit to the Lake of the Ozarks, too!
1. Hit The Links At Some Of The Midwest’s Best Courses
The Lake of the Ozarks region is a golfer’s paradise for athletes of any level — beginner on up to pro, both public and private. The area boasts more than a dozen courses, many designed by names that will be familiar to fans of the sport. Arnold Palmer, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Tom Weiskopf, Bruce Devlin, and Robert Von Hagge have all designed and consulted on courses here. They are quite scenic, given the region’s natural beauty, with river bluffs, stands of old oak, and stunning water views. They also all have terrific on-site amenities, truly allowing you to spend the entire day on the links.
It can be tough to choose between the lake’s terrific courses. Check out the handy online Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail to compare all the options and figure out which one is best for you!
2. Enjoy A Quiet Kayaking Or Canoeing Trip
The Lake of the Ozarks, with its many small serpentine coves and inlets, is terrific to explore in the quieter months via kayak or canoe. There’s a lot less motorboat traffic (which can leave behind large wakes tough for newbies to traverse), and it’s generally safer to venture out a bit more into the main channel. If you don’t have your own vessel, no worries. There are plenty of places to rent equipment for the day. Bring a picnic or your fishing gear, and you’ve got a full day of adventure ahead. There’s nothing like getting out on the lake… on your own power!
Pro Tip: You don’t need to be licensed to kayak at the Lake of the Ozarks, but you must have a personal flotation device for everyone on-board.
3. Visit Historic Castle Ruins At A Beautiful State Park
Fall is undoubtedly the best time to visit beautiful Ha Ha Tonka State Park, just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of the main business district. Within the park, you’ll want to be sure to visit the historical Ha Ha Tonka Castle ruins. Built by Kansas City businessman Robert Snyder in 1905, the palatial estate served as a weekend and summer home until the Great Depression when it reopened as a hotel. The complex was destroyed by fire in 1942, nothing but its limestone shell behind. There are interpretive signs in and around the ruins showing what the castle once looked like. You can imagine how impressive and grand it must have once been sitting high atop the river bluffs.
The park also includes gorgeous views of Ha Ha Tonka Spring and the lake, as well as excellent hiking trails. If you’re looking for an easy hike with picturesque scenery, check out the Castle Trail, a .8 mile hike with views of the castle ruins and lake. It’s a great place for a fall picnic.
4. Go Leaf-Peeping To Soak In The Lake’s Natural Fall Beauty
The Lake of the Ozarks was created by damming up the Osage River. The area’s river bluffs make for a dramatic backdrop for boaters and residents all year-round, but they are at their most spectacular in the fall. So spectacular, in fact, that several years ago, USA Today named the Lake of the Ozarks the second-best destination for fall foliage in the country!
We can’t argue with that ranking. By early October, much of the region becomes awash in bright, brilliant color as the maple, ash, oak, and hickory trees put on an autumn show. There’s nothing like a lake-leaf cruise in the crisp fall air. Or, consider a driving tour with a loop around the lake on Highways 5, 54, and 52. No matter how you take it in — by land or by lake — the autumn views and hues are sure to delight any visitor!
5. Try Out Spelunking In Lake-Area Caves
Did you know the state of Missouri boasts more than 6,000 caves? The Lake of the Ozarks region has more than its fair share, with a wide range of interesting geological features. The temperatures inside are likely to mimic those outside during autumn — 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. We think fall is the perfect time to go underground and take in Mother Nature’s stunning scenery!
There are several well-known caves at the lake that have been carved out, paved, and are well-lit and ready for visitors. Bridal Cave, just north of Camdenton, is a stunner. It features crystal-clear Mystery Lake, massive stalactites, and the grand Bridal Chapel room, where thousands of couples have exchanged vows over the years.
Stark Caverns was first used by Native Americans, then the Stark family, who held a whole host of gatherings inside. During Prohibition, it became a speakeasy and moonshine distillery. Today, it’s a show cave, welcoming tourists from all over the country.
Last but not least, Ozark Caverns is owned by the state of Missouri and open to amateur spelunkers. You’ll spy claw marks left by animals who made the cave their home thousands of years ago. You’ll also want to take a look — if not a dip — in Angel Showers, a never-ending stream of water that escapes from the cave’s solid rock ceiling.
While all of the show caves remain open year-round, you’ll want to call ahead for tour information and pricing. And be sure to wear a good, solid pair of hiking boots or trail shoes when you visit!
6. Have A Foodie Adventure
Ok, ok, we get it. When you think of lake food, grilling, fast casual, and pub fare might immediately come to mind. While the Lake of the Ozarks has plenty of those options, there’s also a lot here for foodies to love!
For starters, head to Stewart’s. It’s not fancy or fussy, but this legendary lake cafe right near Bagnell Dam has been serving up cinnamon rolls the size of my head since 1953. You will not be able to finish the gooey, delicious goodness in a single sitting; plan on taking some to go. A stop here is a must during your lake visit.
For a more upscale dining experience, 1932 Reserve has you covered. Housed in Osage Beach’s oldest hotel, the restaurant is open for lunch, happy hour, and dinner, with an impressive menu and comprehensive wine list to match. The kitchen utilizes local ingredients, and the lake views are impressive. To skip the potential of a long wait, make a reservation.
Finally, steaks, chops, and prime rib have been the stars on the menu at Bentley’s since 1974. Designed with a definite British flair, the service here has always been top-notch and it’s the place to get your red meat fix in at the lake!
7. Sample And Sip Fine Wines
Fall is the perfect time to take a self-guided winery tour in and around the Lake of the Ozarks, as there are about half a dozen of them in the area. The Lake’s rolling hilltops make it a perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine, especially in the autumn. Dale Hollow, a family-owned and operated winery in nearby Stover, Missouri, tops our list. It’s a bit of a drive, but worth it for vintages lovingly made from grapes grown on-site!
8. Take A Spa Day
If all that adventure has you feeling a bit sore, stiff, or just ready to relax, no worries. The lake has you covered with several top-notch spa options that will land you squarely in the zen zone. Most resorts also include spas, which offer a whole host of services including massages, facials, exfoliations, and other body treatments. Our favorites are Spa Shiki at The Lodge of the Four Seasons and Spa 54 at Camden on the Lake.
9. Hit Up The Harbor Hop
Held twice a year — in the spring and fall — the lake’s beloved Harbor Hop is fun for everyone on the water. Boaters pay $20 to draw cards of their choice from more than 40 bars, restaurants, and lounges on the lake. A total of seven cards are drawn, and those with the best poker hands at the end of the day win part of the pot. Most of the proceeds, however, go to the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitor Bureau so it can continue to promote the event — and destination — to new and repeat visitors alike!
To discover even more things to do in and around the Lake of the Ozarks, check out: