Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a year-round 10,000-acre nature preserve set within a picturesque, mostly untouched canyon near Branson, Mo.
Smooth trails wind through the grounds, passing trout streams, waterfalls, dense forest and pastures for the resident herds of bison, elk, whitetail deer and Texas longhorns. Visitors can explore on their own, or they can take guided tours via open-air tram, Segway or on horseback. Unpaved trails are for walking only.
Dogwood Canyon is a private park envisioned and established by Bass Pro Shops’ founder Johnny Morris. Driven by a deep commitment to protecting and preserving the natural environment, he acquired the first parcels of the property 1990. He later donated the land to the nonprofit Dogwood Canyon Foundation, which owns and manages the park.
As you might guess, Dogwood Canyon has lots of dogwood trees. The seasonal colors are spectacular. In spring, the dogwoods produce blooms in shades of white and pink and even a few rare reds. The oldest trees, more than 200 years, are sycamores. In the early days of logging here, no one wanted sycamores because the wood is soft, so they were left alone.
Our autumn visit began at the new main lodge, a massive timber-and-limestone building with a working grist mill and a museum of artifacts from the Osage Indians who once lived in these hills and hollows. Most notable is the towering skeleton of a stag-moose, a forerunner of the American bison that became extinct at the end of the Ice Age. A stag-moose could stand 8 feet at the shoulder and weigh 1,500 pounds.
The rustic but elegant Canyon Grill restaurant is lavished with natural building elements such as rough timbers, stone floors and leather seating. Beyond the massive windows is a dramatic 150-foot man-made waterfall.
The lodge was completed in 2016, which meant for the first time Dogwood Canyon could stay open year-round.
Another recent addition is the two-story treehouse built by Pete Nelson and the crew of Animal Planet’s hit TV show, “Treehouse Masters.”
After a delicious lunch of pan-fried trout, we headed for our tram tour. Kelly, our guide, kept up a steady patter as she pointed out points of interest.
She told us: A covered bridge was Amish-made with no power tools. The pine-log Hope Wilderness Chapel can host weddings for up to 60 people. We probably won’t see a black bear or a mountain lion, but eagles regularly feast on the trout. The trout can weigh up to 20 pounds. We should watch for snakes. Bull snakes are non-venomous. Copperheads and rattlesnakes are venomous.
We pulled into a clearing, and the tram stopped. A dozen or so bison ambled toward us. Kelly reached for a large plastic container and spread kibble on the ground to attract them, so we could get up close and personal with our cameras.
We drove on a little further, and maybe three dozen elk trotted our way. There were mamas and babies and, if I’m counting correctly, a 10-point buck.
Deer and elk shed their antlers, which can weigh as much as 40 pounds, every year, Kelly told us.
She tossed kibble to the elk, and then to the longhorns further ahead.
“The animals know the trams bring food,” she said.
Our final stop was Wish Bowl Falls. It’s the turnaround point on the main trail. You’ll know you are there when you see the pool rich large golden rainbow trout. They are really, really yellow. Primary bright yellow. You can’t miss them. You won’t forget the wonder of it all.
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park
2038 W. State Hwy. 86
Lampe, MO 65681
(Thank you to the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting my visit!)