Last Updated on December 19, 2023

The night was sharp with a promise of frost as I weaved my electric golf cart down a wooded trail surrounded by limestone bluffs. I heard waterfalls roaring. All around me were twinkling lighted bears and wolves, and a soothing voice coming out of the speaker sharing the Osage Nation origin story.

I was almost to the cave at Top of the Rocks Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail and eager to see the famous cave, its natural waterfall, live bat colony, and skeletons of a saber-tooth tiger and short-faced bear. First, I had to stop at the famed Bat Bar in the cave to get a warming drink to take along the way.

Big Cedar Lodge Wilderness Resort

The Cave Trail is only one attraction at Top of the Rock, which includes the Top of the Rock Golf Course, world-class restaurants, and the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, all overlooking the luxurious Big Cedar Lodge, a premier wilderness resort in Ridgedale, MO.

Escaping the bustle and craziness of a stressful holiday season, I spent three days at Big Cedar Lodge, the remote haven of natural beauty spread out over 4,600 acres within the rugged landscape of the Ozark Mountains.

Overlooking Table Rock Lake, this Ozark luxury resort was inspired and created by Johnny Morris, noted conservationist and founder of Bass Pro Shops. His goal was connecting families and guests to the wonders of the natural world he grew up in.

With cozy accommodations, multiple restaurants, two full-service marinas, five golf courses, a 50,000-square-foot activity center, spa, unparalleled fishing and countless outdoor adventures, it seemed like the perfect holiday vacation.

And I needed some relaxation.

I’d been going nonstop since fall began, and frankly, the Black Friday insanity after Thanksgiving was taking its toll on me. I crave natural places and with a short 4.5-hour drive from my hometown of Oklahoma City, I jumped at the chance to escape to this Ozark luxury resort for the first time.

I came at the perfect time to relax, but also take in the best parts of the holiday. From early November through New Year’s Eve, Big Cedar Lodge’s “Home for the Holidays” embraces the holiday season with activities like ice skating, visits from Santa, holiday tram tours, and of course, over four million holiday lights on display all around the property.

Besides a renewed excitement for Christmas, I also came away from my visit with a richer understanding of Native American history and the importance of conservation in the Missouri Ozarks.

Big Cedar Lodge Accommodations

Rustic accents adorn Big Cedar Lodge cabins in Ridgedale, MO.
Rustic accents adorn Big Cedar Lodge cabins in Ridgedale, MO. Photo credit Heide Brandes

After checking in at the Big Cedar Lodge lobby, I headed to my cabin. The resort offers 362 private accommodations including grand lodges, on-course golf rooms, rustic log cabins, lakeside cottages, and even camp-style units. I was booked in a cozy Devils Pool one-room log cabin, a small, but comfortable lodging that overlooked the waters below.

Decked out in rustic decor and Ozark charm, the cabin can accommodate four to five guests with its king-size bed and full-size sleeper sofa.

I nearly swooned with pleasure upon seeing the luxury soaking tub in the bathroom with dreams of long hot baths dancing in my head. It was pretty darn cold the late November week of my visit in 2023. Cabins also come with a private deck and a gas grill.

I didn’t bring any food to prepare in the open-plan kitchen, which was fine. A short walk past the Devil’s Pool waterfall, l found the Devil’s Pool Restaurant, one of seven dining options on the property.

The first night after the sun set over the mountains felt like a Christmas miracle. I lit the fireplace to chase away the stress and the chill and then slept like I had no worries in the world.

Ozarks History and Conservation

Prehistoric skeleton at Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum.
Prehistoric skeleton at Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum. Photo credit Heide Brandes

On my first full day at Big Cedar Lodge, I woke to a bitingly cold morning. I didn’t let that stop me from venturing out on an early hike around the property and its rolling hills. I stopped at The Devil’s Pool Restaurant for a quick breakfast before heading to Top of the Rock.

Resting majestically at the highest elevation in Taney County near Branson, MO, Top of the Rock is part of Johnny Morris’ Ozark Heritage Preserve.

While it’s best known for its world-class Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, the pristine Ozark property also includes Arnie’s Barn, a 150-year-old barn relocated from Arnold Palmer’s backyard in Latrobe, PA, the Top of the Rock Pro Shop, and the award-winning Osage fine dining restaurant.

I was here to explore the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, one of the most impressive and largest privately-owned collections of Native American, Civil War and Western artifacts in the world.

With more than 70,000 items on display including over 40,000 arrowheads, the museum is likely the best and most comprehensive collection I’ve ever seen. It also holds the largest collective of Native American war shirts known and even a lock of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s hair.

While Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock are known for their natural luxury and golf, I learned that conservation is at the heart of everything Johnny Morris does. The Johnny Morris Conservation Foundation is one of the largest and most significant conservation foundations in America.

Because Morris grew up in these parts of Missouri’s Ozarks, he has a deep bond with the land and a desire to keep it protected. Top of the Rock is part of that mission.

Nearby, the 10,000-acre Dogwood Canyon Nature Preserve was created by Morris to protect the land while giving families a place to learn and enjoy the unspoiled nature. The Foundation also runs the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, MO one of the most immersive conservation attractions in the world.

A nature-based heritage preserve and majestic cliff-top experience adjacent to Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock, includes the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail on its 462-acre development.

The Lost Canyon Cave Trail is a self-guided electric cart tour through an Ozarks landscape and cave, but at Christmas, the trail is lit with thousands of Christmas lights celebrating Native American lore and stories.

A Lighted Winter Wonderland

A howling wolf display at Top of the Rock.
A howling wolf display at Top of the Rock. Photo credit Heide Brandes

Four million holiday lights may sound as though the Big Cedar property would look garish or overly bright, but rather, the Christmas display was thoughtfully designed and placed in a way that highlights the natural landscape. Visitors can opt for a nightly tram tour of the lights, but I missed my appointment after spending too much time enjoying the exquisite cuisine at the high-end Warmon House restaurant on site.

Luckily, I could take a self-guided tour of the twinkling Christmas lights in my own vehicle, listening to the chorus of Christmas carols from other cars ahead of me.  Hot chocolate, s’mores, other drinks and twinkling souvenirs are available for purchase.

On the resort’s Swimmin’ Hole Lawn, an ‘all-weather synthetic’ ice rink added a Norman Rockwell feel with a light show featuring choreographed music and lights every quarter hour after dark.

Throughout the property, families engaged in different Christmas activities like visits with Santa, holiday portraits, gingerbread house making, stocking decorating sessions, an elven workshop and even a 12 Days of Christmas Scavenger Hunt.

Celebrating the Season My Way

I was by myself on this visit, and although I was tempted to strap on some ice skates or make a little gingerbread house, I was there to celebrate the season in my own way. After touring the lights, I returned to my cabin to light a fire, soak in that deep, welcoming tub, and then snuggle under the covers.

Although I came to Big Cedar Lodge for a short solo escape from the hectic season, I found myself envying the families who make Big Cedar’s Home for the Holidays their annual tradition. Kids and families laughed and ran about without a care in the world, sipping hot chocolate and visiting with Santa, and it almost seemed too perfect to be true.

Whether you’re alone or a family seeking a last-minute holiday getaway in nature, Christmas dreams really do shine brighter in the Ozarks.

Author

  • Heide Brandes

    Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 20 years of published work. A former investigative reporter, Heide now freelances fulltime for The Smithsonian, Southern Living, AAA, AARP, National Geographic, BBC Travel, Roadtrippers, Sierra Magazine, ROVA, Travel Awaits, Fodors, and more. She also has bylines in The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Besides being an avid traveler, her interests include hiking, professional belly dancing, and practicing medieval warfare.