Last week I wrote a bit about the history of Branson and how this has been my least favorite place that I’ve visited so far, primarily because it’s too gaudy and high-priced—basically too commercial—for my tastes. Despite this, I was able to find fun things to do. And the cherry on the top was some of those things were free. Today’s post shares five of the free and fun things I found to do.  

Finding the Fun Free Things

I don’t normally write about how I find things to do at each place I stop. But, here, I think it’s worth mentioning because my normal way offered no free activities. My normal search didn’t even offer listings for things that I typically look for and like to do. And that’s very unusual. In fact, so unusual, I initially assumed there were no free fun things to do in a town that’s all about tickets, timeshares and over-priced attractions.

Table covered in brochures and maps plus a big three-sided vertical rack filled with brochures.
This is only about a third of the brochures at my RV park.

So, before I arrived, I researched the Branson area by doing a Google search. My go-to search term is, “things to do in XYZ.” In this case, things to do in Branson. The results were shows and high-priced attractions. I looked at multiple sites, all with the same results. Then, when I arrived, my RV park had tons of brochures and I sifted through those as well but only found copies of information I found online.

Weeks later, I spoke with a fellow camper. I said I disliked the area. And, I added, I’ve never been to a place that didn’t have walks, a nature center, things to do that didn’t come with a high fee. She said she found a listing for three scenic drives in the area.  

No scenic drives popped up on any of my research or searches which begged the question. Why? Then I had an idea. And the next time I was at my computer, I did a search for “free things to do in Branson,” hoping it would lead me down different paths from my pre-arrival research. While that might be an obvious search term in hindsight, I must defend myself. I’ve never had to add “free” to my internet searches before to find such things.

Glad I did. Glad I talked to the fellow camper (thanks, Tina) because if you look past all the lights and dollar signs, there are some free and fun things to do in Branson.

Branson Centennial Museum

This is a great first stop in Branson though I ended up doing it as one of my last stops (also thanks to Tina). It’s located in historic downtown Branson which means you could start at the museum when they open, find a place for lunch then spend the afternoon walking around and wandering into shops in the area. Would make for a great day.

While it is a simple museum, it is packed with information about the history of Branson. Had I not visited this museum I would’ve left knowing very little about the area. Learning the history of a place I visit is one of my favorite things and, except what you find in Wikipedia, Branson does not make it easy to get to know their town. I’ll say it again: Branson is all tickets, time-shares and trying to wring every tourist dollar out of you.

On a loop, they play an hour-long film of Branson’s history. It begins in the 1600s when the Osage Indians used the area as their hunting ground. Then takes us through the 1800s when white men relocated the Indians to Oklahoma, the Civil War and the early lawlessness of the area. Then it moves into the 1900s with roads and rails making it easier for people to visit. Finally, to the latter half of the 1900s when the live music scene grew to making Branson a popular vacation town.  

The film is not high art but it’s really good information. Actors recreated many of the scenes and I’m not sure if it was bad acting or a bad writing, but I think the film would’ve been much better served to use a voice-over narrator and photos. Even so, I would recommend it for the wealth of historical information.

The displays are, at the core, the film in another visual medium. Display boards through the museum offer a timeline of the history of the area, highlighting key events. Sprinkled throughout are other goodies. I particularly liked the display of waffle irons. There was probably six or seven from various decades.

The most curious thing about this museum, at least in my little curious mind, was wondering how they pay the rent. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that it was free. But rent in downtown Branson cannot be cheap. They sell a lot of books about the area and a few postcards. Plus, they accept donations. But there is just no way that can cover their costs. I don’t know the answer but I loved that the place exists. It’s run by the White River Valley Historical Society so I also assumed the two people staffing the museum during my visit were volunteers.

Movie in the Park

Stuffed Winnie the Pooh on a white background.
My Pooh who sometimes serves as co-pilot on travel days.

In early August, the Branson Parks and Recreation Department offered a free movie in the park beginning at dusk. They showed Christopher Robin. Movie-goers bring blankets and chairs and a sponsor provided water and ice cream. I intended to go because, while I don’t heart Branson, I do heart Winnie the Pooh. But the weather was rainy, so I stayed home. It didn’t occur to me they would reschedule, but they did which means I missed it when it was shown a week later.

I thought this was a monthly occurrence but in looking through the Facebook feed, it seems it is just one time. So, you’d have to be here on the exact right day to attend this fun family-friendly event. However, looking through that same feed, I found a lot of free things offered by Parks and Recreation, including free pool days, a free disc golf day (which included use of discs and lunch). It’s worth checking their website when you visit because you never know what free treasure you might find.

President Heads in Branson

Large concrete statue of President Kennedy's head.
President Kennedy head.

So, apparently, there was this park in South Dakota called Presidents Park that closed in 2010. It was filled with giant concrete and steel heads of United States presidents, each weighing 10,000 pounds. When it closed, the heads were auctioned off and scattered. Two, as it happened, ended up in Branson.

As I understand it, one was purchased by a car dealership and the other by a timeshare company (surprise—you cannot escape tickets and timeshares in Branson). One story I heard says the timeshare company closed and left Reagan’s head behind, so the next business to come along inherited it. Hence, today, he sits in the parking lot of a t-shirt shop.  

Large concrete statue of President Reagan's head against the blue sky. Sitting in a parking lot in Branson, Missouri.
Up close and personal with President Reagan’s head. I reached the knot in his tie.

I found President Kennedy’s head at what looks like a place no longer in business. It could’ve been a car dealership once but it would’ve been a very tiny one. I’m more inclined to think it was moved at some point. Or it wasn’t a car dealership that purchased Kennedy’s head to begin with.

They aren’t grand adventures, but they are unique and different finds. So, if you are up for a little treasure hunt while in Branson, go in search of the two president heads.

Scenic Drives Near Branson

There are state parks, national forests and scenic byways within easy driving distance of Branson. A few you might try: Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area, Table Rock State Park, Roaring River State Park and Mark Twain National Forrest. Where you go will depend on how much driving you want to do and what other activities (such as hiking, water sports, picnicking) you want to do when you get there.

I didn’t take any of the identified scenic drives. However, visiting other places on the outskirts of Branson gave me a glimpse into the beauty on these drives. If I still had Solstice, I might have sought out some of these drives in an effort to find varied walks for us. And, if it hadn’t been so hot and humid, I might have sought them out for myself.

And, here’s a bonus tidbit. Missouri is only one of eight states where all the state parks are free.

Dewey Short Visitors’ Center

This Visitors’ Center is probably one of the most beautiful Visitors’ Centers I’ve explored. It’s huge, has lots of walking trails outside and tons of great information inside. It serves as the Visitors’ Center for the Table Rock Dam and is named after the Missouri Congressman who spent 20 years turning the idea into a reality.

Sign on the grass for the Dewey Short Visitors' Center at Table Rock Lake.
Entry into the Dewey Short Visitors’ Center.

Table Rock Dam was a project of the Army Corp of Engineers and the Visitors’ Center is run by them. It’s impressive in its efforts to be green. There is an entire display explaining all they do to this end and the center has the second highest rating for efficiency and greenness. (Sorry I didn’t photo the display so cannot remember the exact terms or all their efforts.)

I watched their 22-minute film which tells the story of building the dam from one of the engineer’s point of view. You don’t want to miss it. I assume the film runs on the half hour though I didn’t see a schedule for it.

There was also a ranger talk which I would’ve loved to listen to, especially when I saw it was interactive since she was passing out these red and green sticks to everyone. Unfortunately, I had other plans so had to leave as the ranger started.

The Visitors’ Center is three levels and each has opportunities for you to step outside to take in the view of the dam, the lake the dam created and the surrounding area. The view from the second level is the feature image of this post.

Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery

The Dewey Short Center and the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery aren’t far from each other. You could easily combine these two adventures. However, if you wanted some hiking or fishing, you might need to visit them on separate days depending on how much time you wanted to spend at each.

Fish hatchery tanks outside on a nice day with blue sky and green trees in the background.
Wire fencing covers each tank to keep birds from stealing all the fish. Each tank has different sized fish. They are moved as they grow and each are on a different feeding schedule. You can walk up and down each row and see the fish below.

The hatchery was built in 1957-1958 following the construction of the Table Rock Dam. It produces about one million trout per year. Most are rainbow trout but they also produce brown trout. This hatchery is the only one of the state’s five fisheries that produces browns which are finicky and much harder to produce. Eighty percent of the fish raised are released into Lake Taneycomo.

Wonder about the unusual name? I figured it was an Indian word. Not so. It’s three words mushed together. Taneycomo = TANEY COunty MO (the two-letter abbreviation).

Older man with gray hair, sunglasses, a white shirt and tan pants, standing outside at a fish hatchery.
My tour guide.

The Visitors’ Center has an 8-minute film that is quite informative and I’d recommend it. Additionally, you’ll find exhibits and an aquarium. Volunteers give tours that take less than thirty minutes several times per day and during the summer they are opened every day. The tour is outside so come prepared for the weather. On my tour, the guide kept commenting on how pleasant it was while this Alaskan stood there sweating. It all depends on your perspective.

And, for just a quarter, you can buy a handful of food and feed the fish.

You also find four short hiking trails that run along the shore of the lake. In addition to watching anglers (or fishing yourself since one-third of all nine million annual visitors to Branson come to fish), the trails are great for bird watching and wildlife viewing.

Lessons Learned

In my first 18 months on the road, I ended up in Walla Walla, Long Beach, Portland, Dubuque and Desert Hot Springs because of friends and family. I ended up in Texas and Alabama because of RV-related events. And I ended up in Tennessee because that’s where the Oliver headquarters are and I needed service.

But as luck would have it, I loved every one of those places. Each one offered tons of things for me to do and learn and see. I’d gladly go back to every one of those towns. In a couple of instances, I’d choose a different place to stay but, still, I wouldn’t hesitate to revisit the area.

Branson was the only place I actively chose without any other considerations or influences. So, isn’t it ironic that it turned out to be the place I’ve liked the least since I became a full-time traveler?

However, you know me, even in the worst situations I try to find and say aloud one positive thing. In Branson, I can name three.

  1. I discovered Escapee Rainbow Parks. Because I’m an Escapees member, I saved $35 each month. Basically, paying for the membership for the next three years. I already have a reservation to stay at their New Mexico park later this year, saving more money still. If you aren’t a member and want more information on Escapees, click on this affiliate link.
  2. Because my adventures were limited and because the heat and humidity kept me inside, it gave me the opportunity to get ahead on both my work and my blog posts. As a result, I’ll be able to enjoy the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta without any stress from either.
  3. And finally—and maybe the most important lesson—if you look for fun and beauty and adventure, you can find it. Even in places you don’t like.

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