Lake Ozark, Missouri: Sunrise high angle view.

The Ozarks's Best Small Towns for a Weekend Escape

Stereotyped as an isolated and backward region, the Ozarks may not be your first choice for a weekend escape. However, this range of highlands covers 47,000 square miles, four geologically diverse areas, parts of four states, and is a short drive from major cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, and Wichita. Plus, it is filled with vibrant towns that can serve as beautiful bases for a weekend of Ozarks' ogling. Discover seven to check into after checking out of weekday doldrums.

Grove, Oklahoma

Grand Lake, Oklahoma: Sunset view.

Grand Lake, Oklahoma: Sunset view.

The Ozarks come to an end in Oklahoma but not before engulfing Grove in spectacular scenery. This 7,000ish-person community sits 755 feet above sea level and straddles the 40,000ish-acre Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees. Naturally, the lake attracts hordes of weekenders who partake in swimming, boating, tubing, fishing, hunting, parasailing, wakeboarding, and sightseeing, especially at Grand Lake State Park. Many of those activities are combined for Toes in the Grand, a summer kickoff festival set to run from Friday, June 7, to Sunday, June 9, 2024. After partying on the lake, visitors can relax off the lake at Lendonwood Gardens or the Har-Ber Village Museum. Then, crash at Candlewyck Cove Resort or one of numerous other lakeside lodges.

Mountain View, Arkansas

Mountain View, Arkansas: Folk Music Capital of the World.

Mountain View, Arkansas: Folk Music Capital of the World. Editorial credit: Travel Bug /

Mountain View provides marvelous mountain views. Sitting 751 feet in the Arkansas Ozarks, this super-small city neighbors the Sylamore District of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest. Throughout its 130,000 acres, weekenders can hike hardwood forests, swim spring-fed creeks, watch winsome waterfalls, climb limestone bluffs, and bike flowery meadows. Moreover, spelunk in the Blanchard Springs Caverns, a "living" cave system widely considered the district's top attraction. Campsites are available for natural adventurers, while Mountain View is available for cultural adventurers.

Stay at Ozark Country Inn while exploring the "Folk Music Capital of the World," replete with stores, venues, and annual festivals like the Arkansas Folk Festival and the Mountain View Bluegrass Festival. There is even banjo pickin' at the Stone County Courthouse Square on Friday and Saturday nights from April to September.

Lake Ozark, Missouri

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri.

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri.

Not to be confused with Lake of the Ozarks, Lake Ozark is a 2,000ish-person community on the banks of the Lake of the Ozarks, which is considered the "Midwest’s premier lake resort destination." After frolicking in the lake, weekenders can dry off in Lake Ozark at such hip haunts as Baxter's Lakeside Grille, Grandma's Candy Kitchen, and The Malted Monkey, the last of which is both a restaurant and a 60-foot-tall rope course. They all occupy Bagnell Dam Boulevard, the Vegas Strip of Lake Ozark.

Those looking for a true Ozark escape can keep following the 100ish-mile lake until they hit Lake of the Ozarks State Park or go even farther south to Bridal Cave & Thunder Mountain Park. Overnight at Fisherwaters Resort or Rippling Waters Resort and then continue on to Ha Ha Tonka State Park and its scenic but cryptic Ha Ha Tonka Castle Ruins.

Eminence, Missouri

Eminence, Missouri: Rocky Falls on a sunny day.

Eminence, Missouri: Rocky Falls on a sunny day.

Another aptly titled Ozark community, Eminence, offers eminent views along its Ozark National Scenic Riverways. About as magical a place as you can find in southern Missouri, this federally protected park covers 80,000 acres of colorful rivers, plants, animals, springs, and heritage buildings. Perhaps the most striking site is the Alley Spring and Mill, which is a bright-red former mill on a turquoise spring that stays 57 degrees throughout the year.

Located near the center of the Riverways, Eminence, in addition to views and recreation, attracts weekenders with food at the Dairy Shack, drink at The Wet Spot Bar & Eatery, and sleep at the Rivers Edge Inn Resort. If you would rather rough it and be rewarded for your sacrifice, choose Shawnee Creek Campground and see the Riverways' most mesmerizing features: wild horses. If nothing else can drag you to the Missouri Ozarks, wild horses will.

Ponca, Arkansas

Ponca, Arkansas: Kayaker floating down the Buffalo River.

Ponca, Arkansas: Kayaker floating down the Buffalo River.

After watching wild horses in Eminence, you can cross into Arkansas to see another Ozark animal: elk. Thanks to a reintroduction program in the 1980s, the community of Ponca (population ~30) has around 500 free-ranging elk - the first in Arkansas in decades. Weekenders can learn about this second-largest deer species at the Ponca Nature Center, which also provides supreme Ozark sightseeing along Ponca Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River. Swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and camping are all available for rivergoers.

But a trip to Ponca would not be complete without Jasper. This 550-ish-person "city" sits about 20 minutes east and has a grand cafe, museum, and canyon - the Arkansas Grand Canyon, to be exact, which is more like an immense valley. The cliffside Cliff House Inn has arguably the best view of the valley, plus food, rooms, and souvenirs.

Arcadia, Missouri

Arcadia, Missouri: Ursuline Academy-Arcadia College Historic District.

Arcadia, Missouri: Ursuline Academy-Arcadia College Historic District. By Skye Marthaler, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Like the historic Greek region that inspired its name, Arcadia mingles among mountains and valleys and forests and ancient (for Missouri) monuments. From their base at Arcadia Academy, a 19th-century Romanesque Revival college turned bed & breakfast, temporary Arcadians grab sandwiches, pastries, and ice cream at other repurposed campus buildings before heading into the million-acre woods of the Mark Twain National Forest and adjacent preserves. Elephant Rocks State Park is high on the pantheon of Arcadian wonders since its namesake rock formation resembles a line of elephants. The boulders can be climbed or else admired from afar at beautiful picnic sites and hiking trails.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Eureka Springs, Arkansas: Biker riding a motorcycle downtown, with a man playing guitar at a stop sign.

Downtown Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Editorial credit: shuttersv /

A truer Ozark anomaly than even wild horses and elephant rocks, Eureka Springs is a Victorian village with postmodern art, and progressive festivals carved more than 1,400 feet into the Arkansas mountains. Among its quirky attractions are Thorncrown Chapel, a mountainside church that stimulates the senses with its 425 windows and countless crossed trusses; Christ of the Ozarks, the Ozarks' 67-foot answer to Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer; and the Summer Diversity Weekend, a multi-day LGBTQIA+ celebration with drag shows and family-friendly activities. Weekenders wanting both views and intriguing stories can stay at the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, which is a Victorian retreat dubbed the "most haunted hotel in America."

Discover the Hidden Charms of the Ozarks

The Ozarks should not be neglected when considering weekend destinations. This highland region contains phenomenal nature and culture, which can be accessed via small communities like Grove in Oklahoma, Mountain View, Ponca, and Eureka Springs in Arkansas, and Lake Ozark, Eminence, and Arcadia in Missouri. Best of all, those communities are near major metropolises, so you can get into the Ozarks on Friday and get out on Sunday with many stories to tell on Monday.

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