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The Midwest: Nature’s Playground

Group horseback riding in Brown County, Indiana, courtesy Brown County CVB

Whether it’s mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, fishing or jumping off a 230-foot-tall tower on a zip line, the mountains, forests and lakes of the Midwest provide visitors endless opportunities to get outside and enjoy the outdoors.

Branson, Missouri

Branson may be best known for its vast entertainment options, but because it is surrounded by three lakes in the Ozarks, the city also has endless options for outdoor adventures.

“You could be here for a whole week and do something different outdoors every day,” said Lenni Neimeyer, director of leisure group sales for the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Ride the Ducks takes groups on 90-minute tours of Branson’s scenic streets before driving them into a lake. Don’t worry: That’s part of the plan. The company’s amphibious vehicles start on Branson streets with a narrated history of the city and end with a splashdown in either Lake Taneycomo to the east or Table Rock Lake to the west.

“That’s a particularly fun activity for groups,” Neimeyer said. “They get the sightseeing aspect, and they get to get out on a lake.”

At State Park Marina on Table Rock Lake, groups can rent fishing boats, ski boats and pontoon boats; ride a WaveRunner; or go parasailing. Neimeyer once arranged 20 pontoon boats to take 150 people out to a little island on the lake.

“Our lake provides so many fun activities,” she said.

Over the past few years, several zip lines have popped up around Branson, Neimeyer said. Branson Zipline and Canopy Tours at Wolfe Creek Preserve was built by Amish carpenters and has a picnic area. Vigilante Extreme ZipRider recently opened at Inspiration Tower at the Shepherd of the Hills historic homestead and outdoor theater. Riders jump from the 230-foot tower’s observation deck for a heart-pounding ride to the bottom.

About 45 minutes west of Branson is Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 10,000-acre preserve that was started by Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops. Operated by a nonprofit today, the park offers hiking, biking, fishing and horseback riding, as well as Segway and tram tours.

“It’s almost like an a la carte menu of group activity,” Neimeyer said.

Brown County, Indiana
Indiana’s largest state park is located in the state’s rolling southern hills, an area that’s stunning in the summer but better known for its fall foliage.

Each year, more than 5 million people visit Brown County State Park where they can hike, bike, camp, reel in a fish or ride a horse. Mountain biking, horseback riding and zip lining are among the park’s most popular group activities, said Jamie Newton, communications director for the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

With some of the best mountain bike trails in the nation, the park hosts many races and clinics, and local businesses rent bikes to groups, Newton said.

Brown County Saddle Barn, inside the state park, offers 30-minute or one-hour horseback rides daily from May through November, and hayrides are also available.

“Horseback riding is really popular in the fall, especially because of the fall foliage,” Newton said.

Rawhide Ranch in Nashville, Indiana, also offers horseback rides, and zip-line excursions are available for groups of 10 or fewer. Holler Hoppin’ Zip Lines, at the ranch, has five lines that total 1,110 feet and “hop” six ravines, known as “hollers” to the locals.

With 14 zip lines, all-terrain-vehicle rentals, mountain biking and paintball, eXplore Brown County at Valley Branch Retreat is an outdoor adventure mecca. A variety of zip-line tours are available, among them the Screamer Tour, which is designed for speed; the Night Flight tour, with nighttime zips; and the Superhero tour, which lets people fly like Superman.

“It’s really long, and it’s really fast, and I’ve heard it really feels like you’re flying,” Newton said.