20 tips to pull off the perfect Big Cedar Lodge family (or golf) getaway
We’re driving south, and Highway 65 is going up and down like a rollercoaster as we near Arkansas. The extreme elevation changes make me wonder how long it might take to run up one of these steep inclines. I imagine a little jogger off to my right, fighting his way up the hill. If you haven’t guessed by now, the mind is wandering. It’s been an easy but long drive — a straight shot south from the Twin Cities — but now our destination is inching closer. This undulating highway, the topography and thick, green, tree-covered landscape gives the Ozark Mountains away.
Two kids are sleeping in the back seat, one with snacks still in hand. I turn to my wife and ask, as any good husband would, what her goal is for this vacation.
“Good attitudes and healthy kids,” she deadpans. With two kids under 5, the occasional tantrum and pesky cold are commonplace in our household, as they are in others. The good news? We had little to worry about when it came to the tantrum part. We were minutes away from Big Cedar Lodge, which is well known as a golf mecca but, as we were about to find out, offers so much more.
So, what did we learn? Here are 20 tips for pulling off the perfect family getaway (complete with some golf) to Big Cedar Lodge.
1. Keep your map handy at all times
This place is huge. Like, really big. Like, 4,600 acres big. But the check-in to Big Cedar Lodge is quick and seamless and they equip you with everything you need. Snag your map, and they’ll also show you how to access another digital version on your phone. You’ll need ’em.
1a. By the end of the trip, we were pros traversing the property, making our way to different pools and buildings and attractions. But you really don’t even have to worry about driving yourself. Many of the 300-plus rooms, cottages or cabins (in all sizes and price points) are right in the main section of the property, so you can walk, but there are also shuttles you can call for rides. We used them often.
1b. For the unfamiliar, Big Cedar Lodge is in Ridgedale, Mo., the creation of Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. It’s billed as a wilderness resort, but just because you might not like fishing doesn’t mean you won’t like this place. (And for more on Morris and the evolution of Big Cedar, check out this GOLF Magazine feature from last year.)
2. Explore the grounds
Now that you have your map, go see everything there is to offer. The property is sprawling, but there’s different restaurants and pools and things to do all over, so you have options and can pick what’s close. We tried to visit as many spots as we could, but we still didn’t even hit a couple of the pools.
2a. Speaking of the pools, have kids? There are tons of swimming options. We took dips in the Devil’s Pool, Swimmin’ Hole Pool and Lakeside Pool, yet didn’t even get to them all (including the indoor option and lazy river). There’s also the marina, where you can hang by the beach and play in Table Rock Lake. There’s an adult pool, too, if that’s your thing. But like I said, our kids are under 5. You think we stepped foot in that area? Please.
3. Test out as many restaurants as you can
They are plentiful and equally delicious. There’s everything from quick eats (Truman Cafe and Custard) to poolside grub (the Devil’s Pool), slightly more elevated fare (Arnie’s Barn) and fancier dinners with killer views (Osage Restaurant). There’s also a wine cellar (End of the Trail) with a whiskey room and a basement pub (Buzzard Bar) with live music.
3a. Make sure you do the breakfast buffet at Devil’s Pool Restaurant at least once. We stacked our plates high with carbs and fruit and more carbs.
4. Find the ice cream
The Swimmin’ Hole is the only pool that has soft serve ice cream. But you can also get ice cream at Truman’s across the street.
5. Don’t forget the mini golf
Located in the middle of the main property, right next to a pickleball court and a playset for kids, is a nine-hole mini golf course that’s free to play. There’s no sign up; just drop by when you want, grab your goods and go. They have putters, balls, scorecards and pencils sitting out.
5a. I took my son there for one round. He’s 2 1/2, so it was a questionable decision, but we gave it a go. He had a ton of fun putting on the practice green, but things didn’t go quite as smoothly when we started our nine-hole round. We finished six of the nine holes. Not bad.
6. Visit Fun Mountain
It’s literally called Fun Mountain, but this place backs up its name. Situated on top of a hill overlooking the property, Fun Mountain has — deep breath here — go-carts, a ropes course, rock climbing, bumper cars, bowling, laser tag, billiards, a massive playset, golf simulator, two restaurants and an arcade loaded with games.
6a. Go early in the morning when it first opens, because this place can get busy, especially on bad-weather days. Luckily there’s lots to do to spread people out.
7. Play golf (duh)
This is the obvious one. But you know what’s crazy? I played just one day — Payne’s Valley in the morning and Top of the Rock in the afternoon — and my time at Big Cedar Lodge was still packed. That’s the beauty of this place. It can be as golfy as you want, but there’s still so much else to do that the golf doesn’t have to be the star of your trip. That said…
7a. The golf course could easily be the star of your trip. There are three 18-hole courses — Ozarks National (Coore and Crenshaw), Buffalo Ridge Springs (Tom Fazio) and Payne’s Valley (Tiger Woods) — plus a nine-hole par-3 course in Top of the Rock (Jack Nicklaus) and 13-hole short course Mountain Top (Gary Player/Johnny Morris). All are unique and worth playing, even though it might be tough to squeeze them all in on one trip. Ozarks National and Payne’s Valley are two of the best four courses in the state. While Payne’s Valley’s greens fee has risen with its popularity ($350 peak), the other courses range from $80 to $225.
7b. The par-3 and short course are perfect if you want to squeeze in a little golf without being gone the entire day or play a laid-back evening round. That’s what I did, and it was my favorite round of the year.
8. Payne’s Valley is as good as advertised
Payne’s Valley might get the most attention among the courses, and it’s easy to see why. It’s Tiger Woods’ first public design, it opened in 2020 and later made its TV debut for a star-studded match-play event that included Woods, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose. With its wide fairways, dramatic views and a 15-time major-winner attached to it, the course was such a hit that Big Cedar Lodge’s website momentarily went down due to high traffic during the match. That’s what you call good advertising.
8a. I read a bit about Payne’s Valley before I played it, but it exceeded expectations. It boasts million-dollar views, enticing risk/reward holes and, best of all, it’s playable — something that’s crucial to good resort golf. Payne’s Valley is named after Payne Stewart, the three-time major champ and Ozarks native who died tragically in a plane crash in 1999.
9. Check out the comfort station at Payne’s Valley
The Crow’s Nest is the comfort station you’ll pass a few times during your round, but you’ll first see it after the 7th hole. (It’s also a great place to escape the rain, like we did at that time.) There you’ll find drinks and snacks to fuel up for your round, but it’s also the only place on the entire property where you can get Payne’s Valley gear with a slick alternate logo. (I went with a T-shirt.)
10. Don’t skip the 19th hole at Payne’s Valley
This is hardly a tip. There’s no way you are driving past this treasure. Perhaps you’ve seen it before, but it’s a 130-yard-ish par 3 from an elevated tee to an island green that’s nestled inside a 200-foot limestone cliff and waterfall. It’s a great spot to settle bets or end your round in a memorable way.
11. Treat yourself
The Cedar Creek Spa is 18,000 square feet and has a ton of options to choose from (massages, manicures, pedicures and more). My wife and daughter went with the Royal Treatment, which is a mommy-and-me experience in which the kid gets spoiled like a princess on her birthday. It was my daughter’s favorite part of the entire trip.
11a. This isn’t just for females, though. A ton of men stop there as well. Hey, after long days on the golf course, taking care of your back, feet and hands is crucial.
12. Definitely don’t skip the Top of the Rock Lost Canyon and Nature Trail
Everyone I talked to on-site — there are a lot of friendly people on shuttles or poolside — raved about the Lost Canyon and Nature Trail at Top of the Rock. I can see why. It’s a 2 1/2-mile cruise on an electric cart — you can let the kids (carefully!) drive — that weaves through wooded forests, steep canyons, breathtaking rock formations and magnificent waterfalls. Oh, and it even goes through a cave! (Make sure to turn your lights on.) There are a bunch of spots to park the cart and jump on and off to look around and take pictures while on the trail. It can take you anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours.
13. Grab a drink in the Bat Bar
Need an adult beverage while on the trail? You can snag one in the aforementioned cave, which has a grab-and-go spot called — what else? — the Bat Bar.
14. But then have dinner at the Osage Restaurant
The Osage Restaurant is one of several at Big Cedar Lodge, and one of a couple at the Top of the Rock, where you can enjoy some of the best views on the property. It’s also just a quick drive or shuttle ride from the Rock Lost Canyon and Nature Trail, so it’s convenient to knock these out back to back.
14a. The Osage is one of the more formal dining spots on the property — although it’s still not stuffy — so while at other places you can wear flip-flops and eat nachos poolside, here you need a collared shirt.
14b. The 21 Ingredient Spinach Dip is a fantastic appetizer. And make sure to order the Crispy Brussel Sprouts as a side to any of the entrees, which range from center-cut filets to wood-fired chicken and glazed salmon.
14c. After dinner, take a picture from the balcony of the Osage, with the Chapel of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake (both below) in the background. You are welcome.
15. Check out the Cathedral of Nature sinkhole
If you eat dinner at the Osage or play the Top of the Rock, you won’t miss this. In 2015, a sinkhole opened here and owner Johnny Morris was tasked with figuring out next steps. But instead of just stabilizing the remaining structure and moving on, Morris decided to keep digging and see what they could find. Hundreds of thousands of truckloads of dirt have been excavated and the digging continues. It was originally 40 feet deep, but now it’s more than 200. You can’t go down there but you can still get a good glimpse of it.
16. Sign up for the Hoop Dee Doo
This is an all-terrain trip around the property. You start by meeting at the marina, go for a quick guided pontoon spin on Table Rock Lake and then take a tractor ride — a kid favorite! — to the lawn area, where you’ll have a BBQ dinner on picnic tables as kids can play lawn games, compete in a hula-hoop content and roast s’mores.
16a. After a couple of days of wrangling kids to sit still inside restaurants, it was a nice change to eat a casual meal on picnic tables outside. Plus, the no-frills packed dinners were delicious.
16b. After dinner, you’ll jump back on the tractor trailer and head out for a quick buzz around the property. Your guide will feed you info on the resort’s history and its owner, Johnny Morris, while also taking a pit stop at Falls Lodge, where you can walk out to the back balcony and take in the sweet sunset over the water.
17. Buy something at The Shoppe
You know how most gift shops at some resorts are packed with overpriced sweatshirts and logoed mugs? This wasn’t that. The prices are surprisingly reasonable, so you can take home some cool swag for yourself and others. (I went with a whiskey decanter for $30.)
18. Look for fireflies at night
This was a simple but wonderful distraction one evening. It’s the little things, people.
19. Too late for your summer trip? Go in the winter
As one person told us: “this place is a Hallmark movie around Christmas.” She wasn’t the only one. That was a common theme we heard throughout our stay. Hundreds of Christmas trees dot the property, which is blanketed in twinkle lights during the holidays. That’s also perfect wood-burning fire season, which is exactly what you’ll find in many of the rooms.
20. Better yet, bring your clubs in the winter
Sure, the weather gets a little colder, but those temps are nothing new to anyone who plays early spring or late fall golf up north. Plus, it’s the off-season for greens fees, too ($100-150 for the three 18-hole courses).
There’s a ton more to do. I could hardly fit it all in. The good news? They create itineraries for you. Happy planning.