Day Trippin near southwest Missouri: Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area and Smallin Civil War Cave

Seth Kinker
Neosho Daily News

Over the course of this summer, I’ll be plotting out and exploring some day trips that can be made in the southwest Missouri area.

This day trip over to Branson combined the hiking aspect that I’ve hit hard this summer and the past couple of day trips that included visits to caves in the area. After visiting Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area in Branson, on the way home I stopped by the Smallin Civil War Cave in Ozark.

A small lizard spotted at the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area.

It can be a family friendly day trip, with play grounds and picnic tables in the parking lot next to the trailhead at the Lakeside Forest Wildness Area, as well as another chance to escape the heat on these hot summer days with an educational aspect in learning about the background of the Smallin Civil War Cave.  

The trip to Smallin Civil War Cave was made on another whim, seeing it advertised on the way home, but Branson being the tourist mecca that it is, there’s always plenty of family friendly options for entertainment and dining in the area too.

Cost: Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area: Free

Smallin Civil War Cave: Adults: $23.50, Children (4-12): $12.95, Children (3 and under): Free

Time: The trip over to Branson to the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area was just over an hour and a half, leaving around 11 a.m. and arriving at 12:45 p.m.

Although I chose Smallin Civil War Cave on a whim, I had planned to make it a multi-stop trip, so I was back to my car by a little bit after 2 p.m. with that in mind, but there are multiple trails at the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area that you can hike with miles of it alongside Lake Taneycomo.

Smallin Civil War Cave was on the same route back home toward Joplin after leaving the Lakeside Forest Wildness Area, I got there around 3 p.m., the next tour left at 3:30 p.m. and takes about an hour. I was back to the car by 4:30 and home shortly after for a round trip distance of 229 miles.

What to look out for: The Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area has five different trails, the Bluff Trail (.5 miles), Owen Drive Trail (.4 miles), Ridge Trail (2.4 miles), Stone Wall Trail (.34 miles) and the Taneycomo Trail (1.06 miles).

A guide to all the paths at the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area.

Arriving at the parking lot, the main path has a board with the color coordinated trails on it. I took the center path, Owen Drive Trail to the Stone Wall Trail, there I wanted to see the stone steps and small cave before transitioning over to the Ridge Trail and Taneycomo Trail to see a couple of other marked destinations in the Grotto and Waterfall on the Ridge Trail and Old Soldiers Cave on the Taneycomo Trail.

The stone steps, all 315 of them, on the Bluff Trail weaved steadily downward toward Taneycomo Trail and connected to the Ridge Trail. Going down the steps, there’s a small cave to check out before moving on.

The winding stars on leading down on the Bluff Trail.

At the bottom of the steps, I went left towards the Grotto and Waterfall. I stopped under the cauldron there, going under the waterfall to cool off and exploring further. Following the creek bed of the not too strong waterfall, I got right down by the water before turning around and taking the path around to the top of the waterfall.

Sitting under the Grotto and Waterfall on the Ridge Trail.

Continuing along the connecting path, I walked alongside a rockface to my left and the lake on my right to the Old Soldiers Cave. Located along what is now known as the Branson Heights Bluff, the name is derived from Civil War times when a local man, Calvin Gayler, hid in the cave for months to avoid being called into service during the war. 

Walking alongside the Branson Heights Bluff on the Taneycomo Trail to the Old Soldier's Cave.

I took the Ridge Trail on the way out which was steeper and more uphill. I ran into a family with younger children, grandparents and a baby in a stroller who were trying to decide what path to take. The uneven and skinny parts of the Taneycomo Trail, the steps on the Bluff Trail and the steepness of the Ridge Trail all led me to advising them against those with a stroller.

On the way home, the Smallin Civil War Cave was right off the highway, easily found by following the signs directing you to the business.

A one-hour, guided tour of the 55’ high and 100’ wide cave that goes ½ a mile, it’s family friendly with no stairs and a path throughout.

A look coming out of the massive Smallin Civil War Cave.

Like the other cave tours, there was some wildlife inside with salamanders and bats hanging in the cave pointed out to us by our guide.

Smallin is the name of the pioneer family that settled in the area in 1852 and in addition to those pioneers, Native Americans from the Osage and Caddo tribes lived there and it was also used by Union Soldiers during the Civil War.

There weren’t many hanging stalactite or stalagmite formations to avoid like the other cave trips thus far, but the history was really interesting to learn about.

A large formation on the right that cave visitors in the past had climbed up on to jump in the pool on the left around seven feet deep. Now, it's used as a reminder as to what can happen if humans disturb what lies naturally and how much faster we can contribute to its deterioration.

Our guide had become an honorary member of a local Osage tribe and was able to give a lot of insight into their history with the area.

While we were on the regular tour, there are off-trail wild tours offered that go two hours off the beaten path that is lit only by the light of your helmet. Wading through water is part of that tour as well and is only for those 12 years and older but definitely had me intrigued as it mentioned climbing obstacles along the tour.

Near the back of the Smallin Civil War Cave on the one-hour, guided tour.

All in all, two more great stops for day trips with the family.

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