Suppressing nagging thoughts of my clumsiness, I stepped toward the railing and held on tight. I'm not really afraid of heights and the railing was secure, but still, it was a long way down.
Instantly, my trepidation disappeared, replaced by awe at the sight before me.
My view was into a 200-foot-deep chasm recently dubbed the Cathedral of Nature. It certainly earns its name.
I was standing on a deck at Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve, looking down into a remarkable cave system discovered in 2015 when a sinkhole opened as developers were trying to expand a popular Jack Nicklaus golf course.
It shouldn't be surprising. Missouri is, after all, the Cave State. But Mother Nature never fails to astound when it comes to the Ozarks.
Caves and canyons
Located just south of the vacation destination of Branson, these are the native lands of the Osage Indians. Top of the Rock and the Cathedral of Nature are maintained by Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops and Tracker Boats. Morris was raised in the Ozarks and is one of the region's top environmental activists.
Right now, only the team that is excavating the cave system has the incredible view of looking up into the blue sky above the red limestone. But the goal is to soon allow the public into the Cathedral of Nature.
The experience will be an extension of an already remarkable golf-cart tour of the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail. We enjoyed breezing past waterfalls, stepping out for stunning views of Table Rock Lake and zipping into the lantern-lit coolness of the cave. Just a few yards from a live bat colony, the Bat Bar offers adult cocktails like Bat Blood — vodka with strawberry lemonade — and kids' drinks in memorable souvenir cups.
A visit to the Ozarks is not complete without a day of exploring nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. From sparkling spring-fed streams, to captivating waterfalls, to the limestone outcroppings nestled between dogwoods and other native trees, the canyon is a sanctuary celebrating serenity, renewal and the space to take a deep, cleansing breath.
Dogwood Canyon is also home to elk, mink and otter, a herd of bison that includes a rare white bison, and so many beautiful raptors. The eagle-watching is spectacular in any season.
Angela Canaletta led our Land Rover tour through the preserve, although it would have been equally enjoyable to ride bikes, horses or Segways.
"There is so much serenity and so much peace found here," Canaletta said. "You could have so many challenges within life itself, but it is physically impossible to feel anything but still amongst the continuous running weirs and the falls you will see along one of our tours."
Emphasis on nature
It was tempting to just find a quiet spot and let nature quietly tell her story.
But we had dinner reservations back at Top of the Rock, where the sunset over Table Rock Lake is celebrated each evening with a bagpiper and cannon fire. Located at the highest point in Taney County, Top of the Rock is home to restaurants, a natural history museum and that Jack Nicklaus golf course.
That sense of letting nature ease our problems was the inspiration behind Big Cedar Lodge, the nearby resort Morris built into the hillsides overlooking Table Rock Lake. With dozens of cozy, fully furnished cabins tucked under the trees to three massive lodges with traditional rooms and suites, Big Cedar is both family-friendly and a secluded romantic getaway.
From wine-painting parties to blacklight nighttime scavenger hunts for families, and movie nights on the lawn, the emphasis of all activities in a Johnny Morris property is on celebrating the natural environment.
The Bent Hook Marina offers boats and Jet Skis, specializing in the Tracker bass boat for which Morris is famous. Guides are available for outstanding bass and trout fishing on Table Rock and nearby Lake Taneycomo. Or get out on the water with a brunch or dinner cruise on the Lady Liberty yacht.
Last fall, Big Cedar opened the Thunder Ridge Arena, a 20,000-seat amphitheater built into a hillside. In addition to concerts and events, the arena is home to Missouri Thunder, a professional bull-riding team.
Meanwhile, in Springfield
While you're in southwest Missouri, plan a day at Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife, an aquarium and natural history museum in nearby Springfield. Its Sea Turtle Center provides rehabilitative care for loggerhead turtles that are ill or have been injured by boats. It's the only facility in the Midwest and one of few in the U.S. that are approved to care for the endangered reptiles.
A new exhibit hall that opened this winter, called "Nature's Best Photography," showcases wildlife and outdoor imagery from some of the world's top outdoor photographers.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a Kansas City-based travel writer.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that a herd of bison lives outside of Branson.