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Take me to the water

Lake of the Ozarks puts aquatic fun in easy reach

I live about 171 statute miles from the Atlantic Ocean. As a new private pilot, I was only too happy to use my certificate to learn to cut down the cumbersome four-hour car ride to a much lovelier 90-minute flight by general aviation airplane.
Photography by Chris Rose.
Zoomed image
Photography by Chris Rose.

No tolls, no beach traffic backups. I imagine West Coast pilots feel much the same way; whenever they need their fix, the Pacific Ocean and any number of easily accessible airports are waiting.

But pity the poor folks in the Midwest. They’re traveling hundreds and hundreds of miles to reach either coast, and unless they own a Mooney or a Cirrus or a Cessna 182, they’re looking at a couple days’ flying just to get there—and that’s before they can stick their toes in the water.

Luckily, pilots in Missouri—and the bordering states of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska—can skip the two or three days of flying to frolic in the water. They need only fly to Lake of the Ozarks. This family-friendly destination—part Coney Island, part Nashville, with a dash of Myrtle Beach—was created in 1929 when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed up the Osage River. Completed in 1931 with a surface area of 54,000 acres, the lake unfolds like a Chinese dragon in the center of the state, with four branches (called “arms”) reaching out from the main body and numerous small coves branching off from there.

Keith Doornbos, a pilot who lives in Bloomington, Illinois, has been coming to Lake of the Ozarks since the 1970s. He purchased a condominium in 2001 and flies to the lake as often as he can.

“I’m amazed we can get in the airplane and in a little over two hours, we can be down here,” he said. “Three hours later and I can be sitting on a deck with a drink in my hand. How many people can say that?”

Doornbos owns a polished 1948 Cessna 170. It’s the perfect family wagon to travel to the lake since it can haul so much. His daughter, Laura Benton, has flown in the 170 since she was 10 days old. She’s now a private pilot living in Colfax, Illinois, who also flies the 170 to the lake—although, when her husband and seven children come along, somebody has to drive anyway. Not even a 170 can handle that amount of passengers and luggage.

Although Doornbos also has a Piper Cub, the 170 is the lake chariot and has been for decades. He considered selling it when Laura was in college—but she burst into tears at the suggestion. She had earned a sport pilot certificate in the Cub and added on a private pilot certificate so that she could fly the 170. She’s an avid tailwheel pilot and an active member and president of the online group Ladies Love Taildraggers.

“They love the lake,” Benton said of her family. Her 13-year-old twin sons love fishing, and everybody enjoys kayaking.

Some 70,000 houses, cottages, condominiums, hotels, resorts, restaurants, and other businesses line the shore. The lake is owned by Ameren Missouri, a subsidiary of a national power company.

The population of the town and its visitors include all income levels and age groups—so long as you love the water. You’ll see anything from kayaks to million-dollar speedboats tooling around the lake, and there’s no shame in eyeballing a luxury performance boat as it glides into a slip at one of the many lakeside restaurants. It’s part of the fun. Fishing boats, pontoons, sailboats, cabin cruisers, motorboats, and personal watercraft all cruise the waters, and somehow, they manage to co-exist. Fishing boats tend to go out early in the morning. The mid-morning belongs to the boaters; wave runners appear in the afternoons.

“Everybody gets along,” Doornbos said. “We respect what other people have.”

That’s not to say that Lake of the Ozarks doesn’t get crowded in the summertime; some 5 million people come here every year. During peak season when the lake is teeming with boaters, the constantly churning water smashes against breakwaters put out to protect the docks and piers from damage. Many boats are kept on floats hovering a few inches out of the water so they aren’t damaged.

The many little coves provide quiet oases to the main body of water, where smaller boats can congregate for fishing and swimming. (One cove picked up a reputation as a “party cove” when it became a hangout for an under-30 crowd that would park their boats adjacent to one another, hop from boat to boat, socialize, drink, and swim…sometimes without bathing suits.)

The sheer size of the lake—the shoreline is 1,150 miles, or more shoreline than the coast of California—means boating is also the preferred means to get to your favorite dockside restaurant. Twenty minutes on the water could save you 60 minutes of driving. Numerous boat rentals operate at Lake of the Ozarks, offering motorized craft along with kayaks, stand-up paddles, and water toys.


Watersports are the main draw, but there are plenty of other allures. “I think it attracts just about everybody for one reason or another,” Doornbos said. “There’s the crowd that wants to come down and play in the water, swim, or race boats. There’s people who are my age and retired or older and they either live down here or they have a condo and they come down for the same reasons—but they may not do it with the same intensity. There’s people who enjoy nature.”

Two state parks offer hikers, equestrians, boaters, and mountain bikers beautiful vistas. Lake of the Ozarks State Park has its own marina and two swimming beaches. Ha Ha Tonka State Park is peppered with karst topography—a mix of sinkholes, caves, underground streams, springs, and natural bridges. It’s also home to a fascinating set of stone ruins known as the Castle (see “The Castle”). “Ha Ha Tonka” is said to mean “big laugh” or “smiling waters,” alluding to the natural springs on the property.

Speaking of caves, Missouri has more than 7,000 of them, and Lake of the Ozarks offers some spectacular examples to explore safely. The giant columns, “soda straws,” and draperies of rock formations found in Bridal Cave are wondrous. The Cave Bar & Grill takes things to a literal level, allowing patrons to experience a swim-up bar that extends into a cave. (If you forgot your swimsuit, it’s OK; you can walk around the perimeter of the pool and see the cave.)

Getting there

Two general aviation airports, both owned and operated by the City of Osage Beach, Missouri, serve Lake of the Ozarks. Lee C. Fine Memorial Airport (AIZ) is located at the eastern end of the lake, close to Lake Ozark State Park. Its 6,497-foot-long runway appeals to larger, faster aircraft; on the day we visited, a King Air and a twin Beech were just two of the several airplanes that landed and taxied onto the ramp, where both Jet A and 100LL are sold. The airport office borders on cozy, with wood-beam ceilings, a fireplace, and two hummingbird feeders that can provide nonstop entertainment. The airport doesn’t have a courtesy car, but rental cars are available. There’s at least one Uber and some taxi service. Doornbos keeps a car at AIZ to get around, although he discovered last year that a nocturnal visitor had chewed through the fuel line.

Grand Glaize-Osage Beach Airport (K15) has a 3,205-foot-long runway. Situated closer to a business loop, K15 is the choice of most single-engine aircraft that visit the area, and it also sells 100LL and Jet A. Grand Glaize has trees on three sides of the airport, and you can experience some “unusual circumstances” with wind when you approach, Doornbos said. He wouldn’t advise a student pilot to fly in without an instructor, but it should be manageable for any seasoned pilot.

Transient hangar space is limited at these airports, so choose your travel dates to avoid thunderstorms or hail.

Another option is Camdenton Memorial/Lake Regional Airport (OZS) in nearby Camdenton, Missouri. Located about 17 nautical miles from Lake of the Ozarks, OZS has a 5,002-foot-long runway and a full-service FBO with crew cars.

Staying there

Whatever your budget, it’s likely Lake of the Ozarks has accommodations that will fit. Stay with a brand such as the Margaritaville resort or choose a cottage or independently owned motel or hotel, or rent a condominium. You’ll find plenty of dining options as well. Doornbos’s favorite is the Paradise, which serves tropical-themed dishes and has a dock.

Although very lively in the summer, Lake of the Ozarks doesn’t shut down after Labor Day. The town hosts events all year around, including fishing tournaments, a food truck festival, and an apple festival. Stores, restaurants, hotels, and more remain open and busy, but crowds are no longer an issue. On the September weekend when we visited, school had started and the summer crowds had diminished, allowing an early riser to enjoy the tranquility of the water with a cup of coffee.

The moderate climate is another plus. Temperatures in central Missouri range from 59 degrees Fahrenheit to 82 degrees F in September, dipping as low as 20 degrees in January and climbing to about 90 degrees in July.

Missouri’s favorite son Mark Twain wrote, “There is no use in your walking five miles to fish when you can depend on being just as unsuccessful near home.” If you fly to Lake of the Ozarks, it’s a shorter trip and you’re that much closer to being settled in a deck chair with a beverage.

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Click images to enlarge and view captions.

Lakeside views abound at Lake of the Ozarks, whose massive surface area includes a main lake that sees a lot of boat activity, four branches or “arms,” and many quiet little coves where visitors and residents can swim, fish, and play. Laura Benton ties down her family’s Cessna 170 at Grand Glaize Airport, one of two general aviation airports that border the lake. Illustration by Michael Parkin. Photography by Chris Rose. Lakeside dining is a big draw, especially when you can dock your boat at a pier and enjoy a meal. Natural springs run in Ha Ha Tonka State Park. Photography by Chris Rose.
Jill W. Tallman
Jill W. Tallman
AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.

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