Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, Missouri

A steep mountain ridge to your right and the vast expanse of Table Rock Lake to your left. Sun spots dancing on the water a hundred feet below. A cloudless sky and crisp air. These are some of the first things you’ll notice as your vehicle rolls up a winding path to the secluded Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum in Ridgedale, Missouri. Few museums can be found in such locations, surrounded by the very historic and natural backdrops that they stand testament to, but this museum is no ordinary place.

As soon as you enter the building, you are dwarfed by the skeletal remains of a massive wooly mammoth that once walked the prehistoric lands of our modern-day Missouri. It is one of the largest artifacts, too tall to fit in the below-ground levels of the main museum.

After getting your tickets, you are invited to literally descend through the rich levels of history buried within the Ozarks as you go down a staircase to the subterranean level of the main gallery. Down there the floors are cold and the lighting is dim. It’s almost as if you are maneuvering a deep cave system. On your journey through the 35,000 square foot space, you will encounter a range of histories, from the prehistoric Ozarks and Native Osage tribes to the Civil War and Wild West.

The gallery moves chronologically, so the first exhibits highlight the prehistory. As you curve along the twisting path, you will be met at every turn by a terrifying beast of the times. Ground Sloths the size of cows, a vicious Hell Pig, and a Terror Bird that looks like a carnivorous ostrich—just to name a few. These animal models are staged in massive dioramas, surrounded by interesting props and beautifully painted backgrounds. Along with the thrill of witnessing these life-size recreations of extinct species, you can read up on the early formation of the Ozark Mountains.

Terror Bird display

Next you will enter the most impressive wing of the museum, a section dedicated to the history of Native Americans. Here you will see nearly 75,000 artifacts, about 1/3 of which belongs to one privately owned collection. It is also interesting to note that many artifacts came directly from the Ozark Mountains when they were discovered in an archaeological dig several years ago. This is by far the largest portion of the museum, but there are occasional benches where you can rest, as well as several movie theatres where you can sit and enjoy some visual history.

As you continue on, there are rooms dedicated to different aspects of Native history. Rooms on archaeological work, rooms full of weapons, rooms full of tools, even a room that includes a real canoe used by Osage tribes. These artifacts and their exhibits highlight the sense of community and hard work that was so prevalent in Native tribes of the Midwest. The experience is heightened by the soft sounds of Native music playing from the speakers in each room.

Arrowhead and clothing display

The best collections are those of the arrowheads and clothing. The arrowheads are displayed in wooden frames, the pointed stones firmly mounted in beds of soft felt and arranged in beautiful designs—arches, swirls, and more. Most frames are massive, holding hundreds of arrowheads of varied size and color. The Native clothing is elaborate and spectacular. You will see dresses layered in red and turquoise beads, ornate headdresses, moccasins, and papoose cradles.

Authentic Native moccasin collection

Along with historic artifacts, this wing is enhanced with Native-related fine art—by far the most striking collection of which you may witness in one place. If you can bear to take your eyes from the artifacts, you will notice the statues and carved busts hiding in the corners, artistic renditions of face-painted men with delicately carved feathers in their hair, their eyes dark and seeing right through you. On the gallery walls you’ll notice oil paintings and chalk drawings and all manner of other art styles capturing intriguing scenes of Native life, culture, and history. You don’t have to be an art fan to appreciate the utter splendor of these pieces.

Stained glass art

As you reach the last stretch of the museum, the music changes to sounds more suggestive of the Wild West era. Most artifacts in this wing come from the Civil War—rifles, sabers, cannons, canteens, and artillery pieces. Here the walls are plastered with historic photos of soldiers, and firsthand documents such as written letters and political papers. Along some edges of the rooms are displays of officers’ tents, cook stations, and other such camp scenes. Most informational text centers on camp life as well as the particularly bloody fighting that took place in Missouri, fighting that was characterized by brutal guerrilla warfare and some major western-theatre battles.

One of the most popular artifacts in this wing is a locket containing a strand of Abraham Lincoln’s hair. In the same room you can learn more about the war’s political side before moving to the next era: the Wild West. Notable legends from these rough and infamous times dominate the scenery. You can read up on William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, and see posters from his notorious “Wild West Shows” which featured acts from frontier performers and Native Indians. And if you’re familiar with the famous lawman Wyatt Earp, or if you’ve seen the film Tombstone, you’ll recognize one mannequin: Doc Holliday. He stands before a small lean-to in the likeness of Val Kilmer, the actor who played him in the famed film, with his hand reaching across his hip for a pistol. This reference to Wild West history and film culture continues to be a favorite detail.

Memorabilia from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

As you reach the last gallery, you might’ve spent anywhere from 1-3 hours in this massive museum. The final room is one last testament to preservation, that of nature and history alike, and then you are sent on your way with one powerful, lingering message by Chief Seattle: “Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man… cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.” With these words, you will leave the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum feeling pleasantly older than when you first arrived—full of ancient wisdom and a strong connection to the past we all share.

‘End of the Trail’ sculpture and outdoor reflecting pool

Standard information

Hours and pricing: The museum is open Sunday through Thursday 9:00am-6:00pm, and Friday and Saturday 9:00am-7:00pm. Adult tickets are $12 each while children are $5. There is a parking fee, $10 per vehicle, but there are free shuttles that will drive you up to the museum.

Additional activities: If you are looking for more to do, there is a gift shop, as well as several restaurants on site. The restaurants tend to be pricey, and there are no snacks allowed in the museum, so many people eat before visiting. On certain nights you can witness a Sunset Celebration on the museum grounds, in which bagpipes are played and a Civil War cannon is fired. Also, you can pay for a self-guided golf cart tour that winds through the nearby mountains. On this tour you witness waterfalls, lookout points, and you drive through a small cave system. The museum and these attractions are located about 25 minutes from Branson, Missouri.

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Bailey Schnur

Bailey Schnur currently lives in Southern Indiana where she teaches History and English to high school students. During college she spent time abroad and has visited 10 European countries. At home, she travels mostly through the American Midwest and South, but wants to visit all 50 states. She enjoys writing historical fiction, and posting pictures and information from her travels on Twitter (@baileyschnur) and a co-owned blog (