Missouri Table rock lake near Branson
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Road Trip from Chicago to Branson, Missouri

Published by Pat Dorri on March 17 2023

This curious yet compact journey from Chicago to Branson, Missouri, certainly packs a punch, with stop-offs and attractions ranging from scenic lakes and forests, to fun city sights, ballgames and wild animal spotting.

This short but sweet trip from Chicago to Branson covers 570 miles taking 9 hours. Enjoy breaks at Naperville, Jacksonville and Columbia, landscapes of Lake Ozark, Mark Twain Forest and Kankakee, and entertainment at Champaign and St Louis.

This beautiful, exciting journey from Chicago to Branson, Missouri, ticks plenty of boxes, balancing inner-city fun with nature. Continue reading to see our suggestions of where to stop off to explore, and where to stay along the way.

How far is Branson, Missouri from Chicago, and how long will the road trip take?

Comparison of road trip routes between Chicago and Branson, Missouri
RouteDistanceDriving Time
The St. Louis Route570 miles8 hours 45 minutes
The Columbia Route605 miles10 hours 30 minutes

The St Louis Route from Chicago to Branson, Missouri, travels across 570 miles, taking nearly 9 hours to complete without a detour.

You can also follow the alternative Columbia Route, which will take a little longer at 10 hours and 30 minutes, covering 605 miles.

While you may be tempted to cover these routes in a day, taking 2-3 days will really allow you to make the most of all the fun and interesting sights you pass by. Take a look at all the best places we suggest visiting on this amazing trip to Branson, Missouri.

Church at top of the rock in Branson Missouri
The beautiful area of Branson, Missouri, is packed with scenic and exciting things to see and do.
Latecia Peoples/Shutterstock.com

Best road trip route from Chicago to Branson, Missouri

After setting off from Chicago you will pass many exciting inland stop offs, from beautiful landscapes to exciting and unique city sights. All that before you even reach the buzzing, entertainment capital Branson, Missouri.

If you follow the Columbia Route an exciting journey packed with attractions, ranging from zoos and riverwalks to parks and prisons awaits you.

Meander through the scenic sights and waterways of Naperville Riverwalk, Lake of the Ozarks and Bagnell Dam, before wild animal spotting at Peoria Zoo, Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary and Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens.

After all that excitement you can enjoy relaxing on the shoreline of Kathryn Abbey Hannan Park, or head to an art-lovers treasure trove at Columbia Museum of Art.

A spooky ghost tour at the old inmates' quarters at Missouri State Penitentiary is also a must when you stop off in Jefferson City, before arriving in Branson.

The alternative St Louis Route is a wonderful road trip that balances scenic sights and fun city stops.

You can enjoy the amazing outdoor recreational opportunities at Kankakee River State Park and Mark Twain National Forest, before relaxing surrounded by the tranquil waters of Bennett Spring State Park.

Make sure to catch a game of sport at Illinois Memorial Stadium or St Louis Busch Stadium, and view the panoramic views in St Louis from the jaw-dropping, legendary, Gateway Arch.

The Columbia Route

Head out of Chicago south along Interstate-55 (I-55), where you can stop off at Naperville Riverwalk for a leg stretch, before arriving at Peoria Zoo where a memorable tour includes feeding the giraffes.

From Peoria head along Highway-24 where a stop at Jacksonville is suggested to take in the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary and Kathryn Abbey Hannan Park.

From here head south arriving in Columbia for a night or two exploring this cultural and entertaining hot spot, from the Columbia Museum of Art to the wild animal spotting at renowned Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens.

Afterwards follow Highway-63 where you can step back in time and enjoy a tour around Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, before Highway-54 leads you to the delights of Lake of the Ozarks for a stop of paddling.

Before arriving in Branson, make a last stop at Bagnell Dam. This prominent landmark which created Lake of the Ozarks is a must-see.

Lake of the Ozarks, Bagnell Dam
The expansive Bagnell Dam sitting alongside the Lake of Ozarks is definitely worth a stop-off to marvel at the sheer scale.
Jonathan Manjeot/Shutterstock.com

The St Louis Route

Travel south along I-57, first reaching Kankakee River State Park, where you can enjoy a hike or canoeing surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Continue to head south before catching a ballgame at Illinois Memorial Stadium in Champaign, then traveling along I-55 to St Louis for some Cardinals action at St Louis Busch Stadium, and views over Gateway Arch.

After an overnight stop at St Louis hit the road again travelling along I-44 where you can stop off to explore Mark Twain National Forest, before indulging in history at Fort Leonard Wood Museum.

Continuing on the I-44 then leads to Bennett Spring State Park in Lebanon for a spot of wildlife spotting, before arriving in Springfield for a tour or two to take in Abraham Lincoln landmarks. Branson is then just on the horizon.

City of St. Louis, Gateway Arch
The impressive Gateway Arch can be seen throughout St Louis. A must-see landmark difficult to ignore!
Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock.com

Best places to stop between Chicago and Branson, Missouri

This road trip is teeming with places to stop at to enjoy the landscape, the city sights and a spot of exciting entertainment. We have picked out the best places you should take a little more time exploring when you journey along this wonderful route.

A historical stop-off in Columbia

Travel along the Columbia Route, and once you reach Columbia around halfway, you'll feel ready to enjoy the culture and sights this interesting city has to offer.

South Carolina's capital is teeming with great landmarks to soak up, and what better place to start than South Caroline State House? Take a couple of hours to tour this impressive state capital packed with history, and make sure to take a self-guided tour to get a closer look at the exhibits and architecture.

The botanical gardens at Riverbank Zoo
Enjoy a visit at the incredible Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, where there is something for all the family.
Katherine Harward/Shutterstock.com

Afterwards, make sure to head to the South Carolina State Museum. This modern, interesting museum is a must-visit, with 4D experiences, interactive exhibits and a planetarium taking you through different eras and galaxies.

The well-known Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is great for an afternoon visit. With over 2,000 animals to marvel at, and a beautiful botanical garden to wander round, this is a great stop-off for all the family.

After so much excitement head to the equally amazing The Tiger Hotel, a beautiful and swanky hotel where you can enjoy a luxurious night or two stay.

Found right in the center of Columbia, it is super close to many attractions including Peace Park, Francis Quadrangle and places to shop and dine.

There are also great choices on-site to eat and relax in. Head to The Vault bar for delicious cocktails and small tasting plates, or the Velvet Cupcake for coffee and cake.

Enjoy thrills and spills in St Louis

Pick the St Louis Route, and around halfway you reach the ‘Gateway to the West'. St Louis is a historic and exciting city to visit, so it's definitely worth staying here a night or two to appreciate what is on offer.

Without a doubt the first place to head is Gateway Arch. A visit to the impressive structure is a must, and you can ride to the top of the 630-foot monument for incredible panoramic views across the cityscape.

Wide view of colorful roller coaster rides at an amusement park, sunny day mountains in background. Six Flags Magic Mountain
Make sure to stop off for some thrills at the renowned Six Flags Amusement Park.
Robert V Schwemmer/Shutterstock.com

Another exhilarating visit is to Six Flags Amusement Park. The signature landmark is packed with rides, entertainment and shows. Head here in the summer and you can visit the Hurricane Harbor Water Park.

St Louis Union Station has a secret side you may not be expecting. This once-active station is now transformed into an underwater world. There are 13,000 animals to see in St Louis Aquarium, plus plenty of rides and restaurants too.

As well as the interesting sights in St Louis, we highly recommend The Moonrise Hotel, where the unique attractions continue. This boutique hotel is sure to leave a lasting impression, with unusual space-themed décor a real talking point, scattered across the luxury communal areas and state-of-art facilities.

Head up to the Rooftop Garden Bar for cocktail hour, and you can enjoy a drink or two with an incredible city view, before heading downstairs to enjoy a delicious meal at on-site restaurant, Eclipse, serving great American cuisine.

Located close to plenty of popular sights, it is also set in a great location right in the heart of the action.

Where to stay when you reach Branson, Missouri

Branson, Missouri, is well known as the entertainment capital, with Silver Dollar City theme park, Titanic Museum and a never-ending range of live stage shows just some of the many exciting places to see.

Make sure to wind down at the Lodge of the Ozarks. Close to all the action on ‘The Strip', attractions close by include Ferris Wheel, Titanic Museum Attraction and local theatres and restaurants.

The gorgeous, rustic rooms, have a real homely feel, and you can enjoy a relaxing swim in the gorgeous indoor pool before heading to the luxury lounge for a pre-dinner aperitif.

Start the day off with a delicious complimentary hot breakfast buffet so make sure you are well-fueled ahead of an exciting stay exploring Branson, Missouri.

Things to see on a road trip from Chicago to Branson, Missouri

Travel either The Columbia Route or The St Louis Route and you can be sure that both are packed with scenic and exciting sights.

Take a look at our suggestions of where to visit on this thrilling journey.

Blue sky with clouds reflecting on Lake of the Ozarks Missouri with docks on a summer day
The beautiful Lake of the Ozarks is a must-see. Take a boat out on the lakes to explore more of the area.
Water Street/Shutterstock.com

The Columbia Route

  1. Naperville Riverwalk - Head to beautiful downtown Naperville, where you can enjoy a meander around this lovely park, featuring bell tower and sculptures.
  2. Peoria Zoo - Open year-round, this exciting site houses over 100 species of animals. Make sure to also add on a tour to feed the giraffes.
  3. Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary - Renowned in Jacksonville, this center is providing big cats with a happy life, and this is their main aim at this lovely sanctuary. Make sure to visit the lions and pumas.
  4. Kathryn Abbey Hannan Park - This beautiful park also in Jacksonville has great ocean views, and plenty of recreation. Enjoy a hike in the lush woodlands before taking a swim.
  5. Columbia Museum of Art - A must-see for any art lovers, this inspiring and renowned museum holds hundreds of incredible works. Why not have a go yourself and take part in an evening art class!
  6. Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens - In Columbia make sure to stop off here. One of the best zoos in the USA, with a huge animal variety and great gardens set over 170 acres.
  7. Missouri State Penitentiary - In Jefferson City you will find this dominating building which opened in 1836. Take a tour around the renowned site – for the braver hearts head on the Ghost Tour option.
  8. Lake of the Ozarks - The huge lakes span over 1000 miles, which you can enjoy relaxing next to or padding in, or taking in a spot of fishing
  9. Bagnell Dam - Make a stop at Osage Beach and you can enjoy a picturesque view. This landmark created Lake of the Ozarks, and you drive along it for a great viewpoint.

The St Louis Route

  1. Kankakee River State Park - Spread over 4,000 acres this park is certainly worth a stop. Enjoy canoeing in the shallow waters and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
  2. Illinois Memorial Stadium - Found in Champaign enjoy an exciting football game here, it was built to recognize those that lost their lives in WWI.
  3. Gateway Arch - A key feature in St Louis, the renowned arch can be seen on the skyline across the city. Visit the Museum of Gateway Arch to learn more about this jaw-dropping structure.
  4. St Louis Busch Stadium - For an authentic and fun experience head to this legendary ground to watch the resident Cardinals in action in this 46,000-seater stadium.
  5. Mark Twain National Forest - This incredible forest over 1.5 million acres is packed with trails to hike, bike and horse ride through. There is something for everyone to explore in this area.
  6. Fort Leonard Wood Museum - A short stop here gives an insight into local history through a self-guided tour and interaction displays.
  7. Bennett Spring State Park - Sit back when you arrive in Lebanon and enjoy this pretty park teeming with wildlife, a great stop for nature lovers. The clear waters here are stunning.
 A late season baseball game at Busch Stadium between the Cardinals and San Diego Padres
Be sure to take in an exciting ballgame at the St Louis Busch Stadium. Go Cardinals!
Frank Romeo/Shutterstock.com

Both Routes

  1. Springfield - In Springfield there are many attractions marking Abraham Lincoln. This site is the only houses he ever owned, so has huge historical significance. Afterwards make sure to visit Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to learn more about this leader, his legacy and fate.
  2. Smallin Civil War Cave - Head to this interesting cave once you reach Ozark, and the geology is fascinating. Take a visit inside and you'll learn more about its role in history.
Smallin Cave Creek, Ozark
Enjoy a visit to the fascinating Smallin Civil War Cave once you reach Ozark. The formations are unbelievable
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Best time to go on a road trip from Chicago to Branson, Missouri

Whatever the season you can be sure that there are year-round experiences to enjoy in Branson, Missouri, with plenty of great sights to see indoors during the cooler months, and endless outdoor pursuits once the weather improves.

Spring is a great time to visit when the weather is getting mild, temperatures are around 50-degrees Fahrenheit, and visitors not yet at their peak numbers.

The warmer weather does lend itself to the variety of outdoor activities that can be enjoyed, such as the Ozark Mountains, however with visitor numbers high you are likely to experience these in more crowded settings.

Bluegrass musician playing at a festival with antiques in the background, Branson, Missouri
Head to Branson in the fall and there are plenty of festivals celebrating local music to enjoy.
Vicki L. Miller/Shutterstock.com

In summer temperatures can also reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit or more, so can be too hot for some of the outdoor trips during this time.

In fall, this is when visitor numbers are low and temperatures range between 55- and 75-degrees Fahrenheit. The changing of color during fall is beautiful and with the mild weather it's a pretty time to go.

Country Music is popular in this area, with plenty of music events recognizing its popularity. Silver Dollar City's Country Music Days held in September, celebrates local music at the Echo Hollow Amphitheatre. The Blues, Brews & BBQ Festival during this time also highlights local blues talent and tastes.

Colder weather from December to March can be off putting, with temperatures around 20-35 degrees Fahrenheit. However, wrap up warm and you can take advantage of fewer visitors and deals on accommodation.

There are also plenty of indoor activities to enjoy during this season, such as attractions, museums and shopping destinations. Branson is also known as ‘Christmas Tree City', going big during the holidays, and a good time to go!

Throughout November and December, the holiday season is celebrated wholly, with renowned Branson's Festival of Trees displaying countless decorated trees and displays, supported by locals and businesses.