The Natural State uses its full palette this season

Keith Sutton/Contributing Writer Published November 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Keith Sutton/Contributing Photographer

Sumac, often seen growing on roadsides and in fields, is one of the most beautiful yet unappreciated fall beauties, with flaming scarlet leaves that are among the first to change.

Autumn is upon us now, bringing with it a coolness that is welcome and refreshing. During the heat of summer just past, we wanted nothing more than to sit in the air conditioning at home and avoid any unnecessary activity. But as the new season begins, our citizens are suddenly overwhelmed by wanderlust. Indoors is out, and outdoors is in. Suddenly, we feel like traveling to see new places and revisit familiar ones. And if we stop long enough to examine this rampant restlessness, we quickly decide it is the colors of fall that make it so.

It isn’t only the fiery hues of the leaves that cause this annual stirring, although that certainly is a big part of it. From early September, when crimson flames first set the black gums, sweet gums and sumacs ablaze, until mid-November, when the last of the mountain oaks transform from summer’s green to the oranges, golds and reds of autumn, we are absorbed with the ever-changing scenery. Who doesn’t enjoy standing on a mountain overlook or sitting beneath a woodland canopy feasting the eyes on the medley of dazzling hues?

Splashed on autumn’s painted landscape are many other pigments as well. Deep purples, pinks and yellows imbuing a fall sunset with the vivid beauty of a Van Gogh or Cézanne. The pure whiteness of just-arrived snow geese blowing across a stormy gray sky like so many big snowflakes. The startling rufous-orange of a red fox materializing beside a tussock of saffron grass. Verdant water, the color of spring sprouts, flowing over gray rocks as old as time. The flashy cerulean of a blue jay scolding a tawny owl.

Wild asters, the showiest of the fall bloomers, now take over our country roadsides with bright abundance — lavender, bright yellow and deep purple. The butterfly weed has faded, Queen Anne’s lace is worn and tattered, and the day lilies are gone, but ironweed, Mexican hat, goldenrod and tickseed take their places. The wildflower beauty will persist until after the first frost, a reminder of how nature bedecks and glorifies the scarred old Earth.

Some colors this time of year seem unnaturally flamboyant — almost too vibrant to be real. We see on a northern cardinal the scarlet robe of the church dignitary for whom the bird is named. Black-eyed Susans are almost gone, but those that remain gleam sun-yellow along country roads and fallow fields. The longear sunfish often caught in clear mountain streams this time of year wear Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat, and the smallmouth bass we really hope to hook are as golden as bullion.

Not all is gaudy, though. In the typically fleeting glimpse of a black bear or the feathers of a crow, we see nothing more than an ebony shadow. The needles of river-bottom cypress trees turn to rust, and the Canada geese swimming our lakes and honking overhead wear muted tones of black, brown and white. On many fall days, the bluebird sky turns lead gray with clouds, and the sparkling white frosts that soon spangle the grass each morning turn the landscape sere and drab.

As November’s cold winds begin to blow, the multicolored leaves that have given us such joy billow against the sky, and the ultimate meaning of fall is at hand. The big clock of the year strikes half past autumn, the shortening days seem even shorter, the lengthening nights start early, and our seasonal exultation begins to wane.

The day before yesterday, the rising sun lit a vast bonfire in the hillside trees, and at noon, the light beneath them was so golden it shimmered. Yesterday it rained. Today the trees stand half naked against the clearing sky, and the incredible palette of colors now blankets the ground beneath them, reduced to brittle crispness underfoot.

The last act of nature’s colorful annual pageant has begun, and when the artists leave the stage, we become occupied with preparations for the cold, dark season ahead, and our wanderlust fades once again. The wonderful autumn days we spent going and seeing will soon end until the circle of the seasons brings them back once more.

Three Colorful Drives

Autumn’s colors will brighten your day as you drive through the wooded countrysides along this trio of Natural State byways.

Mount Magazine Scenic Byway/Arkansas 309: From Havana, the byway quickly begins its ascent through the forests on the slopes of Mount Magazine, Arkansas’ highest peak at 2,753 feet. In addition to beautiful views, you’ll find Mount Magazine State Park at the top. Park roads lead to overlooks with expansive views of Blue Mountain Lake and the Ouachita Mountains to the south and of the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark Mountains to the north. From Mount Magazine, the byway descends more than 2,300 feet to the town of Paris, passing picturesque Cove Lake on the way. North of town, the byway travels through rolling pastureland and hayfields, dotted with colorful hardwoods.

Crowley’s Ridge Parkway National Scenic Byway: This was the first National Scenic Byway in the state. The route roughly runs the length of its namesake, Crowley’s Ridge, beginning in the northeast corner at St. Francis and winding its way alongside the ridge through some of the most fertile areas of Arkansas to its southern-most terminus at West Helena. The fall colors here are spectacular.

Scenic 7 Byway: This state-designated route runs from the Arkansas/Missouri state line south through Harrison, Russellville, Hot Springs and Arkadelphia, and on through El Dorado to the border with Louisiana. Along the way, you’ll view beautiful fall foliage as you pass through the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks at Jasper, cross over the Buffalo National River, cruise through Hot Springs National Park and drive across DeGray Lake.

For an up-to-date fall foliage report, visit The Department of Parks & Tourism has a statewide system of spotters who keep us updated so we can receive the latest updates about the progress of the leaves changing. New reports are posted by 5 p.m. every Thursday during the season.

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