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'On the road again' for fall color tour: Scenic loop shows sights of season

by Flip Putthoff | October 19, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
Switchbacks on Arkansas 103near Oark, seen here in April 2020, make for a fun and scenic drive during autumn or any season. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

A grand fall foliage drive through our corner of the Ozarks takes in three scenic byways, a beautiful river and a twisting highway with waterfalls and tumbling creeks.

Nearly any Arkansas highway is a fitting destination for a windshield tour of color, but this particular loop is one of the best. So top off the tank, maybe pack a picnic lunch and let's get this road trip started.

From wherever you live in Northwest Arkansas, head toward the little Madison County community of Brashears, where Arkansas 16 joins Arkansas 23 south of Huntsville.

Drive south on Arkansas 23 and enjoy the winding, wooded Pig Trail Scenic Byway. It's one of the state's 10 scenic byways. The October show is a sight to behold as the two-lane asphalt twists through the Ozark National Forest.

Mighty oak and hickory trees are close to the highway. Gnarly branches on one side of the highway join with limbs from the other side to create a tunnel of color.

There's a nice spot to safely pull off the highway and take in the unbroken forested view. This is the good stuff, all right, but we're just getting started.

A ways past the overlook, the Pig Trail heads downhill with some switchbacks toward Cass in Franklin County. At Arkansas 215, turn left and drive east on Arkansas 215 along the Mulberry River Road Scenic Byway.

This beautiful 18-mile byway runs beside the turquoise water of the mighty Mulberry River, one of Arkansas' premier streams for floating. There are pull-off places along the way to stop and enjoy views of the river and Boston Mountains.

Information plaques at these stops tell about early settlement days along the Mulberry and about the plants, trees and wildlife found here. To get an up-close look at the Mulberry, pull in to Redding or Wolf Pen river access points for a look-see.

The byway ends where Arkansas 215 joins Arkansas 103 near the little Johnson County town of Oark. It's decision time at this crossroads. Do we turn left and drive a short mile for lunch at the legendary Oark general store and cafe? Or should we go right and move on with our tour. Either way is a win-win.

The good stuff keeps on coming along Arkansas 103 as we climb steep hills with hairpin curves headed south to Clarksville. This highway jewel isn't a designated byway, but corkscrew scenic byway could be a fitting name.

Plan this fall drive after a heavy rain, and you'll see a nice waterfall right beside the highway on the left. It also crosses a clear, swift creek with a big pull-off area to get out, explore and take pictures.

The curvy drive levels out at the bottom of the hill country as Arkansas 103 enters the Arkansas River Valley. Head on into Clarksville and catch Interstate 40 headed west to Alma. Exit the interstate at Alma and drive north on U.S. 71, part of the Boston Mountains Scenic Loop.

Northbound Interstate 49 is a little farther along I-40 and is also part of the scenic loop.

Nowadays, I-49 carries the bulk of traffic between Fayetteville and Alma. That makes U.S. 71 a highly scenic and lightly traveled highway. There's plenty of twists, turns, ups and downs, plus spectacular views of the Boston Mountains sporting the colors of autumn.

Lake Fort Smith State Park, along U.S. 71 near Mountainburg, is a great stop for a picnic or hike. The park has a fine visitor center, along with trails, campsites and cabins. The Ozark Highlands Trail starts in the park and meanders some 218 miles across the Arkansas Ozarks.

Cruise north on U.S. 71 to end this fall foliage drive, but there's lots more. Just pick a black line on your trusty Arkansas highway map, and you're on the road again.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fputthoff@nwadg.com

Curvy roads along Arkanas 103, seen here in April 2020, and Arkansas 215 keep drivers on their toes. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Curvy roads along Arkanas 103, seen here in April 2020, and Arkansas 215 keep drivers on their toes. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

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