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Color at every turn: Autumn beauty unfolds along scenic routes

by Flip Putthoff | October 18, 2022 at 6:00 a.m.
Arkansas 7, pictured here, provides ample opportunity to take in the last of the fall foliage that's coloring the tree-covered Ozark mountains..(Courtesy photo/ Arkansas Parks and Tourism)

The curtain is rising and the stage is set for a dazzling show of fall color along the region's highways and back-country byways.

It's the favorite season for many to pack a picnic lunch, camera and maybe an old-fashioned folding map to set off on a fall foliage drive.

Autumn color usually lasts into early November, so there's time for several fall drives over hill and dale in our corner of Arkansas. Here are some routes that make it worth filling up the tank and setting off on a colorful adventure.

Some follow interstate highways. On others, tires will kick up a little dust on gravel roads. Travel all or part of these scenic drives for trips of an hour or all day. Let's get started:

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Trail of two byways

This long loop takes in two scenic byways and miles of forest, with a beautiful river tossed in the mix. Find your way to the little community of Brashears in Madison County where Arkansas 23 and Arkansas 16 meet south of Huntsville or southeast of Fayetteville.

Travel south on Arkansas 23 and you're twisting and turning along the Pig Trail Scenic Byway, one of the region's most beautiful drives in any season. The two-lane highway goes up and down, curving through the Ozark National Forest that is cloaked in colorful beauty come autumn.

Here the tree canopies on both sides of the highway meet, like entwined fingers of folded hands. Travelers cruise through a leafy tunnel of reds and yellows going south on the Pig Trail.

As the highway twists downhill near Cass, keep an eye out for Arkansas 215 and turn left. This highway heads east along the Mulberry River Road Scenic Byway. It's another two-lane beauty of a drive that's a favorite for any style of travel. Exploring this byway by bicycle is one of the state's most scenic rides. There's little traffic during the week, generous shoulders and overlooks to pull off and take in the scenery during water breaks.

The byway is named for the Mulberry River, a favorite white-water canoeing stream when the water is up. Much of this 18-mile byway runs beside the mighty Mulberry. The route ends at Arkansas 103, some 3 miles southwest of the little town of Oark.

Lunch at the legendary Oark cafe is a must-stop for many travelers. Turn left (northwest) to reach tiny Oark. There's also a cafe three more miles up the highway at Catalpa where the pavement ends.

That's the end of byways, but there's plenty more to see heading south along Arkansas 103 toward Clarksville. The highway corkscrews its way through more forest before dropping into the Arkansas River Valley and leveling out.

Head into Clarksville, turn west onto Interstate 40, then follow I-49 or U.S. 71 north to finish the route.

Boston Mountain Loop

Before Interstate 49 was built, U.S. 71 was the main link between Fayetteville and Alma. Travel on 71 could be a white knuckle adventure with all manner of big rigs, dump trucks and tailgating drivers all sharing this busy, dangerous highway.

Now U.S 71 is a quiet, scenic drive through the Boston Mountains that takes in Lake Fort Smith State Park. A stop at the park to tour the visitor center and enjoy a picnic lunch is a pleasant break. The Ozark Highlands Trail for hiking and backpacking starts here and runs some 200 miles across the Arkansas Ozarks.

From Fayetteville, drive south of U.S. 71 toward Winslow. Hill country scenery gets better as each mile passes by. The two-lane highway is a twisting, hilly delight on the lightly traveled asphalt. Because there's little traffic, the highway is a favorite of bicycle riders, too.

Turn west on I-40 at Alma, go a short distance to I-49 and follow that north back to Fayetteville. In the fall, I-49 south of Fayetteville is a colorful scenic drive on its own.

Wild, Wild West

Arkansas 59 runs so close to the Oklahoma line that a traveler could stop, toss a rock and it'd land in Sooner country.

Start this drive in Siloam Springs. But the first order of business is to be sure the fuel tank is full. There is little or nothing in the way of gas stations along this fall foliage drive.

Drive south from Siloam Springs, across the Illinois River, and through the towns of Cincinnati, Summers, Dutch Mills and Evansville. The scenery is pastoral and rural before Arkansas 59 enters the Ozark National Forest in Crawford County.

There's light traffic on this two-lane country highway and plenty of color to see. Keep and eye out for the community of Natural Dam. A short detour west to a beautiful waterfall is worth a stop for a leg stretch.

At Natural Dam, turn right (west) on the paved county road. In 200 yards Natural Dam waterfall comes into view. There's a small parking area here and a low-water bridge across the creek that forms the falls that are about 12 feet high.

Natural Dam looks almost like a man made waterfall, with big square shaped rocks that appear to be laid by hand. But it's as natural as can be.

More color unfolds once Arkansas 59 reaches Arkansas 220 at Cedarville. Turn left (east) on Arkansas 220 for more curves and hills. The highway bisects more Ozark National Forest before it ends at Devil's Den State Park. From the park, travel Arkansas 170 north to West Fork, then drive north on U.S. 71 to the more northern towns.

For cyclists, Arkansas 220 is a scenic, but challenging road ride with some lung-buster climbs.

Jasper Disaster

That's what the Arkansas Motorcycling Guide, published by Parks and Tourism, calls this lovely loop that doesn't live up to its name. It's a pleasant drive that visits much of the Buffalo River country as well as Harrison.

The loop begins at Ponca, near the Buffalo National River, in Newton County. Along the way to Ponca, keep an eye out for elk that graze in meadows between Boxley and Ponca along Arkansas 43. The Ponca river access is one-half mile south of downtown Ponca. To start the Jasper Disaster, head northeast out of Ponca on Arkansas 43 toward Harrison.

It's pastoral rural countryside most of the way to Harrison. Close to town the highway runs along a ridge high above Harrison with stunning views.

In Harrison, turn right (south) on Arkansas 7 bound once again for the Buffalo River. The Pruitt river access is on the left just before the highway crosses the Buffalo on the way to Jasper. It's a good place to stop for a walk along the river or a picnic.

At Jasper, turn right (west) on Arkansas 74 headed back toward Ponca. A nice detour to see the Buffalo River is the paved road to Steel Creek river access just east of Ponca. For people who have never seen the Buffalo, our nation's first national river, this is the ideal spot for a sample. Long and tall Roark bluff cradles the river here. There's a lengthy gravel bar that's great for easy walking along the pools and riffles of the clear Buffalo.

The stop offers a clue of what the rest of the Buffalo River is like as it flows for 130 more miles downstream to the White River.

At Ponca, the Villines Farmstead on the south side of the Ponca low-water bridge river access is open to visitors. People can tour the log home, barn, outbuildings and outhouse where the James A. Villines family lived in the 1800s.

Show-Me Southwest Missouri

This scenic drive explores a back-country gravel route through the colorful Mark Twain National Forest and other sights in Barry County, Mo.

To get started, head to Seligman, Mo., northeast of Rogers, and continue north on Missouri 37 for a couple of miles to Missouri 112. Turn right (east) here and drive toward Roaring River State Park.

A mile or two before entering the park, turn right (east) on Sugar Camp Scenic Drive. There's a large sign for the drive on the left side of Missouri 112.

This gravel road offers long vistas of the national forest and surrounding countryside. There's a small picnic area at one nice overlook. The route gets its name because locals once tapped maple trees in the forest to make syrup.

Bicycling on gravel roads is big in the cycling world and Sugar Camp Scenic Drive is a fine "gravel grinder" route.

The gravel runs for about 8 miles and meets pavement just before a T intersection. Turn left (north) at the T and go a short distance to Missouri 86. Turn left (north) here and go to Missouri Route F. Turn left (west) here in the direction of Roaring River State Park.

Missouri Route F is a paved roller coaster ride up and down steep hills. Some have sharp peaks that make travelers think those hills could launch a speeding vehicle right into outer space.

The highway meanders its way to Roaring River State Park. It's worth a stop at this picturesque park tucked into the folds of an Ozarks canyon. Trout fishing is the main event here, but a visit to the Roaring River Hatchery, where trout are raised at the north end of the park, is a delight.

Thousands of trout from tiny to lunker fin in the hatchery's raceways. Visitors can even feed the fish by dropping some change in a dispenser for a handful of fish food. These trout are stocked into spring fed Roaring River for anglers.

Roaring River State Park has hiking trails, playgrounds, campsites and cabins. From the park, follow Missouri 112 south back to Seligman to finish the loop.


  photo  A short detour to Steel Creek access on the Buffalo National River is a fine way to see a piece of the Buffalo. A long gravel bar allows for hiking close to the water beneath Roark Bluff. The area provides a clue to what the rest of the Buffalo is like downstream..(NWA Democrat-Gazette file/Flip Putthoff)
 Flip Putthoff 
 
 


  photo  Sugar Camp Scenic Drive takes travelers through a slice of the Mark Twain National Forest in Barry County, Mo..(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
 Flip Putthoff 
 
 


  photo  A bull elk grazes among fall foliage along the Buffalo National River near Ponca..(NWA Democrat-Gazette file/Flip Putthoff)
 
 


  photo  Arkansas 7, pictured here, provides ample opportunity to take in the last of the fall foliage that's coloring the tree-covered Ozark mountains..(Courtesy photo/ Arkansas Parks and Tourism)
 Flip Putthoff 
 
 


  photo  U.S. 71 between Fayetteville and Alma, seen in October 2020, is now a route less traveled ideal for a fall foliage drive. The highway, along with Interstate 49, is part of the Boston Mountains Scenic Loop. .(NWA Democrat-Gazette file/Flip Putthoff)
 Flip Putthoff 
 
 


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