Nicknamed "The Natural State," it shouldn't come as a surprise that Arkansas is one of the best places in the country to enjoy the natural beauty of fall. Vast forests of maples, hickories, and oaks cover much of the state, and the result is an explosion of autumn colors that overtake the landscape each year beginning in October.
The exact timing depends on what part of Arkansas you're visiting, but the trees around the Ozarks are usually the first ones to start changing color, typically reaching peak around mid-October. Shortly after, the leaves around Little Rock and Ouachita National Forest reach their peak. For late-season visits in November, try the Great River Road near the Tennessee border.
The peak viewing time changes from year to year depending on local weather conditions, but the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism publishes weekly updates throughout the season so you know exactly when to go.
There are countless options across the state for prime leaf peeping, but a few particularly scenic routes and trails rise above the rest.
Arkansas Scenic Byway 7
Scenic Byway 7 goes through four of the state's geographic regions: the Western Gulf Coastal Plain, the Ouachita Mountains, the Ozark Mountains, and the Ozark National Forest. It contains 290 miles of road and there are several "can't miss" spots if you're looking for fall color along the way. For a full leaf-peeping itinerary, start at the northern terminus of Scenic Byway 7 in the town of Harrison in mid-October when the leaves begin to peak in the Ozarks and follow the changing colors south, all the way to the Louisiana border if you have time.
The section of the road that goes through the Ozark Mountains and heads into Jasper on its way to Harrison are some of the best places to see fall foliage in the state. In this region, you have the Buffalo National River and the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks, both of which offer beautiful drives and plenty of opportunities to get out of your car and walk around in the forest.
Closer to Little Rock on Byway 7, you'll hit Hot Springs. The byway goes through the historic downtown area before hitting the Ouachita National Forest, which is also a great place to see fall colors.
Petit Jean and Mount Magazine
When it comes to breathtaking state parks, the Natural State doesn't disappoint. Petit Jean State Park is one of the most attractive and most convenient options since it's only an hour outside of Little Rock. Mount Magazine is also close enough to the park that you should add it to your itinerary so you can see some of the stunning vistas from the highest peak in Arkansas. If hiking isn't your thing, then there are also excellent views from the road and several turnouts. The trees typically peak around here at the end of October, although those near the summit of Mount Magazine may hit their best colors a week or two earlier.
Historic Mather Lodge in Petit Jean State Park is a great option for a place to stay if you're looking for a rustic overnight escape into the fall foliage. This 24-room lodge overlooks Cedar Creek Canyon. Or for a truly rustic experience, pitch a tent and try camping in the park.
Boston Mountains Scenic Loop
This 42-mile loop follows a former stagecoach route along U.S. 71 and Interstate 540 through the Boston Mountains of the Ozarks and offers some great scenic vistas where you can pull off and view the scenery. The loop goes through Fayetteville, Fort Smith Forest, and Devil's Den State Park, and you'll also drive through Arkansas wine country along the way.
The best time to see fall foliage along the Boston Mountains Scenic Loop is in mid-October, and the leaves typically start to change colors toward the beginning of the month. This is especially true for black gum trees, which turn a bright red earlier in the season than other species in the area.
When you mention Blanchard Springs, most people think of the caverns in Ozark National Forest, but the foliage there is just as big of a draw come autumn each year. The springs themselves and mirror lake make for a nice backdrop for the colors, and Mountain View is a great town to visit for the most of fall colors.
Located in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas, the best time to visit Blanchard Springs is usually in late October, when the foliage is at its most vibrant.
The Great River Road and the St. Francis Scenic Byway
The St. Francis Scenic Byway is located between the cities of Mariana and Helena, Arkansas. This scenic byway travels along the crest of Crowley’s Ridge for over 21 miles and is designated as the Great River Road.
Approximately 14 miles of this road is gravel, so beware of that when planning your trip. Even though the roads aren't particularly hard to drive on, you may want to travel slowly to avoid sliding on loose gravel. If you can stand that, the two lakes and plentiful forests make for some great views.
The best time to drive along the Great River Road is in early to mid-November, which is when these trees usually reach their peak fall colors.
The Talimena National Scenic Byway
The Talimena National Scenic Byway (State Route 88) is a short drive of only 54 miles that begins in Mena, Arkansas, and crosses the state line into Oklahoma. The route goes through some beautiful countryside, including Queen Wilhelmina State Park on the Arkansas side, which sits at the top of Rich Mountain and is also known as the Castle in the Clouds. It's perfect for mid-season visits around the end of October or early November.
This region has many turnouts and interpretive signs about Arkansas history, and you could just focus your trip on Queen Wilhelmina State Park if you don't want to change states. However, if you've got the time to spare, the Oklahoma section is just as impressive and leaves visitors right at the gate of Talimena State Park.
The Arkansas and Missouri Railroad
If you want the scenic without the drive, you can get a ticket on the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad. Passenger trains depart from the Van Buren and Springdale stations during fall, and there are a variety of day trips and short journeys you can take throughout the season. It's a nice way to see the colors without the drive, and riding on the train is a unique family experience. Because the train travels through various elevations, it has a relatively large window for leaf peeping and you should see some great sights from mid-October to mid-November.
For fall foliage, the most scenic route to choose starts in Van Buren and brings passengers to Winslow, passing through some of the most breathtaking views in Ozark National Forest along the way. The journey takes three hours roundtrip, making for a perfect day excursion to experience the best that autumn in Arkansas has to offer.