The onset of sweater season can only mean one thing — it’s leaf-peeping time!
Arkansas is the perfect place to immerse yourself in fall colors, with an abundance of national forests, state parks, rivers, and scenic drives.
But first, a science fact: did you know leaves don’t actually change color in the fall? In fact, the deep reds and vibrant yellows have been there all along. An abundance of chlorophyll makes that bright green color dominate in the spring and summer, but with the temperature changes and lack of sunlight in fall, the chlorophyll breaks down. This lets the leaf’s other colors shine through.
Fall foliage in Arkansas happens in three sections moving from north to south, vaguely: the Ozarks, the Ouachita Mountains and Arkansas River Valley, and the Mississippi Delta and Coastal Plains. Colors begin to change approximately one week after each other.
You’ll probably want to hone your leaf-stalking game by signing up for real-time color updates from Arkansas Tourism. They send weekly newsletters every Thursday in the fall. And if visiting a state or national park, don’t be afraid to contact them and ask for an up-to-the-minute color update (they’re used to it).
Whether you’re team pumpkin spice latte or team hot apple cider, pair your favorite fall beverage with the guide below to the best fall foliage in Arkansas for the ultimate leaf-peeping experience.
Fall Foliage in Arkansas: The Ozarks
Not surprisingly, leaves begin to change color in northern Arkansas first. Expect notable change to begin in late September, with peak peeping arriving in late October. It’s hard to find a bad spot to enjoy the fall colors.
Whether by car, foot, bike, rope, or boat, there are so many places to see Arkansas fall foliage in the Ozarks that you could easily fill a few trips over the course of an autumn season.
1. Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway
Why you should go: Gorgeous fall views around every turn.
- Nearest town: Jasper
- Peak foliage: Late October
Want to chase fall colors through the entire state of Arkansas? If you have a few weeks to spare, you could follow Arkansas’ Scenic 7 Byway south from Harrison all the way to its terminus near the Louisiana border, passing through all three three Arkansas leaf-peeping regions.
For the rest of us, a weekend drive on the Ozark portion of Scenic 7 will provide more than enough opportunity to experience the changing colors over the course of one day drive.
If you do start in Harrison, plan to spend a bit of time wandering around the murals in the town square. The drive from Harrison to Jasper winds through the countryside and crosses the Buffalo National River, so you’ll have plenty of places to stop for photos or stretch your legs. Stop for a bite to eat at the Ozark Café in town, or continue south to view the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks. Take in the views via the scenic pullout or from the dining room of the Cliff House Inn.
2. Buffalo National River
Why you should go: Plan an overnight trip to see Arkansas fall foliage during the day and stars at night.
- Nearest town: Ponca
- Peak foliage: Late October
A piece of Arkansas trivia for you: the Buffalo National River is the first national river, one of the longest undammed rivers in the country, and an international dark sky park.
The Buffalo will overwhelm you (in a great way) with the number of adventures it has to offer. The only difficult thing is knowing how to spend your time. A few suggestions:
Centerpoint Trail, near the town of Ponca, acts as a starting point for two standout hikes: Big Bluff and Hemmed-in Hollow; the former is more challenging. To experience the fall colors along the Buffalo from up high, take the Centerpoint Trail to Goat Trail to Big Bluff, the tallest sheer bluff face between the Rockies and the Appalachians. In contrast to Centerpoint’s wide (yet steep!) trail, the Goat is a narrow, quarter-mile ledge trail that opens onto Big Bluff. It’s a great spot for afternoon Arkansas fall foliage photos. You won’t see wild goats here anymore, but you will enjoy views of 800-year-old juniper trees.
Looking for a slightly less strenuous hike to a place where you can view the river in its fall glory? Try taking the Centerpoint Trail to Hemmed-in Hollow Falls. It’s the highest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians at more than 200 feet tall. Time your hike after an autumn rain as the falls only flow after considerable precipitation. In spring, it’s a great place to see the redbud trees in bloom.
One more hike to mention: the iconic Hawksbill Crag. Take the Whitaker Point Trail, a three-mile round trip hike to the Hawksbill Crag, which juts out over Whitaker Creek and the Upper Buffalo. The trail treats you to gorgeous views all year, so be sure to hike with a friend as there are plenty of spots to snap landscape photos with you in them from atop the crag. Oh, and a head’s up: the dirt road turnoff to the trailhead can be hard to find.
If paddling is more your thing, float the Buffalo to experience the changing leaves from the water. Before you go, check the water levels or use this helpful site. Fall is a nice time to float the Buffalo, not just for awesome Arkansas fall foliage viewing, but also because the crowds are much smaller than on summer weekends.
3. Mountain View
Why you should go: Arkansas fall foliage, traditional folk music, and a dash of culture.
- Nearest town: Mountain View
- Peak foliage: Late October
On the hunt for color? Check out gorgeous Mirror Lake, near Mountain View. Considered one of the best trout fishing spots in the state, this calm, three-acre lake is fed by cool waters flowing out of nearby canyons. If you take the short, paved walk on the Mirror Lake Trail, you’ll see the iconic two-tiered waterfall formed by water spilling over the dam (which was a C.C.C. project back in the 1930s).
Once you have your fill of fall colors and crisp autumn air, head into town to experience traditional culture. You can shop at the local music stores, antique shops, craft galleries, and small, creative restaurants. If you’re there on a Saturday night, swing by the town square for free live music.
Honorable Mentions in the Ozarks
Can’t make it to any of the awesome spots above? These three other fabulous leaf-peeping spots in the Ozarks are also pretty darn impressive:
Fall Foliage in Arkansas: Ouachita Mountains and the Arkansas River Valley
Central and west-central Arkansas trees start the fall transformation a week later than in the northern sections of the state. This makes early or mid-November the best viewing time; however, color changes begin as early as late October.
The Ouachita Mountains and Arkansas River Valley regions of Arkansas boast the perfect mix of wild forests, scenic drives, parks, and cities, making this an ideal leaf-peeping location for people of all ages, abilities, and interests. You don’t need to be an expert-level hiker to check out Arkansas fall foliage here – though if you are, you’ll find plenty of hiking options.
4. Mount Magazine State Park
Why you should go: Take in fall colors from atop the state’s highest point.
- Nearest town: Paris
- Peak foliage: Early to mid-November
Did you know the highest peak in Arkansas — Mount Magazine — has two summits: Signal Hill and Mossback Ridge? Want more Arkansas trivia, you say? An elevation of 2,753 feet above sea level, Mount Magazine rises more than 2,000 feet above the surrounding valleys. It’s one of the most prominent peaks in mid-America.
This dramatic elevation means you’ll have 360-degree views of the Arkansas River Valley and the hundreds of thousands of trees below. That’s a lot of Arkansas fall foliage.
If you’re hiking it, take the well-groomed Signal Trail to the top. From there, you can connect to the Cameron Bluff Campground and the Lodge at Mount Magazine, if you’re looking to wake up to an amazing sunrise.
5. Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Why you should go: Gorgeous views for when you only have an hour or two to spare during a city visit.
- Nearest town: Little Rock
- Peak foliage: Early or mid-November
Pinnacle Mountain has so many ways to enjoy the fall foliage. Take a stroll through the Arkansas Arboretum, tackle the area trails on foot or mountain bike, or walk the East Quarry Trail, with spectacular, elevated views of the river and foliage. Need something more accessible or kid-friendly? Check out the Kingfisher Trail. It’s paved and runs along the river, which is also great for paddling.
You can also experience fall foliage in Arkansas from the water without having to paddle by taking a fall foliage cruise on Lake Maumelle. Park interpreters lead the annual cruises, which leave from the Jolly Rogers Marina.
If you have a little more time in Little Rock, head an hour north to Petit Jean, Arkansas’ first state park. The park features numerous turnouts for leaf peeping along the roads. Be sure to check out Stout Point for panoramic views of the Arkansas River decked out in fall colors and the Cedar Falls Overlook for a good spot to take group photos.
6. Hot Springs National Park
Why you should go: Pair leaf peeping with a relaxing bath in thermal springs.
- Nearest town: Hot Springs
- Peak foliage: Early or mid-November
Remember good ol’ Scenic 7 through the Ozarks? Take that same route to enjoy a picturesque drive to Hot Springs National Park. And the city of Hot Springs itself has plenty of entertainment when you need a break from admiring leaves. Check out DeLuca’s Pizzeria for a slice of pie, and for brunch, dine at Eden, inside a bathhouse-turned-hotel.
If you want to hit a trail while in Hot Springs, check out the Hot Springs Mountain Tower for 360-degree views of the national park, the city, and some of the most vibrant fall foliage in Arkansas. You can also take a drive up West Mountain for colorful views from the other side of the park. Oh, and about those thermal springs: water from the park’s 47 springs is pumped into the town’s two bath houses, both of which offer affordable drop-in passes (though you may need reservations during COVID).
Fall Foliage in Arkansas: Mississippi Delta & Coastal Plain Regions
Don’t worry if you’re late to the fall-foliage party. The Delta and Coastal Plains regions offer the best fall foliage in Arkansas in November. Southern and eastern Arkansas are last to transform, with leaf colors beginning to change mid-October and hitting their peak in mid-November. These areas are less populated and see fewer visitors, making them great places to find some peace and quite in nature later in the season.
7. Great River Road National Scenic Byway
Why you should go: Iconic drive along an iconic river
- Nearest towns: Marianna, West Helena, or Lake Village
- Peak foliage: Mid-November
The Great River Road stretches nearly 3,000 miles through 10 states (from Minnesota to Louisiana), paralleling the Mississippi River. Green and white steamboat signs mark the byway as it runs through eastern Arkansas.
The Great River Road’s best leaf peeping is where it cuts through the St. Francis National Forest, roughly from Marianna to West Helena. Known as the St. Francis Scenic Byway, this section travels along the crest of Crowley’s Ridge and offers views of the Mississippi. But be forewarned: 14 of the 21 miles are on gravel roads. Clearance is a non-issue, but expect to take it slow. That just gives you more time for leaf peeping, right?
Near the southern end is a great spot to stop: Lake Chicot State Park. It’s the largest oxbow lake (a lake formed in the former elbow bend of a river) in North America. Stop to stretch your legs, enjoy the fall foliage, fish, or bird watch at one of the largest flyways in the country.
8. Moro Bay State Park
Why you should go: See sunset from on the water, surrounded by vibrant fall foliage.
- Nearest town: Jersey
- Peak foliage: Mid-November
Moro Bay State Park is a truly stunning place to immerse yourself in fall foliage. It’s a popular paddling spot thanks to the cypress trees towering up and out of the water.
Want to take it up a notch further? Paddle in the early evening to watch the sunset through the trees or time your visit with the full moon and view the fall foliage by moonlight. You can bring your own boat or rent kayaks from the visitor’s center.
But this smaller, less-visited state park has more to offer than kayaking, including excellent fishing and birding. Consider snagging a campsite on the shores of Raymond Lake or staying in one of the park’s five cabins. Each has a screened-in deck overlooking the bay in a wooded setting, surrounded by red black gum leaves, bronze cypress leaves, and yellow sweet gum leaves.
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