Arkansas’ official state photographers share their tips
Few people put as many miles on Arkansas roads as Casey Crocker and Kirk Jordan, full-time photographers for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. If you see an Arkansas photo in a state tourism brochure or advertisement, or on arkansas.com or arkansasstateparks.com, it’s almost certain that Crocker, Jordan or Chuck Haralson, their recently retired former colleague, took it.
“We try to spend a minimum of two days a week on the road, taking pictures all over the state,”
Crocker says. “So, we get a good feel for where to capture the most scenic pictures.”
Fall color in Arkansas usually peaks at the end of October and first two weeks of November, but it doesn’t hurt to start planning your trips now, they advise, especially for overnight travel. They say so far this year, Arkansas holds the promise of a potentially beautiful autumn.
“Last year at this time, we had a delightfully wet July, but it went totally dry in August and September, so we had a less colorful fall,” Jordan says. “The fact that we had good drenching rains in August and September tells me we have a greater chance of good color this year, especially if we keep it wet in these early fall weeks.”
Crocker says, “When you have cooler weather plus hydration, that promotes good fall color. The hues are always most vibrant near water.”
Jordan suggests anyone seeking autumnal adventures start by being aware of when the season hits the different areas. “The farther south you are in the state, and the lower [to sea level]you are, the later fall begins,” he explains. “So, if you miss fall color in northern or central Arkansas, you may have a week or two to catch some in the southern part of the state.”
Whether you’re driving, riding, hiking, cycling or paddling, Crocker and Jordan have suggestions for where to make colorful fall memories. Here are some of their personal favorite spots each autumn.
Miles of loops
“If you’re looking for a scenic loop to drive, the first place I’d recommend, even for passenger vehicles, is to explore our Arkansas Motorcycle Guide. We have a list of over 20 motorcycle loops, and a good many of them go through beautiful foliage areas,” Jordan says. “Motorcyclists may not like me sending more cars on their routes, but there really are some lovely drives that you can do in a few hours.”
The Arkansas Motorcycle Guide is a print publication available at tourist destinations throughout the state, or you can order a free copy at arkansas.com. The website also has all the routes in the guide with downloadable GPS directions.
The Twisted Lady, for example, is a north central Arkansas loop from Harrison, passing through the towns of Jasper and Deer en route through the elk habitat of Boxley Valley near Ponca and back through Compton.
As the name implies, it’s a twisty, forested drive. Other routes that take you through that area include the Jasper Disaster (don’t let the name scare you away), the Arkansas Grand Canyon and the Ozark Moonshine Run. No one can say the names aren’t colorful.
Among other popular fall driving loops are the Mount Magazine/Wine Country Loop, the Eureka Springs Art and Heritage Tour, the Peel Ferry Loop (going to Arkansas’ last ferry still in operation), the Push Mountain Road/Sycamore Scenic Byway, the Scenic 71 Loop and the Petit Jean Mountain Climb. Other routes take drivers or bikers through central and southern Arkansas and the Delta.
Autumn in the Ozarks
“We have two primary regions people tend to visit for fall color,” Jordan says. “You can find fall color in our Delta and flatlands, but most people are going to be going to the Ouachitas or Ozarks for fall foliage.”
He recommends exploring any of the highways that slice through the Ozark National Forest in the northern part of the state, whether north-south (U.S. 65, National Scenic Byway 7, Arkansas 23 Pig Trail Scenic Byway, U.S. 71, Arkansas 21) or east-west (Arkansas 16 and U.S. 412).
“Any of those ‘slices’ going through the Ozark National Forest are beautiful tours by car,” Jordan says, cautioning, “Certain routes on the weekends will be heavy with traffic. There is a place I love to shoot in Harrison that has become popular, as others have found it, too — their big Maplewood Cemetery with its flaming maples.”
One of the most photographed places in Arkansas is Mount Magazine, especially in autumn.
Crocker says the drive to Mount Magazine State Park is especially beautiful, and that it’s a great place to stay. “Cameron Bluff on Mount Magazine is definitely a place to go watch a sunset, for sure,” he says. “It’s between the lodge and a campsite, and just down the way from an access to Signal Hill (a trail leading to the highest point in Arkansas). I’ve seen some pretty amazing falls there.”
Jordan advises that Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area in Rogers is worth exploring, especially for families and for people with limited mobility. “Hobbs is good not only for car travel, but it also has paved trails that can be utilized even by people in wheelchairs. It’s a great place for people who want to get a taste of fall color just walking.
“It also features family-friendly mountain bike trails that are not steep and arduous. They’re kind of flowy and wrap the rim. So, if anyone wants to see fall color on the back of a bicycle, Hobbs is a great family place.”
Although it gets crowded on the weekends, Jordan also sings the autumn praises of Devil’s Den State Park. “That whole valley in the park and down around Winslow has just glorious color,” he says.
Falling for the water
Also in the Ozarks, the Buffalo National River is an in-demand destination for float trips, camping and hiking each autumn. “Fall color is more intense around waterways, and the Buffalo is no exception,” Jordan says. “The question is access due to water levels. The Buffalo will have beautiful color but might not be floatable in the higher parts.”
Crocker agrees. “We all love the Buffalo, and the drive up 65 to the river is very pretty,” he says.
“Hiking to the top of Roark Bluff overlooking the Buffalo and Steel Creek is another of those iconic locations I like. Not everybody can do it — you actually have to ford the river to get there by canoe or wading across — but it’s gorgeous.”
Jordan says that besides the Buffalo, Arkansas has wonderful floatable rivers throughout the state: “I want to make a good case for the Spring River area, near Missouri, north and center. I floated the Spring River in August and found that it’s often floatable when other rivers are not, so it would make a great fall float destination.”
Crocker recommends spending a couple of days or so slowly exploring Arkansas 5 from Heber Springs to Norfork.
He says Arkansas 5 is a “considerably beautiful drive” in the fall. “I love that drive because you go around Heber Springs and see one huge lake, Greers Ferry, a favorite of mine,” Crocker says. “You can stop and enjoy time in Heber Springs. Then you go on to Mountain View, where you can go to the Ozark Folk Center, see the White River where one of my favorite lookouts exists: Painter’s Bluff.”
Crocker says to reach the bluff, go to Cushman and park along the dirt road. “You’ll have to hike out onto a ledge a half mile in, then you’re on Painter’s Bluff, looking toward Mountain View with the railroad beneath you,” he says. “It’s just gorgeous, with one of the largest panoramic views I have ever seen in Arkansas. Being able to look toward the White River with such an expansive view, it’s
actually hard to get a good photo. You can’t get it all in one shot.”
The trip on Arkansas 5 continues through Mountain View toward Mountain Home and on to Calico Rock. “I’ve always found Calico Rock to be a very interesting place, but the fall color up there is particularly excellent,” Crocker says, adding that from there, the trip concludes at the “beautiful, gorgeous” Lake Norfork, where he enjoys camping.
Jordan says exploration can pay off. “If you are interested in going off-road, you’ll find wilder areas off-road than you will on nice paved roads, some beautiful spots less traveled,” he says. “My absolute favorite place to be in the fall is next to a waterfall.”
Crocker has some of those in mind, taking Arkansas 16 from Arkansas 7 south of Jasper: “My No. 1 one pick for fall color is Haw Creek Falls. Haw Creek is also near Richland Creek’s Falling Water Falls.” He says both waterfalls are on one “pretty accessible” hike. They are fairly short waterfalls, only 6 to 8 feet, Crocker says, but highly photographable. Each is also a popular swimming hole, and Haw Creek Falls is next to a campsite.
Falling Water Falls is visible from the road. “Haw Creek, you have to walk into the woods a little bit, but if you can get around, you’ll be able to see some great fall color,” he says.
And up the steep hill across the street from where you park to reach Haw Creek is Pam’s Grotto, another picturesque waterfall accessible to strong hikers. Crocker cautions it only has water flowing after a good rain.
The wow of the Ouachitas
There are always a lot of fall colors to see in the Mena area in the Ouachita National Forest, Jordan says: “Try any route that takes you from Hot Springs Village to Mena in one lateral tour, and especially to Talimena National Scenic Byway, which is above Mena going to Queen Wilhelmina State Park. That’s just a lovely drive.”
The Talimena National Scenic Byway covers 54 miles of winding road along the crest of Rich Mountain and on Winding Stair Mountain. It’s not a long drive, Jordan says, but the vistas looking into the valleys are “magnificent.” Queen Wilhelmina State Park also has a lodge for visitors who want to stay overnight.
Another favorite fall destination of Jordan’s is Mount Nebo State Park, fringed by the Ouachita National Forest. He calls Mount Nebo “normally a splendid place to explore fall colors,” though he says he was “sorely disappointed” last year by the relative lack of vibrance thanks to 2019’s late summer dry weather.
Passing through the Ouachitas and onto the Ozarks and the Buffalo National River is Arkansas 7, a
National Scenic Byway that bisects most of the state.
“I like going from Russellville headed south on 7, which is quite curvy,” Crocker says. “You can go from Lake Dardanelle and head south, and you will pass Lake Ouachita and get to Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine. Around Lake Ouachita is Hickory Nut, a lookout that you just drive up to. As long as the water levels are good, you will get beautiful color.”
Hickory Nut Mountain Lookout overlooks Lake Ouachita and the mountains beyond, with clear views of the islands in the lake. It has a picnic area and restrooms. Crocker says the view is an “enormous” panorama that makes people go, “Wow.” He suggests hiking around Lake Ouachita and camping in one of Lake Ouachita State Park’s camper cabins.
The Great River Road
Jordan says part of the state that people tend to forget in the fall is the drive from Mississippi River State Park to Helena-West Helena. “That’s a really special drive through deep forest,” he says. “It’s a different feel, not rocky soil; it’s loamy and fresh and tall and moundy. If you’ve missed the fall color other places, you might head to the Mississippi River to see fall color there a week or two after peak.”
Jordan cautions that much of the road is currently gravel, but says most passenger cars can handle it, and it is starting to be paved. “It makes me happy more people will be able to access it, but sad it will then feel less remote,” he admits.
A Delta park with autumns both photographers praise: Village Creek State Park near Wynne. “It’s on the eastern side of the state, not in a mountain range, but it is beautiful terrain, less traveled,” Jordan says. “I highly recommend it.”
Crocker points out that Village Creek State Park is just west of the Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway that follows the course of the Mississippi River from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, and on Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, another National Scenic Byway.
Village Creek State Park, which has updated cabins, is a popular spot for horseback riders, Crocker says, adding it’s strictly BYOH (Bring Your Own Horse).
“I like the fall colors there because they’re pastels,” Crocker says. “They’re not super-vibrant, but you get the full array of color, everything from yellow to orange, to yellow-orange to red-orange to red, and there’s still some green in there. It’s lovely. If you were to drive from Village Creek to Crowley’s Ridge State Park, that’d be a pretty drive off the interstate.”
All the other lovely places
Much of the southern part of the state is flatlands or evergreen timberlands, but the photographers point out that autumn leaves can be discovered anywhere there are deciduous trees.
“One thing I love about Arkansas, I’ve always wanted to be a National Geographic photographer,” Crocker says, “But I have my little slice of that right here. Arkansas is as pretty as Colorado, Washington, Oregon, any of those other ‘scenic’ states, especially in autumn.”
Jordan advises autumn-lovers to get out the map and decide on some routes, but not to be afraid to try new spots, whether by car, motorcycle or foot. “Part of the fun of photographing our state,” he says, “is exploring and finding your own places.”