Changing hickories, oaks lure visitors to Arkansas

Arkansas may be best-known for Bill Clinton and Wal-Mart. But come autumn, the state gets attention for something else: stunning foliage.

The brilliant yellow and red leaves of hickory, oak and sweet gum trees lure thousands of visitors to this part of the world every fall, and this year is expected to be no exception.

Peak foliage typically hits the northern half of the state in late October, though forestry and tourism officials caution that the time frame could change.

"It's like predicting the weather. It's not a sure thing," said Tamara Walkingstick, associate director of the Arkansas Forest Resources Center.

The state will start posting fall foliage updates later this month. But regardless of the exact timing, there are plenty of curvy, two-lane highways that stretch into the Ozark Mountains and offer striking views of the fall colors.

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State Highway 7, known as the Scenic 7 Byway, is among the prettiest.

The roadway spans the state from north to south. Leaf-peepers seeking out primo foliage would do well to hop on Scenic 7 at Russellville, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock, and head north about 85 miles (137 kilometers) toward Harrison.

It's a colorful drive across Arkansas — which is nicknamed the Natural State — and not just because of the leaves.

Cows graze in fields. Country cemeteries boast names like "God's Little Half Acre." Signs advertising trading posts at Chigger Hollow and Booger Hollow play to outsiders' fascination with the hillbilly culture tied to this region.

It's the kind of drive best experienced with the windows down, and because it's in the South, it's usually not too cold to do just that in the fall.

It's worth stopping off at one of the old-timey general stores that fleck the side of the highway. Hankins Country Store, about 35 miles north of Russellville on Scenic 7, is a good choice if you're jonesing for a cream soda or some farm-fresh eggs, or if you just want to see a sign advertising cold drinks, snacks, camping supplies and ammo.

Signs along the drive point to scenic overlooks with vistas of valleys awash in trees. The views seem to get better the farther north you drive, with the best just south of a quaint community called Jasper.

A word of warning as you descend into Jasper: When the street signs say crooked and steep, they're not kidding.

So once you recover from the plummet into town, reward yourself with a homemade chocolate cheesecake muffin at the Blue Mountain Bakery and Deli. Walk around the town square, or take your baked goodies to go and have a picnic along the river about 5 miles north in Pruitt.

Once you cross the river at Pruitt, take a moment to look back and marvel at the contrast of the green bones of the bridge and the orange and red leaves that blanket the hillside.

Continue north to Harrison. If you're traveling back to Little Rock, head south on U.S. Route 65 toward Interstate 40.

Bask in some more of the Natural State's fall colors, and watch out for elk along the way.


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