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A Guide to Brilliant Fall Colors in Missouri

Make Plans Now to See Peak Colors in October

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Above image credit: Bicyclists and hikers can travel into the middle of fall color when they hit the Katy Trail in October. (Contributed | Missouri State Parks)

At this time of the year, my mind often drifts back to a float trip I took in the early 2000s.

When my guide and I launched our canoe on the Current River that mid-October day, our attention was focused on the smallmouth bass we intended to catch. After an hour or so, it became clear that they didn’t want to play.

Maybe that was a good thing. It gave us a chance to pause and really appreciate our surroundings.

The hillsides on both sides of the river were alive with color. Reds, yellow, purples, oranges — the palette was complete.

“Wow, Mother Nature is showing off today,” my guide said.

After a while, we put up our fishing rods and just appreciated the beauty of the Ozarks on a sun-drenched fall day. There wasn’t another canoe in sight, a noteworthy occasion on an oft-crowded Current River.

By the end of the afternoon, the reflection of the colorful hillsides on the calm water in pools added to the awe-inspiring beauty of our surroundings. And I remember thinking how lucky we were to be out there, even on a day when the fish weren’t cooperating.

Since then, I’ve taken special pleasure getting outdoors on the fall days when the color of the changing leaves explodes on the scene. Canoeing, hiking, bicycling, camping, even sailing — there are plenty of options for getting out and immersing yourself in the fall color.

Here are a few recommendations for fall foliage color seekers in the coming weeks.

Fall colors at peak blaze.
Fall colors at peak blaze. (Brent Frazee | Flatland)

Hiking at Alley Spring

With its red mill set alongside a beautiful turquoise pool, Alley Spring is beautiful year-round. But it is especially appealing in the fall when it is framed by the golds, reds and yellows of the changing leaves.

Located off Missouri Highway 106, six miles west of Eminence, Missouri, the mill is one of the most photographed sites in the state. Part of the National Ozark Scenic Riverways Park, a short hiking trail winds along the rushing water from the spring branch, past the restored mill and through rocky outcroppings.

Bicycling the Katy Trail

The Katy Trail, the nation’s largest rails-to-trails project, is alive with color in mid-to late-October.

Visitors can bicycle along the Missouri River on a crushed-rock path where the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad once chugged along. The trail stretches 240 miles from Clinton to Machens, Missouri, with 26 trailheads. The nine-mile section from Rocheport to McBaine is known for its particularly brilliant colors along the bluffs and hillsides overlooking the Missouri River.

If biking isn’t your thing, you can hike or even travel by horseback on one stretch. Plan your trip for the third week of October; that’s when fall color is usually at its peak. 

Boating at Lake of the Ozarks

Mid- to late-October is a great time to launch your boat for one last time before winter and enjoy the big lake at its finest.

Though it can be busy during the summer, the giant reservoir in central Missouri is often peaceful during weekdays in the fall. With miles of wooded hillsides rimming the lake, boating can be a great way to do some leaf peeping.

The fall color show usually peaks in mid- to late-October when the hardwood forests in the lake area shine with a mix of orange, red, yellow and purple from the maples, hickories, ash and oak trees.

The color is so striking that readers of USA Today voted Lake of the Ozarks the second-best spot in the country to view fall color in 2018.

Go here for more information on what the Lake of the Ozarks in the way of fall color touring.

Camping at Bennett Spring State Park

You will get a room with a view when you camp at Bennett Spring, a popular state park in south-central Missouri.

The site is best known for its beautiful trout stream, which winds through the park. But Bennett Spring offers much more than fishing.

Beautiful campgrounds and cabins along the waterfront provide a window to the Ozarks’ fall color show. The state park offers 121 sites with electric hookups and another 48 with all utilities available, in addition to basic sites. Most of the campgrounds are open through the end of October, the end of the regular trout season.

The steep, wooded hillsides along the trout stream are filled with color. When I’m not fishing, I love to hike into the middle of that color on the rocky trails in the state park.

With its rustic buildings, some of which were built by the Conservation Civilian Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, Bennett Spring always looks like a throwback to the good old days, especially when it’s fall and the pace is considerably more relaxed than in the spring and summer.

Driving Through Poosey Conservation Area

This conservation area, located in Livingston County in northern Missouri, has long been recognized for its stunning fall color.

For 35 years, the Missouri Department of Conservation has held a driving tour in which backroads and service roads that are normally closed to the public are opened for a day. Visitors can tour the route, which leads through hardwood forests and past a scenic lake and woodland creeks in their own vehicles. Vehicles with high clearance are recommended because of the rugged landscape that will be traveled.

This year’s driving tour will be from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 17. The tour will begin at Pike’s Lake off Route W and County Road 502. 

Go here for more information on the Poosey Conservation Area.

Fall Foliage Resources

For more information on fall color in Missouri, go to the Department of Conservation’s website.

Smokeymountains.com also has created an interactive nationwide fall foliage prediction map.

Flatland contributor Brent Frazee is a Kansas City based outdoors writer.

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