Autumn in Arkansas is a great time to get outside and search for beautiful fall color.
Arkansas State Parks and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission’s natural areas are great places to experience the fall season no matter your activity level or interests. ANHC’s natural areas are specifically set aside to preserve, and sometimes restore, species and habitat types that have become rare in the state.
Visiting a natural area any time of the year is a standout experience and fall offers its own special draw. “For me the big standouts are the fall wildflowers and other native plants,” said Theo Witsell, ecologist and chief of research for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “Everyone knows that our hardwood trees can have dramatic fall color, but our herbaceous or non-woody plants like wildflowers and grasses can have equally showy fall color, especially in our prairies, savannas, and open woodlands.”
Witsell said in the fall he enjoys seeing all the fruit on the plants that blossomed earlier in the season and colorful fall-blooming wildflowers are also a draw. Wildflowers like goldenrods, tickseed, and late sunflowers are rich shades of yellow; blazing stars and asters pop with purples and blues; false-foxgloves shine in pink and asters, thoroughworts, and doll’s-daisies are a serene white.
There are a wealth of natural areas across the state and each has its own unique experience to offer. Hiking is a popular fall endeavor and first-rate natural areas to hike at include Baker Prairie Natural Area, Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area, Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area, Devil’s Knob-Devil’s Backbone Natural Area, Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area, and Lorance Creek Natural Area.
“All of these natural areas have spectacular and rich flora and offer trails with various levels of accessibility,” said Witsell. “Lorance Creek has a paved trail and boardwalk that is ADA accessible and Rattlesnake Ridge is our only site with a mountain bike trail and offers several levels of difficulty for riders.”
For those wanting more of an aquatic experience, the Bayou DeView Water Trail starts at the Benson Creek Natural Area and goes through the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area and Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. “This trail allows exploration, by canoe or kayak, of some of our oldest forests in the state, with baldcypress trees in the 850-1,000 year old range and swamp tupelo in excess of 500 years old,” said Witsell. If you venture out, be sure to check water gauge levels recommended by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
Witsell said larger natural areas with a mix of grassland and woodland habitats, such as Terre Noire Natural Area and Warren Prairie Natural Area, are also great destinations for wildlife viewing. Cherokee Prairie Natural Area, which stands out as one of the largest remaining tracts of tallgrass prairie in the Arkansas Valley, is a top place to see the fall migration of the Monarch butterfly, along with other fall butterflies and birds too. “Short-eared owls arrive at these prairies in mid- to late-fall and they are great places to see a lot of uncommon grassland sparrows,” he said.
Natural areas have many birding opportunities year-round and during the season. Witsell said at Baker Prairie Natural Area you can see grassland birds including the rare Nelson’s Sparrow. “Goose Pond Natural Area in the Arkansas Valley is popular for seeing waterfowl, including ducks like Gadwall, Mallard, and Northern Shoveler,” he said. “It’s also a great site for Barred Owls. Geese and Gulf Fritillaries are easy to see in our natural areas in the Grand Prairie Ecoregion and Downs Prairie, Roth Prairie, and Railroad Prairie are easily accessible.”
Specific forms of hunting are also allowed on some natural areas under a cooperative agreement between the ANHC and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
Autumn in Arkansas State Parks
Along with natural areas, Arkansas State Parks are also a go-to destination.
Arkansas has 52 state parks to experience year-round and no matter the season, you’ll find a park that aligns with your interest. Fall is a popular and beautiful time to experience the many activities that can be done in state parks, including exploring the many trails available.
“Fall is a great time to hike in your Arkansas State Parks,” said Robin Gabe, field interpreter with Arkansas State Parks. “Beautiful landscape views become even more striking when trees add vivid red, orange, and yellow to the color mix. Whether you choose a hiking trail in the Ouachita Mountains that will take you to an overlook or one that meanders through a living forest in the Delta, hike a trail in an Arkansas State Park and take time to notice the beauty of fall.”
Arkansas State Parks offer around 300 miles of hiking trails and among the many parks you can hike at is Village Creek State Park in Wynne, located on Crowley’s Ridge, a unique geological formation in the state. This state park has over 30 miles of hiking and mountain biking terrain and the trails lead to two lakes that reflect the fall color of trees. Horseback riding can also be done at the park.
Along with hiking, mountain biking is also big in Arkansas State Parks. Among the vast amount of mountain biking terrain you can find are the Monument Trails, a collection of world-class shared-use trails that are a project of Arkansas State Parks and the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation. You can find Monument Trails so far at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, Mount Nebo State Park, Pinnacle Mountain State Park, and Devil’s Den State Park.
Many Arkansas State Parks are located near or on lakes. “While most people think of fishing as a summer sport, fall is a great time to cast a line in an Arkansas State Park,” said Gabe. “Fall colors around the lake are beautiful, the fish are active, and boat traffic is lighter this time of year. Get outside with family and friends this fall and target bluegill, largemouth bass, or crappie. You can’t beat places like Lake Chicot State Park, Millwood State Park, or White Oak Lake State Park for a fall fishing adventure.”
Lake Chicot in Lake Village is Arkansas’s largest natural lake and the largest oxbow lake in North America. The lake is famous for its many outdoor offerings including fishing, boating, and bird watching as well as for its beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Lake Chicot is also part of the Mississippi Flyway, one of the largest flyways in the country for migratory birds. At Lake Chicot State Park you can rent a boat or kayak to tour or fish the waters.
Millwood State Park can be found around 35 minutes north of Texarkana. This state park has 45 campsites so if days of epic fishing are on your agenda, there are plenty of places to stay at. The 29,260-acre lake is home to largemouth bass, catfish, and crappie. The area is also an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area.
White Oak Lake State Park is in the southwestern part of the state, on the shores of White Oak Lake, a popular fishing lake. In fall, the trees turn beautiful shades of orange and red. There are 45 campsites here as well as trails for hiking and mountain biking.
Camping is also a popular activity in Arkansas State Parks. “When you camp in an Arkansas State Park in the fall you have an opportunity to experience outside activities with warm days and cooler nights,” said Gabe. “Experience cooking a meal over a campfire on a cool evening at a park located in the Ozarks. Sit around the campfire and plan your adventures for the next day in the West Gulf Coastal Plain. Choose an Arkansas State Park this fall and have a camping adventure.”
Along with campsites, cabins and lodges are also available to stay at at various Arkansas State Parks for a fall getaway option.
For more info throughout the season, sign up for our fall color updates to get real-time fall color reports from across the state, special announcements and trip planning information. For more details visit arkansas.com/arkansas-seasons/fall. For more details about the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, visit arkansasheritage.com/arkansas-natural-heritage/anhc-home. For more information on Arkansas State Parks, visit arkansasstateparks.com.
By Zoie Clift