Admiring the distinct color palette of the Ozarks by foot, car and rail.
Fall in the Missouri Ozarks is nothing like the fireworks of a New England autumn. Instead of showy sugar maples exploding in garish reds, you get something that local folklorist Marideth Sisco calls “a glorious tweed.” Hickory, dogwood, oak and walnut trees color the hills in shades of crimson, amber, buttery gold and the muted bronze of old pennies. Another difference? No busloads of leaf peepers. The crowd is in town, distracted by Branson’s popular stage shows. But as the days turn mild and mosquitos start to disappear, fall is the best time to discover this entertainment mecca’s original attraction: the great outdoors.
The hills around Branson have been densely settled for more than a century, and a dizzying network of back roads connects the far-flung outposts. Warning: In the Ozarks, the term back road doesn’t mean a two-lane blacktop. The Glade Top Trail, one of the area’s loveliest drives, is a 24-mile serpentine stretch of gravel. It’s smooth-ish; don’t expect lane markers, service stations or much of anything besides stellar scenery.
But you needn’t go to such extremes to explore the countryside. Head west from Branson’s Country Mile (Highway 76), descending Route 13 toward Table Rock Lake. After you clear the Kimberling City Bridge, you’ll find a smokehouse heaven called Jill’s Bar-B-Que. As you leave the lake behind, the road gets twistier. Fields are so steep you’ll wonder how they were ever cleared of the dense hardwoods. For a 2-hour trip, drive east on Route 86, a curvy stretch with a sudden blast of lake views as you approach Highway 65, which will take you back to Branson. Just off the highway in Hollister, stop at Vintage Paris for a glass of wine or an espresso.
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a manicured 2,200-acre preserve that can be explored on foot, by bike, on an ATV, on horseback or in an open-air tram. The tram ride includes a guided wildlife tour during which you roll through pastures where longhorn cattle, elk and bison graze. A paved 6-mile trail leads deep into the canyon, past scenery where every boulder and tree seems perfectly placed, and every blade of grass perfectly groomed. Halfway down the canyon, stop at Thunder Falls, a thin but mighty waterfall.
For the lazy leaf peeper, there’s no better option than the Branson Scenic Railway. You can sit back for the 2-hour round-trip through some of the region’s most majestic and rugged terrain. The train itself is an ad hoc collection of semi-refurbished passenger cars, tugged by an Eisenhower-era locomotive. After pulling away from Branson’s historic depot, it chugs over Lake Taneycomo through the town of Hollister.
Gradually the ravines get steeper and begin rushing by, one after the other after the other. The views change swiftly, making it feel as if the train is moving much faster than its top speed of 30 mph. While a guide doles out historical tidbits, the real show rushes by your window—walls of color from the red-leafed dogwoods and purple sweetgums. Close to the end of the tour, the train slows to a stop on a curving trestle above Walnut Creek, allowing an overview of the wild country you’ve just traversed.
THE STRIP RUNS TO IT
One of the best outings is right in town, or almost. The Ruth & Paul Henning Conservation Area sits at the western end of Branson and covers 1,534 forested acres. A half-mile-long paved trail meanders through the russet-colored forest and up to a clearing, or “bald” as it’s called in the Ozarks.
You descend quickly from the parking lot next to Roark Creek, and after a half-mile the land seems to swallow you up. Once on the valley floor, you hike a half-mile stretch along the Roark, one of hundreds of headwater Ozark streams. You’ll soon feel far removed from the manmade entertainment of Branson, mesmerized instead by the song and dance of Mother Nature.