The small trees and brush change colors first. Sumacs put on dark scarlet leaves; sweetgums' star shaped leaves turn yellow; the black gums blush bright red. It's the beginning of a glorious fall revue in the mixed hardwood timber of the Ozarks.
The color usually begins in early October and, depending on weather conditions, should peak somewhere around the third week and could last into early November. By the time the oaks and maples have added their hues, the hills are ablaze.
Let's start at Russellville on I-40 and turn north on Highway 7. You'll leave the flat Arkansas River Valley just north of Dover and begin climbing into the mountains. There are no more communities after you leave the valley and few businesses until you reach Pelsor at the Newton County border and most of the distance is a climb upwards onto the Ozarks plateau.
Having, more or less, topped out at Pelsor, you begin to see some Ozarks farms along the route and these serve the driver who wants to look at scenery well, helping to open up panoramic views. There are a few pull-out spots along the highway, including a large one a few miles south of Jasper where parking areas are set off with rock walls and you can see for miles across the Big Creek valley. Just beyond that, there's a roadside park with several picnic tables and another great view. It's a good place to stop for photos or a picnic lunch.
Turn off to the right on Highway 374 when you see the big sign pointing you towards the Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area about six miles south of Jasper. You'll wind down the eastern slope of the mountainside into that valley you could see from the roadside park and experience the pastoral side of the Ozarks at its best. When the road reaches the valley it winds along beside Big Creek, sometimes almost at the water's edge. You can't miss Red Rock Bluff, one of the best-known rock formations in the area. It's looming up on your left, a huge red sandstone point jutting out over the valley.
When you reach the junction with Highway 123, turn left (north) towards Western Grove. Stop at the pull-off beside the big bluffs right after you turn. You'll want a picture and don't forget the creek is still over there on your right. In fact, this hole of water with the huge rock is a favorite spot with local fishermen for sucker grabbing.
This road is going to take you to the Buffalo National River at Carver where there is a primitive campgrounds with fire grates and picnic tables and a good place to stop and enjoy the river, if you want to swim or fish. It's also a likely spot to see elk, especially in fall and winter.
The road comes, at last, to Western Grove on U.S. 65, one of the two incorporated towns in Newton County. There's gas, groceries, restaurants and deli available.
Go a short distance north on U.S. 65 to Highway 206 and make a cross-over back to Highway 7 by turning left (west). This stretch of road is a level drive through farming country with Boat and Sulphur Mountains looming on your left and the miles long view dominating stretch of Gaither Mountain before you.
Back on Highway 7, turn left again (south) to go back to Jasper. You'll wind around bluffs to Mill Creek then back to the Buffalo National River at Pruitt. There's more good swimming and fishing holes if you're ready for another stop and you'll surely want to take home a photo of the famous bluff on the west side of the Pruitt bridge.
There's another steep climb ahead, up the mountain known as Paradise Hill, then off to your right is Ozark Campground. It's a river spot with a pavilion, primitive campsites, fishing and swimming and the head of the Ozarks-Pruitt hiking trail.
Another quick side trip is available three miles north of Jasper where you see the Koen Experimental Forest sign. Just off the highway on the gravel road is a handicapped accessible short walk through the experimental forest where signs have been placed to identify the various trees, many of which you will have seen on your drive.
In the Jasper area are cabins, motels, gas, groceries, restaurants and services. When you're ready to go again, drive south. It's a steep five mile grade to the top but that puts you back to the place where you left Highway 7 to take Highway 374 down into Big Creek valley.