Is autumn in Oklahoma really worth the wait?
Unlike America’s Upper Midwest and Northeast where foliage donned its vibrant reds, yellows and oranges weeks ago, Oklahoma’s peak time for leaf-looking is usually delayed until the last week of October through the first week of November.
Weather, of course, plays an important part in determining when and how much color will be presented in autumn’s annual showcase. Daytime temperatures in Oklahoma have only recently started to moderate, although mornings in eastern Oklahoma have been dipping into the 40s since late September. But this year’s drought conditions are sure to dull and diminish the colors leaf peepers crave.
“The fall leaves are changing a little bit faster than normal — not for good reason, because of the drought,” observes KFSM-TV Channel 5 chief meteorologist Matt Standridge. “The drought has definitely hurt the fall foliage across Oklahoma. The extreme dry conditions have forced many trees to pull chlorophyll earlier and faster, resulting in leaf scorch, which makes the edges of the leaf brown. Many times they’ll pull it so quickly, the leaf will just fall off. Various tree species are more susceptible to the drought than others, depending on their water usage.
“While this fall season will be much duller than normal, it will still be beautiful to see,” Standridge says.
Rylie Mansuetti of the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department shares Standridge’s optimism that eastern Oklahoma’s still in for a colorful autumn.
“While drought conditions have scorched some trees, others are gearing up to put on their beautiful fall show as usual,” she says.
Mansuetti points to the most recent TravelOK.com fall color report and emphasizes that it still may be too soon to get discouraged, since foliage isn’t expected to reach its peak until the end of the month. “Yellow is continuing to appear on the soapberry and hackberry trees. Many of the oaks and cottonwoods have light green leaves, although the elm trees are showing signs of scorch due to the drought conditions.”
If you’re still holding out hope to catch a glimpse here and a glimpse there of autumn’s iconic color — or, maybe, you just enjoy a weekend road trip in some of Oklahoma’s most beautiful areas — here are several day-trip destinations that may just fit your fall bill.
Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway
Located right in our own backyard in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, the Cherokee Hills Byway is a showcase of eastern Oklahoma’s diverse terrain, lush scenery and natural beauty blended with rich cultural and historical background. Focal points along the 84-mile tour include six state parks, wildlife preserves, winding roadways, lakes, rivers, rolling hills and hardwood forests.
Although the byway follows SH 10/82/100 from Vian or Gore to West Siloam Springs, there are plenty of side trips along U.S. 59, U.S. 62, U.S. 69 and U.S. 412 that afford more of the scenic diversity for which eastern Oklahoma is known. Along the way, travelers can visit Cherokee Landing State Park, Tenkiller State Park, Cookson Hills State Game Refuge, Cherokee State Game Refuge, Natural Falls State Park, Sequoyah State Park, Sequoyah Bay State Park, Greenleaf State Park J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve and Fort Gibson Wildlife Management Area. The terrain around Lake Tenkiller is full of rolling hills and what seems like more than it’s share of trees surrounding one of Oklahoma’s favorite lakes. Lake Tenkiller stretches along the southwestern edge of the Cherokee Hills Byway map from Tenkiller State Park to Cherokee Landing State Park, and the Illinois River carves a scenic route through the heart of Green Country for a kaleidoscope of fall color set along the tranquil waters that attract canoeing enthusiasts.
Situated wholly within the Cherokee Nation, travelers can experience the proud Cherokee culture and heritage in architecture, museums and other cultural venues and events.
The primary route of the Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway is 84 miles and can be driven in about two hours, but you’ll be depriving yourself of some of the best fall scenery if you don’t take advantage of frequent stops and side trips to enjoy stunning views amid autumn hues, the 77-foot waterfall at Natural Falls State Park and plenty of opportunities to partake of fares offered at local eateries.
Tahlequah and Highway 10
Northeast Oklahoma is known as Green Country, but when autumn is in full display, it’s a color explosion of crisp golds, reds and oranges in the dense forests for which the area is known.
Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, is a historic city featuring plenty of venerable buildings which share the vibrant main thoroughfare with boutiques and restaurants. Highway 10’s picturesque roadway follows the gentle undulation of the Illinois River, giving motorists spectacular views of high bluffs and lush forests, and chances to glimpse some of the area’s abundant wildlife amid the rustling leaves.
Talimena National Scenic Byway
Commonly called simply the Talimena Drive by locals and perhaps the most well-known location for fall foliage, the 54-mile drive from near Talihina to Mena, Ark., offers stunning views pretty much any time of the year, but especially when autumn colors really pop. The drive along SH 1 in Oklahoma before becoming SH 88 in Arkansas meanders along the crest of Winding Stair Mountain and Rich Mountain in the Ouachita National Forest, and offers more stupendous vistas and scenic overlooks than you might have thought possible.
The heavily forested mountains crest the highest points between the Appalachians and the Rockies, with Queen Wilhelmina State Park and its Dutch monarch-named lodge serving as the gateway to Arkansas at the 2,681-foot peak of Rich Mountain. The lodge’s restaurant offers Southern cuisine and sweeping views from the summit of Arkansas’ second highest mountain.
In addition to autumn colors and panoramic views, the byway also affords motorists the opportunity to see abundant wildlife such as black bear, deer and roadrunner.
For those wanting to do more than just drive, the national forest offers plenty of options in recreational areas for camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, ATV off-roading, boating and more.
The winding drive along the two-lane highway can be traversed in less than two hours, but to really enjoy it with frequent stops at scenic turnouts, allow about five hours.
The Kiamichi Mountains are a southeastern Oklahoma tourist trademark, especially when it comes to prime viewing locations for seeing fall colors. During your leisurely drive through the mountains, take U.S. 259 to Beavers Bend State Park along Broken Bow Lake or U.S. 271 to Clayton Lake State Park. Both parks are heavily forested, and offer plenty of outdoor recreational options, from hiking, biking, boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding and even scuba diving. Both parks also offer tent or RV camping as well as cabin rentals, including petfriendly options. While you’re out exploring and leaflooking, take a short detour from U.S. 271 to SH 2 and SH 43 to enjoy 14,360acre Sardis Lake, which serves as the point where the Kiamichi Mountains merge with the Winding Stair Mountains.
Robbers Cave State Park
Situated in the San Bois Mountain Range, Robbers Cave State Park north of Wilburton features scenic bluffs, a palette of fall colors and almost endless opportunities for outdoor activities. For the explorer in you, the park is aptly named, with caves just waiting for you to check out as you image the French trappers, ancient tribes and outlaws who used to frequent the untamed woods and stoic pines amid the timeless sandstone cliffs.
Legendary tales have survived the years since the Civil War, recounting the daring exploits of outlaws from Belle Starr and Jesse James to the Youngers and the Dalton Gang.
One of Oklahoma’s original seven state parks, Robbers Cave State Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. In addition to rustic cabins and campsites, the park offers a lodge and equestrian campground.
Located 70 miles from Sallisaw, the park is a treasure trove of delight for the family in an environment rich in fall colors, sandstone cliffs and miles of hiking trails.
Autumn’s cooler temperatures foretell the promise of winter, making fall the ideal time to plan an adventure in the great outdoors as you explore Oklahoma’s natural treasures. Fuel up the car, maybe take a snack or pack a lunch and don’t forget to bring your camera for some of the best scenery to be found. The annual foliage frolic is well worth the wait as you explore Oklahoma’s seasonal beauty firsthand.