Photo: Night, stream, Ozarks

Photograph by Peter Essick

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Plan your drive around this celebrated corner of Arkansas for October, and you'll find yourself immersed in fall colors. Enveloping the twisting roads that interlace the northern part of Arkansas are deciduous forests that, in autumn, create a kaleidoscopic palette of crimsons, saffrons and ochres.

Adding even more color to these rugged mountains are the people who live in and around the little burgs along the route. Some trace their lineage to Scotch-Irish immigrants, once labeled as hillbillies. Others arrived during the hippie back-to-nature days, in search of nirvana and cheap land. Still others are avid outdoorsmen who love to wet a line or hike a trail.

People and history notwithstanding, it's the beauty of the Ozarks—a region that extends on up into southern Missouri—that makes this drive extraordinary. The mountains that so daunted early travelers still roll off to the horizon, ridge after forested ridge. The clear streams burble over pebbles and through meadows. And deer and raccoons and songbirds still wake every dawn to animate this timeless landscape.

Overview

The drive follows a counterclockwise loop from Eureka Springs south and east to the Buffalo River, through Jasper, then east to Mountain View, before winding back around to the starting point.

Start in Eureka Springs

The greatest glory of the funky-hip town of Eureka Springs is its vintage Victorian architecture, which has earned accolades from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Just stroll along Spring Street to wrought-iron balconies in all patterns, turrets in all shapes, and gingerbread houses in all colors perched on steep hillsides. Indeed, a fine panorama unspools from the mountaintop 1886 Crescent Hotel (75 Prospect Ave.; tel. 877 342 9766; www.crescent-hotel.com), a reminder of the days when Eureka's "healing" springs made it a fashionable spa.

The largest collection of colorful characters in the Ozarks is found in this playful resort town, whose unofficial motto is "where misfits fit." Eureka attracts musicians, New Agey seekers of enlightenment, religious fundamentalists, gays, motorcyclists, and countless dreamy-eyed honeymooners who fill its dozens of romantic B&Bs, inns, and cottages and their heart-shaped bathtubs.

Another big draw is the Great Passion Play, performed May through October at a 4,100-seat amphitheater (935 Passion Play Rd.; tickets, tel. 866 566 3565; www.greatpassionplay.com). On the same grounds is the 67-foot (20-meter) tall Christ of the Ozarks statue, a classic roadside attraction dating to 1966.

Then there is the food. Don't miss the veggie hashbrowns at Mud Street Cafe (22G S. Main St.; tel. 1 479 253 6732; www.mudstreetcafe.com), or the pork tenderloin at Rogue's Manor (124 Spring St.; tel. 800 250 5827; www.roguesmanor.com). Also check out the small but striking Thorncrown Chapel (12968 Hwy. 62 W.; tel. 1 479 253 7401; www.thorncrown.com), a glass-and-wood structure 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) west of town that the American Institute of Architects voted one of the ten most important building designs of the 20th century. You'll be glad you did.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

South of Eureka Springs, turn off Highway 23 at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (239 Turpentine Creek La.; tel. 1 479 253 5841; www.turpentinecreek.org) to see lions and tigers roaming the spacious outdoor habitats for the cats. The refuge's mission statement says it all: "To provide lifetime refuge for abandoned, abused, and neglected ‘Big Cats' with emphasis on tigers, lions, leopards, and cougars." With 459 acres (186 hectares), the refuge has plenty of room to expand.

Buffalo National River

From Highway 23 head east on Route 68 (near Huntsville), then east on Highway 74. Beyond the village of Kingston the road drops steeply to the Buffalo National River (tel. 1 870 439 2502; www.nps.gov/buff), where the National Park Service protects 94,293 acres (38,159 hectares) encompassing a free-flowing canoe stream, massive bluffs, dense oak-hickory woods, and more than a hundred miles (161 kilometers) of hiking trails. Turn down a side road to Lost Valley, where an easy trail takes you a mile (1.6 kilometers) uphill to a cave that sheltered prehistoric Native Americans. The most accessible tall bluffs on the river, not far from the road, are at Steel Creek. They rise 200 feet (61 meters) or more over the crystal-clear water.

Jasper

Continue on Highway 74 to the intersection with Highway 7, and the town of Jasper. At its century-old Ozark Cafe (107 E. Court St.; tel. 1 870 446 2976), order some chicken-fried steak and pecan pie—house specialties—and suss out who else is here because they're cruising Highway 7, an almost legendary route worthy of inclusion on any list of top scenic drives. Then head south and bear left into Route 16, stopping at Triple Oak Craft Shop outside Pelsor (tel. 1 870 294 5290; www.ozarkmountaincrafts.com/triple) to watch John Hampton make a basket. He pulls strips of oak tight, cutting them to length with a speed born of decades of experience.

Mountain View

Ramble along Route 16 through the small, colorfully named towns of Ben Hur, Tilly, Chimes, and Crabtree, taking in views of woodlands and brooks. Along the way Route 16 doubles up with Route 9 for a stretch. Right before you reach the Little Red River, Route 16 veers south; you continue straight, on what is now Route 9, to an Arkansas icon, the old-timey town of Mountain View. Ideally you've timed your drive to arrive here on a Saturday evening, because that's when live music is performed by an assortment of groups (each with its own audience) on the courthouse square, where the porches of the storefronts and frame houses morph into de facto stages. One such stage is at the 1886 Inn at Mountain View (307 W. Washington St.; tel. 800 535 1301; www.innatmountainview.com). At dusk, folks migrate to a vacant lot, where fires in barrels give off light and warmth for even more fiddling and banjoing.

Ozark Folk Center

Just north of Mountain View is the estimable Ozark Folk Center (1032 Park Ave.; tel. 1 870 269 3851; www.ozarkfolkcenter.com), which preserves mountain music and culture, and hosts top-name bluegrass and folk groups. Stop here to meet blacksmiths, weavers, candlemakers, fiddlemakers, and others at the center who are keeping alive old-time crafts.

End at Blanchard Springs Caverns

Follow Route 9 north out of Mountain View, then bear left onto Route 14. Look for signs to Blanchard Springs Caverns (Hwy. 14; tel. 888 757 2246; www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/recreation/caverns.html), in the Ozark National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service runs three science-based (not cheesy) tours of this impressive cave system: the Dripstone Trail, the Discovery Trail, and the Wild Cave Tour. "The Dripstone Trail is the shorter and some say the prettier of the two," says staffer Tony Guinn. "The last third of the Discovery Trail is really pretty, too, but you have to work a bit. There are 686 steps." Then there is the Wild Cave Tour, which takes visitors to undeveloped sections of the caverns—and includes some down-and-dirty crawling.

Road Kit

This drive is best done April-Oct. Winter months bring cold weather and snow. For more on the Ozarks, contact the Ozark Gateway Tourist Council (tel. 800 264 0316; www.ozarkgateway.com). Also useful: Arkansas's department of parks and tourism (tel. 1 501 682 7777; www.arkansas.com).

—Text by Mel White

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