As summer starts to fade and the days begin to shorten, Mother Nature makes her annual pass through the region, bringing changing seasons and a swath of beauty we are privileged to witness. Here, “fall” is synonymous with “foliage” and, as the temperatures drop and the trees start to turn, the hillsides are set afire with every hue of gold, red, yellow, and orange. It’s a wonderful time to be outdoors, so we’ve hand-picked a few of our favorite trails to help you get up close and personal with the wonder of autumn in the Midwest.
Lewis & Clark Trails – Weldon Spring, Mo.
Located off Highway 94 in Weldon Spring Recreational Area, the Lewis and Clark trails (8.2 miles and 5.2 miles, respectively) are mainstays in the St. Charles hiking scene. Known for their scenic bluffs that tower above the Missouri River, these popular paths are heavily wooded, making for spectacular scenery come fall. As the trails ascend and descend rolling hills, the colors change with the varied tree species. And, of course, the views from the bluffs are stunning — the river valley spread out for miles. Go early, as the parking lot here can get FULL.
River Scene Trail – Ballwin, Mo.
Another St. Louis-area mainstay, Castlewood State Park boasts many trails that are great for foliage hikes. River Scenic is perhaps the best, providing opportunities to stroll alongside the Meramec River as it winds its way through the park, while also leading hikers up the bluffs above the river. Along the cliffs, the rolling hillsides of Wildwood stretch beyond, painted red, orange, and yellow as the season changes. Fall sunsets from atop the bluffs can be quite cinematic.
McAdam’s Peak – Grafton, Ill.
Pere Marquette is one of Illinois’ most popular state parks, located just west of Grafton along the Great River Road — a scenic drive in its own right. While the entire park is heavily wooded, McAdam’s Peak and the surrounding overlooks are the best places for peeping the changing leaves. The McAdam’s Peak Trail (1.9 miles) heads straight to the good stuff, while the Outer Loop Trail (6.3 miles) incorporates McAdam’s Peak into a longer hike. Be sure to visit the park’s historic lodge; built in the 1930s, its roaring fireplace is a welcome waypoint after a chilly fall hike.
Mina Sauk Falls Trail – Ironton, Mo.
Deep in the St. Francois Mountains west of Ironton, foliage-chasers will find Taum Sauk State Park and the highest point in Missouri — Taum Sauk Mountain (1,772 feet). While the views from the top of Taum Sauk leave much to be desired (the summit is in a heavily wooded area), the foliage along the Mina Sauk Falls Trail is worth the drive. This 3-mile loop meanders through the forest to Mina Sauk Falls — the tallest waterfall in Missouri (132 feet). After a good rain, the falls are filled with cascading water, the sounds filling the forest. Combine that with the golds, reds, and purples of changing leaves and discover what can be a very magical setting.
Buford Mountain Forest Trail – Bismarck, Mo.
Lesser-known than some of the other trails listed here, Buford Mountain Conservation Area is a great day-hike destination from St. Louis. The Buford Mountain Forest Trail is 9.4 miles long and offers some of the most varied terrain in all of Missouri. The trail climbs up and around Buford Mountain’s five peaks, culminating with sweeping views across the Belleview Valley from 1,740 feet above sea level. The rolling hills are densely forested, proving a wide canvas for fall’s colors. Due to the elevation gains, this trail isn’t rated for beginners; pack lots of water and wear sturdy boots!
Johnson‘s Shut-Ins & Elephant Rocks – Lesterville & Belleview, Mo.
Two of Missouri’s most popular summertime destinations morph into quiet, colorful outdoor refuges come late October. The crowds have left, and the parking lots are empty, but Mother Nature is still at work. At Johnson’s Shut-Ins, check out the Shut-Ins and the Scour trails; both provide incredible foliage viewing through oak and hickory forests and along the Black River. At Elephant Rocks, hike up to the top of the boulder fields for amazing views across the valley and the St. Francois Mountains beyond. Go during the week it possible, as both parks are busier on Saturdays and Sundays.
Bell Mountain Loop Trail – Belleview, Mo.
The Bell Mountain Loop Trail (11.6 miles) has long been considered one of the premiere overnight backpacking destinations in Missouri. Going during fall adds spectacular color to the epic views taken in from the summit. The trail starts out along a section of the Ozark Trail (OT), meandering through oak and hickory forest. At the T-junction, the connector trail splits from the OT and heads towards Bell Mountain. Turn right when you hit the loop and head for the summit- you’ll pass through dense forests on the way, full of color. As the view opens up, the surrounding hillsides are covered in fiery hues. Set up your tent, grab a seat, and take in one of the most beautiful sunsets in all of Missouri.
Garden of the Gods Wilderness – Herod, Ill.
Further afield but well worth the drive, Garden of the Gods Wilderness in southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest is spectacular at any time of year. Several trails crisscross the landscape, providing ample opportunity to explore the area’s dense forest and unique rock formations. The Garden of the Gods Loop Trail (6.3 miles) passes several rock formations, numerous waterfalls, and features multiple of scenic vistas — a perfect destination for some blockbuster foliage viewing.
Story and Images by Nick Tilley. Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.