Fall’s Best Foliage Drive
There’s a pilgrimage that occurs each year in Oklahoma. When the leaves start to turn, thousands of people embark on a quest to the southeast region of the state to watch a blaze of glory. Yes, we are talking about the Talimena National Scenic Byway.
Oklahoma’s most renowned fall foliage drive, the Talimena National Scenic Byway invites foliage fans on a 54-mile pathway through the Ouachita National Forest right across the tops of ancient mountains in southeastern Oklahoma. The road twists and turns over the gently rolling Ouachita Mountains with a span of vistas more breathtaking than the last. Frequent scenic turnouts offer travelers the best views over the magnificent blend of autumn hues on the richly forested hills that seem to stretch forever.
There is a sweet spot each year to see the height of color. Foliage in Oklahoma begins to change color in mid-October. Typically, foliage can be viewed at its peak from the last week of October through the first week or two of November.
Luckily, the good folks of the Talimena National Scenic Byway Association (TSDA) publish a weekly Foliage Report on their website, TalimenaScenicDrive.com.
Where to Start
So, which end of the drive is the best way to start? Some diehard followers start on the Mena, Arkansas side, but others wouldn’t consider starting anywhere but the Talihina, Oklahoma side.
It’s really a matter of taste,” says Mike Doughty, TSDA spokesperson. “There are four points of entry to the park. Starting from Talihina ensures those iconic views everyone talks about, but the drive from Mena has the most gorgeous sunsets. And then there are the entrances in the middle, Oklahoma Hwy 259 intersects the halfway point and Arkansas Hwy 272 leads you straight up to Queen Wilhelmina State Park. It’s a great start and a great end whichever route you take.”
Either way, start early. It takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours to get there if you drive straight through from Tulsa. Take your time and visit a local antique shop and enjoy breakfast at a locally-owned restaurant along the way. Check out Heavener Runestone Park in Heavener, Oklahoma where the Vikings are supposed to have left their mark on a massive boulder more than 1,000 years ago, or explore the caves at Robbers Cave State Park in Wilburton, Oklahoma.
There are many places to discover along the way so make sure to throw in your hiking boots and pack a picnic. But don’t dilly dally too much. The sun goes down early in the fall and you won’t want to miss the peak viewing times from the top of the mountains. It technically takes about an hour and 10 minutes to drive, but stopping at the scenic vistas and attractions along the way could take most of the day.
Stay a While
If you have never been to the Talimena National Scenic Byway, you might consider drinking it in over a day or two. Talimena State Park (StateParks.com/Talihina.html) offers facilities for picnics and camping, RV hookups with electric/water, tent campsites, playground, hiking trails, and a comfort station with showers. Queen Wilhelmina State Park (QueenWilhelmina.com) just completed a $9.6 million dollar renovation and offers guest rooms, private meeting rooms and a restaurant. The park has camping, a miniature railroad, miniature golf, petting zoo and hiking trails. The drive’s many gateway cities offer travelers accommodations ranging from quaint bed and breakfasts to national chain hotels. For more information, visit TalimenaScenicDrive.com/Lodging.
Come Back in the Spring
Fall isn’t the only time to visit the Talimena National Scenic Byway. It is open all year long except when snow and ice make the drive too dangerous to travel.
Doughty says, “Every season is a good time to take the drive. In the winter, when the leaves are off the trees, you’ll see so many different birds, animals, and even insects you can’t see anywhere else reveling in their own ecosystems. And there’s nothing more beautiful than the sparkling winter’s frost in the morning. Spring brings a punch of color to the mountains with butterflies and blooms of wildflowers, lavender, and huckleberries. In the summer, it’s completely green and perfect for hiking. And then there’s the fall…”
Visit the Talimena National Scenic Byway this year. To plan your trip, go to TalimenaScenicDrive.com for a treasure trove of information including maps, history, where to shop, and area events and festivals.