Why drive to New England to see colorful trees when we've got plenty of trees here? As I explained in last year's driving tour, the river hills of Missouri feature fantastic fall foliage without requiring a long drive. This year's route crosses the river to explore the river hills of Illinois, also impressive but still within a short drive.
This suggested route follows paved roads except for optional side trips:
Union County Conservation Area
The wildlife refuge, just off Highway 3 near Ware, is a popular spot for watching geese, deer, and even bald eagles, but it also provides a convienent opportunity for leaf-peeping, especially along the road while leaving the refuge. This side trip is always good excuse to escape from the heavy traffic of Highway 3.
Directions: Cross the Emerson Bridge and turn left on Highway 3. Go 9 miles and turn right on Refuge Road. Follow the road through the conservation area.
Trail of Tears State Forest
The word "forest" in the name provides a clue that this public recreation area is loaded with trees. And indeed it is. The blacktop road running through the state forest is a pleasant drive, but the best scenery is found along the gravel one-lane side roads that circle the area counter-clockwise. You don't want to be in a hurry while exploring these twisty roads, though.
Directions: After leaving the refuge, turn right on Highway 146. Go three-quarters of a mile and turn left on Clear Creek Levee Road, just before the big bridge. Follow the levee road to the T-intersection with State Forest Road and turn right. Follow the blacktop road into the state forest.
If you're feeling adventurous, take the South Forest Road by turning right at the picnic shelters near the big white barn. Follow the lane past the picnic area and up the steep hill. At the top, turn left and continue along this one-way road as its snakes through the hills and eventually returns to the blacktop highway. If you feel like even more adventure, turn right and then make an immediate left on the North Forest Road. Follow this lane as it winds through the hills and finally returns to the highway again after several miles. Turn left on the blacktop road to exit the state forest.
Bald Knob Cross
A trip to Union County wouldn't be complete without a pilgrimage to the top of Bald Knob and the newly restored cross. The summit provides an almost-but-not-quite 360 degree view of the colorfuls trees in the valleys below.
Directions: Follow State Forest Road to Highway 127 and turn left. After going under the bridge at Alto Pass, turn right twice and cross the overpass. Follow this road to the Y-junction with Bald Knob Road and bear left. Follow this road to the parking area at Bald Knob Cross. To return to Alto Pass, go back on Bald Knob Road and then bear right at the tricky intersection with Milligan Hill Road and continue to the overpass.
Alto Pass Overlook
Don't overlook the overlook at Alto Pass, which provides a clear view of Bald Knob Cross and beyond from the crest of a tall bluff.
Directions: After crossing Highway 127, continue straight into Alto Pass on Chestnut Street. Turn right on Main Street in the center of town and drive up the hill to the overlook parking area on the right.
County Line Road
Sure, we could take the boring route back to Cape Girardeau along Highway 127 and 146, but where's the fun in that? Instead, this route breezes through Cobden and Anna and then follows a backroad past farm fields into a lesser-known corner of the Shawnee National Forest.
Directions: From the overlook, turn right and follow the road, Skyline Drive, to the outskirts of Cobden. Then turn right on the highway (Old US 51) to continue through Cobden and into Anna. At the four-way stop in Anna, turn right on Highway 146 west and carefully cross the railroad tracks. Follow the highway through Anna to the traffic circle at Jonesboro. Go three-quarters around the traffic circle and take the turnoff for Highway 127 south. Cruise along the highway south for 8.5 miles to the hamlet of Mill Creek. Just past the town, turn right on County Line Road. Follow this picturesque blacktop road until it reaches the T-junction with Grapevine Trail. To return to Cape Girardeau from here, turn right and follow Grapevine Trail to McClure, then turn left and follow Highway 146 to the Emerson Bridge.
Horse Creek Trail (optional)
The Horse Creek Trail is a strenuous 5-mile hike through the hills overlooking the Mississippi River floodplain. However, some of the best color can be found along the access road.
Directions: At the intersection of County Line Road and Grapevine Trail, turn left, then make an immediate right turn on Oxford Road. Follow this gravel forest road to the top of the hill and bear right at the first intersection, then continue to the parking area at the end of the road. Feel free to walk along a portion of the trail to enjoy the forest.
Bean Ridge (optional)
This winding forest road follows the ridgetops along the river hills above Thebes. This section of the Shawnee National Forest features Bean Ridge Pond, a secluded man-made lake surrounded by trees.
Directions: Return to Grapevine Trail and turn right. Continue 3 miles and turn right on Bean Ridge Road. Follow this gravel road for 4.7 miles to the intersection with Bean Ridge Ranch Road. Make a sharp left on the first gravel road (the one that isn't posted against trespassing). Follow this one-lane road to an overlook above Bean Ridge Pond. When finished, return to Bean Ridge Road and go straight. Follow this gravel road as it turns to blacktop and eventually ends at Old Highway 3. Turn left, and then turn right on New Highway 3 at Thebes. Take this highway north to the intersection with Highway 146 and turn left to return to the Emerson Bridge.
Below is a Google map showing the driving tour, with the main route in blue and the optional side trips in red.
View Fall Foliage Finder Feature 2011 in a larger map