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Discovering fall in the heart of America

With numerous state parks, scenic overlooks and abundant wildlife, the Mississippi River region is a spectacular place to explore on an autumn day.

Lovers Leap in Hannibal, Missouri
Mississippi River overlook in Missouri (Credit: Missouri Division of Tourism)

This is the time of year when many people in the United States move a little more slowly—they’re savoring the season. The air is a little fresher and the trees are ablaze in colors of red, yellow and orange. During this season, many people take leisurely drives on country roads to admire the fall colors, explore apple orchards and wineries, and discover beautiful parks. With numerous state parks, scenic overlooks and abundant wildlife, the Mississippi River region is a spectacular place to explore on an autumn day.

The trees turn colors at different times, depending on the state. In northern states, colors are the most brilliant in late September and October; in southern states, colors reach their peak in early November. Days along the Mississippi can be warm this time of year, but evenings can be cool—be sure to pack a sweater or light jacket. And don’t forget your camera—your pictures will be amazing.

Day 1 – St. Louis, Missouri

We’ll start our fall adventure in what some locals call “The Lou.” A perfect time to visit St. Louis is mid-late October when fall leaves are especially colorful.

Morning: Arrive at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, travel to Belleville, Illinois (45 kilometers, 35 minutes)

Afternoon: Visit a family farm in Belleville, Illinois

Start your afternoon at Eckert’s Belleville Farm. Sample apple cider, purchase apples and tour the farm. Purchase an American classic—apple pie—and browse other local seasonal staples, including apple butter, honey, jams and preserves. Then head over to Braeutigam Orchards, which has been in the Braeutigam family since 1831. The orchard produces a variety of fruits including apples, cherries, plums and peaches, in addition to various vegetables.

Evening: Travel to downtown St. Louis (27 kilometers, 25 minutes)

After a day of exploring local farms, we’ll explore a bit of the city with a seasonally appropriate “ghost tour.” Explore St. Louis’ haunted past—join a tour and learn about the city’s collection of ghosts!

Other options: Visit Gateway Arch National Park, tour the Missouri Civil War Museum, explore the Saint Louis Art Museum or take a food tour of St. Louis.

Day 2 – St. Louis to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, via Jonesboro, Illinois

We’ll head downriver to enjoy the beautiful fall colors of the Mississippi region, traveling through a beautiful forest.

Morning: Head to Jonesboro, Illinois (196 kilometers; 2 hours, 11 minutes)

Today we’ll travel through the Trail of Tears State Forest, located in the Ozark Hills. It’s one of the most rugged regions of Illinois. The forest is filled with black oaks, white oaks and hickory trees that come alive with fall color. The park is named after a dark chapter in American history: as European settlers arrived, the U.S. Army forced Native Americans to move through this country and hundreds perished during a winter encampment in 1838-39. The park is a beautiful area that will remain forever wild.

Afternoon: Head to Cape Girardeau, Missouri (18 kilometers, 25 minutes)

After lunch in a Jonesboro café, we’ll continue our meandering drive south along the river to Cape Girardeau.

Evening: Spend the night in historic Cape Girardeau

Overnight in Cape Girardeau, a historic river town first inhabited by Europeans in 1733. By the river, check out the Mississippi River Tales Mural, a work of art on the city’s flood wall that commemorates the region’s history. To cap off the night, take a stroll under mature trees through the cape’s beautiful downtown—there are 39 properties listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places.

Other options: Play a round of golf at a Cape Girardeau-area golf course, visit the Cape River Heritage Museum, tour the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site.

Day 3 – Cape Girardeau to New Madrid, Missouri

Today we’ll start the morning enjoying a bit more of Cape Girardeau before taking a scenic drive south following the Mississippi to explore the riverfront community of New Madrid.

Morning: Explore Cape Girardeau

We’ll begin the day by browsing fall produce in a Cape Girardeau farmers’ market. The cape hosts markets on Thursdays and Saturdays. Markets are a great way to explore traditional fall foods and plants native to the continent—you’ll find pumpkins, squash and colorful Indian corn.

Afternoon: Drive to New Madrid, Missouri (85 kilometers, 55 minutes)

Spend a little time around New Madrid, a town that was at the center of a catastrophic earthquake more than 200 years ago. Today New Madrid is a peaceful community that’s picturesque during the fall. Take in the river from an observation deck in town and you’ll likely see some boat traffic. In the fall, barges haul massive crops from the heartland downriver. After taking in the view, enjoy a different sort of bounty with a tour of a nearby winery.

Other options: Visit the Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site, explore the New Madrid Historical Museum or take in the River Walk Gallery.

Day 4 – New Madrid to Memphis, Tennessee, via Ripley, Tennessee

Today we’ll get back to the business of enjoying fall color before heading to the storied community of Memphis.

Morning: Drive to Ripley, Tennessee (130 kilometers; 1 hour, 25 minutes)

Let’s take a hike in the Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge. We’ll see different colors in this country: the 10,120-hectare refuge includes the largest block of bottomland hardwood forest in Tennessee. We’ll see a lot of trees and a lot of birds—this is an important stop for migratory waterfowl. On some days one may see thousands of ducks and teals.

Afternoon: Continue south to Memphis, Tennessee (93 kilometers; 1 hour, 10 minutes)

Memphis is the largest city on the Mississippi River and the birthplace of important music, food and culture. Enjoy an afternoon strolling the iconic Beale Street, “The Home of the Blues.”

Evening: Spend the evening in Memphis

Grab a dinner of ribs, slaw and fries at the Blues City Café. After dinner, catch a live blues performance in a downtown club. Spend the night in a Memphis hotel.

Other options: Visit Graceland, the birthplace of Elvis; explore the Memphis Zoo; visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Day 5 – Memphis-area fall sightseeing

We’ll spend the remainder of our fall color tour in and around beautiful Memphis, enjoying wildlife and scenery in two beautiful parks.

Morning: Visit the Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge in Turrell, Arkansas (45 kilometers, 35 minutes)

This beautiful refuge contains virgin cypress swamp, mature bottomland hardwood forest, reforested uplands and grasslands.

Afternoon: Head back across the river to Shelby Farms Park in Memphis (70 kilometers, 55 minutes)

This park is more urban than parks we’ve visited on the trip so far. At 1,800 hectares, it’s not a small park. In fact, it covers an area more than five times the size of Central Park in New York City. The park features more than ten kilometers of urban trails and offers something for just about everyone. See a herd of American bison, majestic creatures native to North America. Play a round of disc golf; it’s one of America’s fastest-growing sports. Or try laser tag—you can rent gear in the park. But if you do nothing else in Shelby Farms Park, take a moment to admire the colors. The park is home to large numbers of maple, oak, ash and elm that are glorious in the fall.

Evening: Dinner at Cozy Corner in Memphis (27 kilometers, 20 minutes)

Tuck in with some succulent barbeque at the Cozy Corner. The popular restaurant offers “dinner plates” that include as many ribs as you like. Our recommendation: don’t skimp!

Other options: Visit the National Civil Rights Museum, see the Peabody Ducks or visit Sun Studio where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash recorded hit songs.

Day 6 – Depart for home

Leave from Memphis International Airport, filled with beautiful autumn memories from the Mississippi River.