Spend an afternoon in this part of the state, and you'll be convinced that God is a painter. A Matisse-like presence spreads his grace among the north Arkansas region like a color-crazed phantom this time of year. Yet this spirit stirs up more than just gorgeous leaves. Wooded retreats, tiny towns with budding artist communities, scenic highways, more than a million acres in protected national forests, as well as fall fishing and float trips along the Buffalo National River prove this place a perfect playground.
Make your first stop in the town of Ponca, and let your spirits soar with a hot-air balloon ride ($245 per person). Trip guide Mike Mills at the Buffalo Outdoor Center takes his silky sensations out in the early mornings. (Make reservations at least a day in advance.)
When it's time to eat, head to Jasper and the Ozark Cafe, a fixture in the area since 1909. They make a fine country-fried steak for lunch. Their fried cheesecake ($3.99), wrapped in a tortilla and fried to a crisp, is so good it defies logic.
This area claims galleries such as the Old Carriage House in Jasper. The red, barn-like structure sits off State 7 and features the creations of owner-artist Rebecca Holden and local craftspeople. Wind chimes, old-fashioned toys, handmade jewelry, leaves and flowers fashioned from copper, and pottery stock the shelves.