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The Glade Top Trail, Unchanged for 80 Years, Boasts of the Ozarks’ Best Fall Scenery

The trail winds through the dramatic hilltops of the Ozarks Mountains, starting near Ava, Missouri and leading south for 23 miles
Glade Top Trail
The Glade Top Trail winds for 23 colorful miles across dramatic hilltops and glades. This photo was taken during the peak fall colors of 2012. (Photo credit: T.J. Jones with Scenic Root Photography, used with permission)

If you’ve dreamed about taking a trip to drink in the colors of the fall foliage, but you haven’t yet made it to Maine or Vermont, you’re in luck.   KSMU’s chief engineer, Doug Waugh, tipped one of our reporters off to a scenic trail in southern Missouri that attracts tourists from across the Midwest this time of year.  KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson headed to the Glade Top Trail, and brings us this report.

Reporter Standup: Right now, I’m in rural Douglas County. I’ve just pulled over onto the side of the road onto a trail that’s actually referred to as 'Glade Top Trail.' I’m told that this 23 mile stretch through the Mark Twain National Forest offers some of the most dramatic views of fall foliage in the country, so I’m headed out to see it for myself.”

[Sound: car starts up]

To get here from Springfield, I drove on Highway 60 East, then Highway 5 South to Ava. About four miles after driving through Ava, I turned right onto Highway A. After four more miles, I turned left onto a paved country road where the brown sign said “Glade Top Trail.”

Pretty soon, the road turns to gravel.

[Sound:  driving on gravel]

This road hasn’t changed much since the 1930s when it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s freshly grated, and I don’t encounter any potholes.

About three miles after the road turns to gravel, I come upon a lookout point.

Reporter standup:  “Okay, I’ve just pulled over again. And I have to say, this forestry is so thick that I feel a little bit like Goldilocks through the forest here…but I haven’t seen any bears yet. I did see four deer cross the road. I’ve pulled over at what’s known as the 'Arkansas View.' There are a couple of picnic tables and a bench overlooking what looks like an incredible view. I have no doubt you can see Arkansas from here on a clear day, although we are still quite a distance from the state line. I’m gonna hop out and take in some of this amazing scenery.”

[Sound:  car driving on gravel]

The Maple trees are starting to turn red, or even coral orange—the Oaks, depending on their species, are leaning toward yellow, copper or red.

Seven miles into the trail, I come upon another hilltop lookout where several cars are parked and about 20 people with telephoto lens cameras are milling about. It’s the first human activity I’ve seen since entering the trail, and the license plates on the cars are all from out-of-state.

“Our photography club, we go on field trips,” said Mike Spivey, who’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“And as our due diligence in looking at things to do, we found the Glade Top Trail on the internet, and thought we’d come and look at it,” he said.

The group is here just before the fall colors reach their peak.  Still, Spivey says, the views are stunning.

I come across a corner that winds a sharp curve around the hilltop—I tell myself not to look down because right next to the road is a very steep drop. It’s about 500 feet above the valley below, so it’s definitely both hands on the wheel.

The next landmark is the Willie Lee Homestead. There’s a tiny rock building with a stone chimney overgrown with brush and vines. Local historians say this homestead was abandoned during the Great Depression, at which time it served as a schoolhouse. You can pitch a tent here if you’re a rustic camper.

The Glade Top Trail is 23 miles long. Toward the end, the road forks, and you can follow the trail either way. I go left, or Southeast, because I want to see the Panorama View.

When I get there, I have a 180 degrees view of the hills and hollers stretching for miles below me.

Driving on, I come to a little wooded valley with an old, white church and a cemetery…it looks like a little town stuck in the late 1800s, but there are no people.  Here, the road forks again, and since it’s the end of the trail, I’m not sure which way to turn.  I hop out and knock on the door of an old—very old—house. A woman answers. I tell her I’m lost.

“My name is Sharon Turner. I was born up on the Glade Top Trail, and I went to a one room schoolhouse up there. It was called Eastview,” Turner said.

I ask her if she gets many  tourists asking for directions, like me.

“Yes, we get several. In fact, I’m always anxious to give them a little bit of my history, because I still call that home, up on the mountain,” Turner said.

Sharon Turner lives in Longrun.  Her house is the old post office, built in 1894, and the old stone building next door is what’s left of her grandfather’s old general store. It’s at the very end of the Glade Top Trail.

I take a left at Longrun, then a right onto 95 South, which runs into Highway 160 at Theodosia.  I head east (a left turn) to get to my home in West Plains; but if you’re headed back to Springfield, you can drive West (or, a right turn) on 160.  It’s an hour and a half drive back to Springfield from there.

Although the trail itself is only 23 miles, you’ll want to allow a good three hours to experience the winding, colorful path from start to finish.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.