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Published on: Sep. 20, 2011

I have a beautiful drive to work. Every morning, tree-covered hills usher me off to my day. Every evening, they welcome me home. Throughout the month of September, the lush green of the trees begins to dull, as if the hills themselves are taking a deep breath for their final song of the year. Then, ever so slowly, splashes of color begin to appear.

I eagerly wait for those first hints of yellows, oranges and reds. When they arrive, I know it’s time to welcome another beautiful Missouri autumn. With a little help from the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website, I was able to follow the appearance of color across the entire state.

My husband and I are always eager to find last-minute outdoor adventures for our family before our three boys are cooped up for the winter. This year, the month of October yielded three new adventures for us.

Powder Valley

I’ve always had a soft spot for Powder Valley Nature Center in St. Louis—it offered me hours of free entertainment for my boys when they were little. At the time, we lived close by and I could load the two youngest in a double stroller and easily walk their disabled- and stroller-accessible trails. We hadn’t been there in a couple of years, though; so it was a chance to rediscover a long-lost friend. We set aside an entire morning to explore, although we could have easily spent an entire day.

As we entered the nature center, my boys made a beeline for the copperhead, rattlesnake and alligator snapping turtles on display. While the younger boys, Blake and Chris, were giving their father a puppet show, my eldest son, Dylan, was checking out the gift shop. He used his allowance and a few dollars he sweet-talked out of my wallet to buy notebooks for himself and Blake. For Christopher, he bought some small plastic bugs.

Blake and Dylan used their new notebooks to make leaf rubbings from metal templates in the center. Knowing we only had one morning and wanting to hike at least one trail, dam and I tried to strike a balance between letting the boys explore their fill while still keeping the expedition moving along.

Every exhibit fascinated them: peeking inside trees to see what lives there, seeing the inner-workings of a beehive, running their own park through a simulation game, feeling pelts of their favorite animals, and seeing fish from a different angle. There is so much to see, smell, feel and do.

By the time we pried them from the indoor exhibits, the morning was slipping away. We decided to take the shortest trail to save some time, even though it held less promise of fall color.

Most of the color on the trail was faded yellows and greens, but that was okay by me because it made the bright orange or red trees scattered throughout seem more special when they did peek through.

Fallen leaves nearly covered the paved trail—that didn’t stop Christopher from trying to dodge them to keep from alerting the deer to our presence. I’m not sure which was more humorous: the idea that our family could keep quiet enough to not scare the deer away, or my 6-year-old trying to dodge leaves like they were a laser-beam security system.

We never did see a deer, but we did stop for a while to watch a box turtle lumber over the litter on the forest floor. After a bit, we took another break for the boys to sketch the trees in their newly acquired notebooks. While cute in theory, the idea of documenting the journey was probably taken a bit far when they decided to draw a picture of the deer scat (or poop, in kid-speak) on the trail. Ah, the joys of having sons.

Rocky Creek

Usually when I think of the Ozarks, I think of Douglas County—I’ll always love the wild hills surrounding Ava, Mo. But I’ve wanted to visit Shannon County for a while now, and the Rocky Creek Conservation Area driving tour seemed like a good reason. Dylan was game for tagging along. As we approached the striking bluffs near our destination, I was glad we had come.

Patches of grass that refused to give up their emerald hue stood in stark contrast to the tall brown prairie grass bending gracefully in the breeze. Many of the trees were brown, signaling that we’d missed the peak of fall in that neck of the state. Evergreens filled in the gaps created by the falling leaves, patiently waiting their turn to shine.

Occasionally, we’d get a glimpse of the hills beyond through the tall pines lining the winding but well-paved road. Beautiful bridges were tucked into the landscape. At one point, the trees made an archway over the road—it was like something out of a fairy tale.

I grew up roaming the woods of my grandfather’s 200-acre farm in Douglas County, but I don’t recall ever feeling quite that remote before. There were times it felt like Dylan and I were the only two people on the planet in that forest, and it made me wonder what it must have been like for the first pioneers to settle the area. After a crazy week at work, the solitude was delightful.

The woodland restoration project was fascinating to see, even more so when you read the accompanying explanation from the Department of Conservation website that explains the work that’s gone into ensuring this forest is around for future generations to enjoy.

The scenery was amazing, but the real value of this trip was the time in the car. I’m so busy and Dylan’s growing up so fast. It was good to push the pause button for a day to just go on an adventure with my son. It created the environment for the kinds of conversations that can’t happen in snippets of stolen time.

Little Dixie Lake

By the time we made it to the Little Dixie Lake for our planned fishing expedition, we’d reached that point in fall where plants, animals and human alike are all waiting for the first snowflake to fall. You know it’s coming and can feel it in the air. But there’s just enough sunshine left in the day to make you want to run out and do all the things you didn’t get your fill of in the summer: catch one more fish, hike one more trail, or ride your bike.

With the exception of the rare golden or fiery red tree, the hills were a patchwork of muted fall colors as they faded softly into winter.

When we arrived at the lake, I was surprised by the open, crisp beauty of the place. Just off the parking lot, boats were lined up neatly, dormant for the season and waiting for warm weather and their return to the lake.

We might have missed boat season, but there were still two large, metal docks that were perfect for catching crappie. (I know—I caught the first fish of the day!)

The fishing holes we normally frequent close to our home are tough on novice anglers. There are currents and rocks to contend with. There’s a hog-nose snake that loves to steal our bait and there isn’t much room for casting, so I spend a good portion of my time either casting for the youngest children or untangling their lines from nearby vegetation.

But here the docks were large enough for us to fan out to the four corners, and the boys could cast to their hearts’ delight without catching a tree or a brother. It was completely relaxing.

When the kids grew bored with fishing from the dock, we decided to hike the perimeter of the lake. Along the way, we found half of a hollowed out tree stump that was large enough for each of the boys to stand in. I lost count of the great fishing holes as we hiked. We got our lines wet a dozen more times. We didn’t catch anything, but that was because we’d cast once and then spy another fishing spot we couldn’t wait to try. So we’d reel in and scurry to the next location.

Little Dixie Lake is the kind of place that beckons you to spend a lazy day fishing, picnicking and exploring. I promised the boys we would go back next summer to rent a boat for the day.

It’s easy to fall victim to an overly full schedule—days slip by. It’s hard to carve out time with your family, even harder to find something to do that won’t empty the bank account. Or so I thought. Once I knew where to look, I realized that I’m surrounded by free or inexpensive ways for my family to spend time together. And the memories we created were well worth the effort it took to rearrange my schedule.

Things to See & Do

Each of the areas I visited with my family has plenty to see or do. Here are a few things I recommend checking out on your family’s adventure:

Powder Valley—the list of things to do at Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center is nearly endless. While there, choose from one of three paved trails for a hike or a stroll. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the many indoor exhibits. A favorite for my family is an interactive game that allows you to “run a park” of your own. Before you arrive, check their calendar online for upcoming classes and events.

Rocky Creek Conservation Area Driving Tour—be sure to take along the corresponding guide, which can be found on MDC Online at mdc.mo.gov/node/9825. In addition to providing a map of the project area, the guide will explain each marker along the driving tour.

Little Dixie Lake—if you head to this conservation area early enough in the season, you can rent a boat for $5/day. Only the boat and oars are provided, so be sure to bring a life vest for everyone. You’ll also want to remember your tackle box and fishing poles. We had the best luck with crappie on our visit, but that could have been due to lack of patience! Consider hiking around the perimeter of the lake to look for the perfect picnic spot while you’re there.

Roads Not Taken

There are a myriad of things to do with your family to enjoy Missouri’s breathtaking autumn season. By following the fall color updates on MDC Online, you can plan your adventures to follow the best color. Here are a few activities and places my family didn’t make it to that we hope to try next year:

Fall mushroom hunting in the Missouri Ozarks—There are more edible mushrooms in autumn than any other season. Beyond the popular morel, you may find hen of the woods, blewits, lobsters, chanterelles, chicken of the woods, black trumpets or oysters. These wonderful mushrooms fruit earlier in the season, but can also fruit in the fall. To learn more about mushroom hunting safety and recipes, check out Fall for Wild Mushrooms at mdc.mo.gov/node/9821 and Safe Mushroom Hunting at mdc.mo.gov/node/4221. You can also purchase a copy of Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms at mdcnatureshop.com.

Hiking in Northwest Missouri—I realized when I wrote this article that I’ve been all over south and central Missouri, and it’s about time I explored the northern portions of the state. I can’t think of a better way to do that than getting out and walking the trails of one of the many Conservation Areas located throughout the region. By using the Conservation Area Atlas located online, I can find the perfect spot to explore.

Horseback Riding at the Canaan Conservation Area in Gasconade County—This mostly wooded Conservation Area has approximately nine miles of multi-use trails, along with several creeks and springs. Fall will be a great time to get my family out of the riding arena and onto a trail.

Exploring Fall Color

Learn more about Missouri’s fall foliage and forests, and where to find the best examples and driving tours, on the Department’s website at mdc.mo.gov/node/4548.

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