Soak up Kansas City's fall colors with these scenic drives and day trips
Take a cruise on these leaf-peeping byways and highways near Kansas City.
Now that we’ve had our first official taste of fall in Kansas City, we're ready to indulge in all our favorite aspects of autumn.
As the trees begin to change from green to vibrant reds, browns, yellows and oranges, it’s the perfect time to find a scenic byway and take a drive. Whether you’re Sunday cruisin’ or taking a drive on a random Tuesday, getting out in nature and watching something other than a screen will do you some good.
So, pack your favorite snacks and sweater, fill up the gas tank, and make a road trip playlist (or, you know, tune in to your favorite public radio station… just a suggestion). It’s time to hit the road for these scenic drives!
Okay, so, this first one is not necessarily a drive. Not anymore, anyway. Cliff Drive has been closed to motor vehicles for quite a while, but this list would feel incomplete without it. Located in George E. Kessler Park in historic Northeast Kansas City, Cliff Drive is a beloved National Scenic Byway — the only one in Kansas City, Missouri.
The road is roughly four miles long, and is nestled beneath steep rocky bluffs and lush trees. Although driving a car down Cliff Drive is currently prohibited, it’s a great place for biking or walking (especially if you have small children and need to bring a stroller — with the exception of bikes, you’ll have the street to yourself!).
Be sure to stroll over to Lookout Point on 192 N. Garfield Drive for a view of the Missouri River and Northeast Industrial District. Or try and hunt down the largest tree in Missouri, which is located in Kessler Park.
Also, if you’re a fan of holiday lights, mark your calendar for Nov. 3 as Kansas City Parks and Rec is preparing to open up a one-mile stretch of Cliff Drive to drivers for a little bit of Winter Magic.
Holiday lights will be on display from 5-10 p.m., Nov. 3 through Jan. 1. Read this article by Northeast News for a map of lighted areas and more information.
Flint Hills National Scenic Byway
Flint Hills National Scenic Byway on Kansas Highway 177 stretches from Council Grove, Kansas to Cassoday, Kansas. It’s about two hours from Kansas City, and more than 47 miles of sprawling prairie grass, rolling hills and jagged limestone bluffs. In the fall, the grass turns to a warm, golden brown color.
According to the National Parks Service, tallgrass prairies are one of the rarest, most endangered ecosystems in the world, encompassing only 4% of their original area. Flint Hills in Kansas is the largest original tall grass prairie that remains unplowed.
While you’re driving K-177, make sure to stop at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve visitor’s center, located in a historic home north of Strong City, Kansas. The visitor’s center is about halfway through the scenic byway, at 2480B K-177. There you’ll find a historic ranch built in 1881, a bison herd and a one-room schoolhouse.
Weston Bend State Park
Though Weston Bend State Park doesn't have any scenic byways, the park itself makes for a gorgeous autumn drive. There are plenty of places to stop for a picnic or go on a paved or unpaved hike and stretch your legs. It’s about 40 minutes from Kansas City, so it makes for a perfect day trip.
The hilly, winding road that leads through Weston Bend offers beautiful forest views, as do the roadways surrounding the park. Then, once you get to the top, you'll find a scenic overlook with views of the Missouri River.
The city of Weston is an ideal autumn destination, too. Quaint and picturesque, you can spend an entire weekend exploring Green Dirt Farm, Weston Orchard and Vineyard, Weston Brewing Company and Pirtle Winery.
Glacial Hills Scenic Byway
Glacial Hills Scenic Byway runs North to South (or vice versa, depending on where you begin) and is 63 miles long. For people leaving from Kansas City, the byway begins approximately 45 minutes away in Leavenworth, Kansas, at the intersection of K-7 and K-92. Glacial Hills Scenic Byway ends in White Cloud, Kansas.
The byway has sweeping hills and rocky valleys that were carved by ancient glaciers — hence the name, Glacial Hills.
There are lots of historical stops along the way, such as the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison. The Glacial Hills region is home to one of the most famous Pony Express routes and contains multiple markers, including the Lewis and Clark Riverfront Pavilion in Atchinson, where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery made stops.
If you make it all the way to the end and arrive in White Cloud, you’ll want to be sure and stop at the Four State Lookout where you can get a bird's-eye look at the Missouri River Valley. It’s one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas, and on a clear day, you’ll be able to see portions of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa all at once!
Glade Top Trail National Forest Scenic Byway
Looking for a vast, panoramic view of fall foliage? Glade Top Trail has you covered. The 23-mile scenic byway is located in Mark Twain National Forest — Missouri’s only national forest.
Glade Top Trail is a two-lane gravel road that has seven stops (where vehicles can pull over) offering a wide variety of viewing options. Not only is the area known for its stunning, brightly colored fall leaves, it's also known for its vast, sweeping glades — open spaces in the forest — which is where the byway gets its name. In Missouri, glade habitats are home to more than 500 different species of native plants, such as the silky aster, a purple wildflower pollinators love.
This byway is roughly four hours from Kansas City, so you’ll want to plan for either a long day trip or an overnight stay. But not to worry — from cabins, to tent or RV campgrounds, Mark Twain National Forest has plenty of camping options.
The camping area for Glade Top Trail is located between stops six and seven. It is dispersed camping, which means campers are pretty much roughing it in tents away from other campers. There is no running water, restrooms, fire pits, or picnic tables so be sure to review rules and prepare accordingly if you plan to camp here.
Chances are your cell phone service might be spotty, so this downloadable map of Glade Top Trail can help. The trail is open year round, but the best time to catch changing leaves in the area is mid to late October. Happy leaf-peeping!