CASSVILLE — As he hiked a trail in Roaring River State Park, Dusty Reid paused to admire an Ozarks masterpiece.
In the distance, a steep hillside was splashed with the bright yellows, reds and oranges of leaves turning colors.
In front of him, fallen orange leaves tumbled down a gurgling riffle in the stream.
Atop a craggy bluff, two deer paused to look at the human intruder, then bolted with their whitetails raised high.
Fall in the Ozarks. It's a time for color, tranquility and getting in touch with nature.
And at a park that is one of the most heavily used in the state, that peace and quiet is never lost on Reid, who is the superintendent at Roaring River.
"This state park has always been a special place for me," Reid said. "I grew up in Joplin, and we'd be over here a lot, fishing and camping.
"I remember how beautiful it was, especially at this time of the year. And that hasn't changed.
"When the leaves turn colors and the crowds die down, that's my favorite time of the year to be out on the hiking trails."
And this year? Well, Mother Nature has seemingly outdone herself, Reid said.
Roaring River went two months straight without a drop of water, Reid said, and everyone assumed it would be a drab fall color season.
But that changed almost overnight. In mid-September, one storm dumped almost eight inches of rain on the park in southwest Missouri.
The grass greened and the moisture set the stage for an incredible display of fall color. By mid-October, the oaks, hickories, maples, sycamores, sumacs and poison ivy were glowing with color — postcard-type color.
And Reid and the park's assistant superintendent, Kerry Hays, were on the hiking trails every spare moment they had, taking photos to remember the season.
"Surprisingly, this is one of the best color years we've had for some time," Reid said. "We peaked last week, but the hillsides still have plenty of color.
"It's just a great time to be out."
Reid and Hays were on the trails recently, enjoying nature's masterpiece.
As they wound their way down a short trail along the rushing Roaring River, they passed rocky outcroppings and bluffs framed by colorful leaves, with a backdrop of hillsides painted with a palette of colors.
Roaring River is best known for its trout fishing, some of the best in Missouri. From March 1 through Oct. 31, it is stocked daily by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and the crowds descend on the park.
Then the park takes a breather until the catch and release season begins in November. The park becomes peaceful and quiet, wildlife becomes less wary and is often easier to spot, and the fall colors add beauty to the landscape.
"This is a gorgeous time to be out hiking," Hays said. "It's incredibly peaceful.
"You'll see things that you won't at any other time of the year."
Roaring River has seven hiking trails, ranging in length from two-tenths of a mile to three and one-half miles. Hikers who wanted a longer trek can combine parts of two trails and take a five-mile walk.
The trails wind through a state park set in a spring-carved valley with steep hillsides, deep hollows, rock formations and the river.
Each season has its special signature. In the colder months, snow and ice coat trees and rocks and give the park the look of a winter wonderland. In the spring, wildflowers and blooming red buds and dogwoods bring color to the emerald backdrop. And in the summer, fog often rises from the cold water as early-morning temperatures rise.
But Roaring River is at its best in the fall. That's when hikers can walk into true Ozarks beauty.
"I came here as a seasonal worker in 1994," Reid said. "During the months I wasn't working, I would travel and work in other places.
"I've been to Alaska and lots of well-known places. But I'd put Roaring River in the same class as a lot of them.
"It's just a beautiful place."