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25 Ultimate Fall Drives

To celebrate Midwest Living’s 25th anniversary, we chose our all-time favorite fall drives, the ones showcasing the best of the season and the region. All our drives deliver memorable scenery, towns, restaurants and lodgings. You’ll see familiar routes, plus a few surprises.
Tunnel of Trees.

Michigan: Tunnel of Trees

We asked on Facebook, and you answered with surprising unanimity: M-119, better known as the Tunnel of Trees, is your favorite Midwest fall drive. Gold-dappled boughs arch over the deliciously curvy road  snaking north of Harbor Springs, following Lake Michigan for 20 miles. (A few minutes more, and you enter Wilderness State Park.) In Good Hart, shop at arty-rustic shop Primitive Images, and in Cross Village, dig into a hearty Polish meal at quirky Legs Inn. 

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Illinois: Northwest Illinois Loop

If your fall plans include a shopping weekend in Galena, make time for a fresh-air escape to the state parks and recreation areas outside town: Mississippi Palisades for river views, White Pines Forest for thick groves, Lowden Memorial for The Eternal Indian (aka Black Hawk) statue and Lake Le-Aqua-Na for trail rides. Pick up a fall driving tour brochure in Freeport, and eat ice cream at Union Dairy, next to the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. Picnic at a scenic overlook for lunch.

Heavenly dining On the way back to Galena, stop for a steak or seafood dinner in Elizabeth at The Holy Mackerel in a renovated white clapboard church. 

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Minnesota: Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway

The Root River State Trail draws bicyclists to southeast Minnesota, but the river valley looks just as pretty from State-16. Trees blanket rolling hills, and quaint towns line the 88-mile byway. Visit Laura Ingalls Wilder sites in Spring Valley, stay at one of many B&Bs in Lanesboro, and order a wedge of rhubarb custard pie at the Aroma Pie Shop in Whalan.

Delightful detours In Harmony, just 8 miles south of the byway, tour Niagara Cave and savor upscale comfort food, including Swedish meatballs, at Quarter/quarter. Or, if you’d rather pick your own food, check out the orchards (and Mississippi River views) along the winding Apple Blossom Scenic Byway, which forks off State-16 in La Crescent. 

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Indiana: Covered Bridge Tour

Parke County (aka the Covered Bridge Capital of the World) has 31 historic bridges, many built in the 1800s and still in use. They’re especially charming nestled amid fall foliage, and autumn is a great time to hike or go on a horseback ride at Turkey Run State Park. Five well-marked driving routes, each about 30 miles long, make finding the bridges and exploring easy.

Festival fun During the Covered Bridge Festival (October 11–20 in 2013), vendors and artists set up booths in Bridgeton, Mansfield, Rockville and other towns. Yes, it’s crowded—book rooms early—but we like the lively atmosphere in this normally sleepy area.

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Kansas: Flint Hills Scenic Byway

How do you experience autumn in a land of few trees? You watch grasses that ripple like an ocean fade from vibrant green to tawny brown. You peer through binoculars to cross a coot off your birding list. You tell stories around the campfire at the Flying W Ranch. And through it all, you have the tingly satisfaction of knowing this swath of prairie looks just as it did when pioneers crossed Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail.

European detour Among Kansas’ Western-flavored towns, Swedish-settled Lindsborg (a couple hours west of the byway) stands out. Be sure to buy a colorful souvenir Dala horse.

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South Dakota: Black Hills

Most Midwesterners have to commit at least a week of vacation time to reaching and exploring western South Dakota’s squiggly, wiggly scenic-drive paradise. Trust us. It’s worth it. The Black Hills and Badlands put the West in Midwest: hairpin turns, alpine creeks, towering rock formations, mountain goats, not to mention Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Key routes Jaw-dropping scenery abounds throughout the region, but everyone should drive these scenic byways: the 70-mile Peter Norbeck, 20-mile Spearfish Canyon and the 31-mile Badlands Loop. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway includes the  legendary Needles Highway.

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Ohio, Indiana, Illinois: Ohio River Scenic Byway

At the Rankin House, an Underground Railroad site in Ripley, Ohio, visitors stand atop Liberty Hill and look across the Ohio River to the forested hills of Kentucky. In the 1800s, slaves stood on the southern bank and looked across to freedom. Shivers? You bet. Myriad historical sites, leafy state parks and uninterrupted views make this one of the most satisfying river drives in the Midwest.

Time travels History defines this 943-mile drive: the Northwest Territory’s first settlement in Marietta, Ohio; the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana; Civil War grave sites at Mound City National Cemetery in Illinois; and, yes, Superman kitsch in Metropolis, Illinois.

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Michigan: Tunnel of Trees

We asked on Facebook, and you answered with surprising unanimity: M-119, better known as the Tunnel of Trees, is your favorite Midwest fall drive. Gold-dappled boughs arch over the deliciously curvy road  snaking north of Harbor Springs, following Lake Michigan for 20 miles. (A few minutes more, and you enter Wilderness State Park.) In Good Hart, shop at arty-rustic shop Primitive Images, and in Cross Village, dig into a hearty Polish meal at quirky Legs Inn. 

Details on this drive

Illinois: Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway

White pelicans soar above Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, flapping down to roost in the water. Truth be told, migrating birds might be the biggest concentration of creatures (animal or human) you see along this peaceful 291-mile byway in the heart of the state. Explore the riverfront in Peoria, and pick pumpkins at Boggio’s.

Sweet tours Visit with costumed interpreters on Illinois and Michigan Canal boat tours, take a guided fall-color hike (October 20–21 this year) at Starved Rock State Park, explore quiet Matthiessen State Park, or ask owner Denny Reed to show you his incredible woodworking throughout the cozy Mission Oak Inn.

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Minneapolis: Grand Rounds Scenic Byway

The nation’s only urban scenic byway starts in downtown Minneapolis and loops 55 miles around the city, linking lakes, parks and vibrant neighborhoods. You can experience the route in pieces, jogging around Lake Harriet or taking the kids to Minnehaha Falls, but driving it all in a day is a true escape—without leaving city limits.

City sights The Grand Rounds includes the Mississippi riverfront. Mill City Museum has immersive history exhibits, and the Old Stone Arch Bridge beckons for strolls. Enjoy downtown views and memorable breakfasts at the Nicollet Island Inn.

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Mississippi River Valley: Great River Road

From its burbling start at Itasca State Park in Minnesota to its languid terminus in the Delta, the 2,000-plus-mile Mississippi River carries a nation’s worth of history, culture and lore in its muddy waters. Mark Twain (whom you’ll “meet” in Hannibal, Missouri) wrote that the river he knew was “as tranquil and reposeful as dreamland.” How much has it changed? We’ll leave that for you to discover.

Perfect panoramas Savor sweeping views from parks along the byway, which runs the full length of both sides of the river. Our faves include Perrot State Park in Wisconsin, Frontenac State Park in Minnesota and Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. 

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Michigan: M-22 color tour

In 2011, Good Morning America viewers voted Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the most beautiful place in America. But this wedge of Eden jutting into Lake Michigan still harbors a juicy secret: Fall is even better than summer. A single highway, M-22, traces the shore up from Manistee, around the Leelanau Peninsula, then back down to Traverse City—116 gorgeous miles in all. The scenery flits between idyllic towns and breathtaking vistas of 300-foot golden sand dunes crowned with an autumn cap of red, green and gold leaves.

Harvest bounty Northern Michigan’s rich soil and lake-tempered climate make for fantastic local wine and produce. Look for roadside fruit stands with the final harvest of heirloom tomatoes and squash—or the first of pears and apples. 

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Wisconsin: Door County Circle Tour

A geographic quirk—70 north-south miles of narrow peninsula—means autumn stretches for weeks here. Fall color creeps down Door County like mercury in a thermometer, from Washington Island in mid- to late-September to Green Bay in October. This Circle Tour links galleries, orchards, lighthouses, state parks, shops and, yes, those famous fish boils, whose roaring fires and steaming potatoes are extra-enticing on chilly fall nights. Find maps at the visitors bureau.

Easy peeping If you would rather enjoy the scenery without focusing on the road ahead, a variety of trolley and boat tours highlights fall color.

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Missouri: Hermann Wine Trail

Fall arrives late and lingers along the Hermann Wine Trail, a compact drive along State-100 west of St. Louis. German-founded Hermann has a wine tradition dating back almost 175 years. Enjoy a German meal at Stone Hill Winery’s Vintage Restaurant, and treat yourself to a stay at the Inn at Hermannhof, where the Hillside Cottages offer bird’s-eye views of town.

Pedal pusher Pack your bike! The Katy Trail goes right by Hermann as it follows the Missouri River across the state.

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Ohio: Ashtabula County

In fall, frosty whitecaps splash along the Lake Erie shore, sending visitors scuttling inland—just in time for leaf peeping and wine tasting. Make The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake your base camp and the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s color-coded map your guide. Two loop drives lead to 18 covered bridges, as well as many of the area’s 20 family-run wineries.

Helpful tip If you try to see every bridge, expect to drive a lot and find yourself on a few dirt roads. It’s a fun quest, but many visitors stick to the wineries and enjoy whatever bridges happen to be nearby.

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Wisconsin: Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive

In the 1940s, residents of the glacier-formed hills between Madison and Milwaukee envisioned a scenic drive that would draw city folk to the region’s state parks and forests. Today, ubiquitous green acorn signs make navigation a snap. Highlights include a hike up Bald Bluff, a romp through history at Old World Wisconsin, a climb to the top of Holy Hill Basilica and a stay at the delightful Cold Spring Inn, hidden on 89 acres near Kettle Moraine State Forest.

Street scene The posh town of Delafield adds a splash of variety along an otherwise woodsy route. Stylish shops and galleries fill Colonial-style storefronts, and the chic restaurant Zin serves California-Italian cuisine worth a drive.

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Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ontario: Circle Tour

The world’s largest freshwater lake looks different every day: blue, gray, choppy, glassy, intimidating, exhilarating. The legendary 1,200-mile drive that loops Superior has just as many personalities: arty, woodsy, upscale, blue-collar. Whether you travel with a tent in your trunk or hop inn to inn, savor the variety—and bring a passport for entering Canada.

Fuel up The quality of food can get patchy along the Circle Tour, but you’ll find some of the Midwest’s best restaurants, too. Nosh on fresh-caught fish and chips (served on local pottery) at the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, Minnesota. In Bayfield, Wisconsin, indulge in an elegant feast at the Rittenhouse Inn’s Landmark Restaurant. 

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Missouri, Kansas: Kansas City Scenic Escape

This mellow ribbon of a drive never strays more than an hour from the Kansas City metro, but surrounded by picturesque farms and small towns, you’ll never know KC is so close. The route follows State-45 from Parkville to Weston, where a slew of shops line Main Street and Weston Bend State Park is a nice place to stretch your legs. Take State-92 and finally US-73 to Atchison, home of decor shop Nell Hill’s.

Bed down This drive makes an easy day trip but can stretch into a leisurely weekend. Stay at the gracious Murphy House bed-and-breakfast in Weston.

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Iowa: Historic Hills Scenic Byway

Autumn color paints the valleys and family farms between the Villages of Van Buren County, seven historic burgs punctuating this quiet 110-mile drive along the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa. During the Scenic Drive Festival (October 12–13 in 2013), craft vendors and friendly pancake feeds add to the small-town appeal.

Creative class In Bentonsport, the husband-wife team of Bill and Betty Printy (aka Iron and Lace) draw scores of art-lovers with her Queen Anne’s lace pottery and his hand-forged metal pieces. Watch them work during the fest.

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Michigan: Copper Country Trail National Byway

More than 150 years ago, a copper boom drew thousands to the Keweenaw Peninsula, a mountainous thumb sticking out of the Upper Peninsula into Lake Superior. Visiting the small-town museums, ghostly mines, fort and lighthouses along this 47-mile byway, you can’t help but admire the miners’ grit and ambition for settling in such a remote land. A 9-mile offshoot, the Brockway Mountain Drive, offers spectacular views.

Small-town surprise We love the UP’s iconic meat-and-veggie pasties, but we found fancier fare, too. Try cedar-planked trout at the Michigan House Cafe and Brewpub in Calumet.

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Ohio: Ohio and Erie Canalway

The trails, scenic railway and waterfalls of Cuyahoga Valley National Park are the autumn stars along this newer national byway in northeast Ohio, but the 110-mile route, which snakes south from Cleveland, also includes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On fall weekends in Canal Fulton, a horse-drawn boat plies the byway’s namesake.

Tale of two cities Like the opposing pole to Cleveland’s urban bustle, the sleepy, beautifully preserved village of Zoar hides quietly at the southern end of the drive. Walking tours and museums highlight the town’s Utopian history.

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Iowa: Loess Hills National Scenic Byway

More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers receded and left finely ground silt and sand that wind blew into vast mounds—the Loess Hills. The grass- and tree-covered ridges follow western Iowa’s state line. Keep in mind, you don’t need to drive the whole 220-mile route to get a taste of the scenery.

Local spirit On the third Saturday of the month, May to October, the Living Loess tour highlights local history and agriculture. Stops include Loess Hills Lavender Farm, Hitchcock Nature Center and Garden Grove Eatery. 

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Missouri: Ozark Mountains Tour

We drove more than 500 miles among the hills, hollows, caves and springs of the Missouri Ozarks to research this drive, and then we figured out a shortened loop for you. The route starts off Interstate-44 in Cuba and includes a hillside winery, a Civil War battlefield and state parks with amazing natural features: pink boulders at Elephant Rocks, mountaintop views at Taum Sauk and natural wading pools at Johnson’s Shut-Ins.

Get your kicks The route includes stretches of old Route-66. Snap a kitschy photo by the hilariously huge rocking chair at the Fanning 66 Outpost in Cuba.

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Iowa: Amana Colonies (Plus!)

A bucolic harvest landscape unfurls along this 50-mile east-central Iowa drive: red barns, hay bales and laundry flapping on clotheslines. Start with a gooey pecan roll in the Amish community of Kalona, then keep an eye out for buggies as you follow State-22 and Black Hawk Avenue to the seven historic villages of the Amana Colonies. After a day of shopping and Wiener schnitzel, take US-6 to Fireside Winery in Marengo for a glass of dry Cordovan by the crackling fire.

Easy alternative A section of the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway loops around the Amana Colonies and makes a lovely mini drive if you want to skip Kalona and Marengo. In West Amana, the road climbs a bit for a nice view.

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Minnesota: Minnesota River Valley National Scenic Byway

River towns line this lesser-known 287-mile drive through south-central Minnesota. In Belle Plaine, pick apples at Emma Krumbee’s orchard and restaurant. Look for eagles around Le Sueur (home of the Jolly Green Giant) and St. Peter (a vibrant college town). In German New Ulm, toast the harvest at Schell’s Brewing Company or Morgan Creek Vineyards, which serves wood-fired pizzas.

Secret falls Near Mankato, waterfalls hide on both sides of the river: Minnemishinona Falls along Judson Bottom Road and Minneopa Falls in the state park off State-68 on the south side.

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Mark your calendar: Fall events

WISCONSIN In the hilly heart of the Driftless Region, the Fall Art Tour (October 18–20, 2013) is a self-guided studio and gallery tour through Mineral Point, Dodgeville, Spring Green and Baraboo. More than 50 painters, sculptors, potters, photographers, weavers, jewelers, glass artists, woodworkers and mixed-media artisans show (and sell) their best work. The scenery between stops is a show in itself. fallarttour.com

ILLINOIS During the Spoon River Drive (first two weekends of October), a caravan of cars inches through fall-painted north-central Illinois, stopping frequently to peruse antiques, crafts items, jewelry, garden ornaments, plants and flea-market junk, not to mention corn dogs, elephant ears and that ubiquitous Illinois fair staple the butterfly pork chop. spoonriverdrive.org

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