30 Great Midwest Spots to See Fall Color
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Indiana: Brown County
Artists were drawn to Brown County a century ago for its rolling hills and natural beauty. Today, an artists' colony still thrives, especially in and near county seat Nashville (population: 797) -- a great destination for cool boutiques, artsy finds and cooking with a Southern touch. Visitors come to enjoy both the arts and the scenery, which is especially appealing in fall. Brown County State Park, Indiana's largest state park, spreads over hills southeast of Nashville, offering activities such as horseback-riding, hiking and mountain bike trails.
St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden
More balmy than brisk, fall in St. Louis is perfect for hopscotching between the city's historic green (and red and gold) spaces. A prime destination: Missouri Botanical Garden. Most days the gardens are peaceful, especially the 14-acre Japanese Garden (pictured at left). But the Best of Missouri Market in early October bustles with food vendors, plant sales and music. (314) 577-5100; mobot.org
Michigan: Upper Peninsula waterfalls
The Upper Peninsula is home to almost 200 major named falls, plus countless smaller, anonymous ones. In autumn, cool temperatures invite you to hike to the tumbling falls through forests colored by crimson-hue maples and yellow aspens.
Sixty-five significant falls -- including Bond Falls (left) -- punctuate Ontanogon and Gogebic counties alone. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park also claims dozens of waterfalls, including a spectacular series easily accessible along the half-mile boardwalk of the Presque Isle River Scenic Area.
Cleveland: Cuyahoga Valley National Park
In Cleveland, you can have your nature and your city, too. Just 20 minutes from downtown is Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a 33,000-acre preserve. Where mules once pulled canal boats, walkers and bicyclists now stream along the 20-mile Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail. More ambitious hikers choose from an additional 100 miles of trails. Families tour a 19th-century living history museum, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad chugs past heron and bald eagle nests (and offers ghost train rides in autumn!).
South Dakota: Custer State Park
At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park (30 miles south of Rapid City) is one of the nation's largest state parks, known for granite spires called Needles and the 1,500 head of bison that wander freely. You can't go wrong with any of the trails here, but for a short, 1-mile walk, it's hard to beat the loop around lovely Sylvan Lake. For a longer hike, head to Harney Peak (and into the Black Hills National Forest); it's about 7 miles round-trip from the Sylvan Lake trailhead, with gorgeous vistas of the area's famous granite formations.
Michigan: Mackinac region
If you've only been to Michigan's Mackinac region during the summer (or never been at all), you owe yourself a fall trip. You'll find the best seats on ferries, prime lakeside-restaurant tables, wonderfully deserted hiking trails, bargain hotel rates -- and stunning fall color.
Thanks to the insulating effects of the Great Lakes, the color show here often starts in late September and stretches into late October. Fall foliage forms a backdrop everywhere you turn: riding along on an island carriage tour (left); driving the Tunnel of Trees (State-119) near Cross Village; exploring Mackinac Island State Park; or crossing a forest-canopied bridge at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park near Mackinaw City.
Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway
Within easy drives of Chicago and St. Louis, the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway threads through natural areas and past the sort of water views, bluffs and brilliant fall foliage Illinois rarely gets credit for. When travelers start craving the comforts of civilization, the road meanders to places with just the right amount -- welcoming hearths, inspiring art and history, memorable meals, and even locally produced wines. At left, a view of the Illinois River unfolds from a bluff at Starved Rock State Park.
Wisconsin: Door County
Many of the pioneers who settled in Door County in the 18th and 19th centuries came from New England, and their white clapboard architecture has earned Door County the moniker Cape Cod of the Midwest. In fall, as foliage turns fiery red and orange, the quaint maritime villages of Sturgeon Bay, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim and Sister Bay look all the more like New England. Throughout the county, five state parks -- including designated wilderness area Newport State Park -- also show off fall's finest colors.
Minnesota: Root River Valley
A rare mix of activities comes together in the Root River Valley in the southeast corner of Minnesota (120 miles south of the Twin Cities). Along the 30-mile stretch between Lanesboro and Houston, the river, the paved Root River State Trail and the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway (State-16) run parallel, offering different ways to explore storybook towns and the scenic stretches in between. Hardwood trees cloak the limestone bluffs, transforming the valley into a quilt of colors.
Missouri: Katy Trail
The nation's longest rails-to-trails bike path starts northwest of St. Louis in St. Charles and loosely follows the Missouri River west for 225 miles, through small towns, farmland, prairie and wine country. Known for towering cliffs and tree-lined ridges, the Katy Trail provides a passage through some of Missouri's loveliest fall foliage. Ultimately, the 20-year-old trail will connect to city and county bike paths to Kansas City, making it possible to pedal across all of Missouri.
Ohio: Ashtabula County's covered bridges
Benetka Road Covered Bridge, built about 1900 and renovated in 1985, spans the Ashtabula River and is one of 17 historic and reconstructed bridges in northeast Ohio's Ashtabula County. In the fall, the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival features tours of the bridges plus country music, a parade and other entertainment. Extend the fall experience by exploring the orchards and vineyards around pretty lake towns in Ashtabula, which borders Lake Erie.
Kansas: Glacial Hills Scenic Byway four-state overlook
See Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa from a viewing platform in tiny White Cloud (population: 176), 85 miles northwest of Kansas City, Missouri. The town, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, lies at the northern end of the 63-mile Glacial Hills Scenic Byway.
The byway runs through rolling, wooded countryside and connects the towns of Leavenworth, Atchison and Troy with White Cloud. Be sure to stop at Jackson Park in Atchison for another scenic overview of the river. Click on the byway link below for a map and sample itinerary.
Iowa: Historic Hills Scenic Byway
Better-known fall-drive destinations carry nearly the deadline pressure of a day at work. Visitors must book lodgings months ahead, then wait for tables at trendy restaurants. But on southeast Iowa's 85-mile Historic Hills Scenic Byway, down where the Des Moines River makes its stretch run to the Mississippi, there's no place for urgency. Most weekends find the area fairly quiet, although the annual Scenic Drive Festival in October swells towns such as Bentonsport, Keosauqua and Bonaparte (each with populations of around 1,100 or fewer) with crafters, pancake feeds, pedal tractor races and old-time medicine shows.
Minneapolis: Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway
Come fall, instinct draws many Minnesotans to the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway. The 55-mile loop follows the Mississippi River southeast from downtown before snaking back to the green spaces on the city's west side.
The country's only official urban scenic byway offers a continuous, magnetic beauty. Huge parks, such as 759-acre Theodore Wirth, give visitors a total fall immersion. The byway's lakes have personalities as different as siblings' -- showy Calhoun, quiet Brownie, family-oriented Harriet. Minnehaha Park features a 53-foot waterfall. Sample these and other attractions, then reminisce about how you took one of Minnesota's prettiest fall drives without ever leaving the metro.
Missouri: wine trails
If autumn could be captured in a glass, it would be this: a cabernet sauvignon, glistening ruby red like fall leaves, reflecting the golden glint of the late-day Missouri sun. The aroma, too, rich in fruity harvest and earthy roots, speaks to the end-of-season landscape. To capture this vignette, travel one of central Missouri's wine trails, with many wineries (including the Stone Hill Winery, left) near Hermann and Defiance along the Missouri River. When October arrives, the region gives a new twist to Oktoberfest festivities by celebrating with fall winery tours and tastings.
Nebraska: Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum
More than 250 varieties of trees and shrubs -- many planted by the founder of Arbor Day and his family -- flourish in a 72-acre arboretum in Nebraska City. The grounds of Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum include at least 10 state-champion trees, the largest examples of their species in Nebraska. Visitors can also tour Arbor Lodge, a 52-room neo-Colonial mansion that was the home of J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day (first celebrated in 1872) and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.
South Dakota: Oyate Trail
Running along South Dakota's southern border from North Sioux City west to the southern Black Hills, US-18, known as the Oyate Trail, blends South Dakota's past and present. On the east edge of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a short detour north leads to Wounded Knee, site of an 1890 massacre of 300 Lakota. Pass pine-topped outcroppings and horses grazing in meadows while traveling 115 miles west through the reservation. Hot Springs rewards visitors with spas and Evans Plunge, a gravel-bottom indoor swimming pool with 87-degree water.
Great River Road
The nation's mightiest river offers some of the Midwest's most dramatic fall scenery. Majestic wilderness, reborn river towns and carefully preserved history await along the Great River Road, which passes through Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota on its 2,000-mile journey from the Gulf Coast to northern Minnesota. Choose a stretch of the Great River Road to follow by visiting byways.org. At left, the Mississippi stretches alongside the Great River Road near Elsah, Illinois.
Minnesota: North Shore
Minnesota's North Shore is a 154-mile stretch of waterfalls, densely wooded inland mountains, pebbled Lake Superior shoreline, and small towns. In autumn, woods dotted with maples flaming red and orange attract hikers along the Superior Hiking Trail.
Less adventuresome travelers can take a leisurely ride to panoramic views on the mountain tram in Sawtooth Mountain Park or drive the North Shore Scenic Drive (State-61), which runs 150 miles from Duluth at the southwestern tip of the lake to Grand Portage at the Canadian border. Along the way, eight state parks beckon with waterfalls, forest trails and achingly beautiful Lake Superior views.
You'll still find plenty of Petersons, Andersons and Ericksons in this Swedish-founded town (they originally made their living by fishing and harvesting ice on Lake Pepin). But modern Stockholm (population: 96, located 60 miles southeast of Saint Paul) got its start in the 1970s, when artists began discovering the beauty along Lake Pepin and the Mississippi River.
Situated along the popular Great River Road, Stockholm offers small-town charm as well as river scenery. Explore art galleries and shops, sample Scandinavian foods and stay for one of the area's festivals that combine old-world heritage with new creative expression. Check Stockholm's website for fall events that include an art fair and a food, wine and cider festival.
Ohio: Hocking Hills State Park
Explore soaring shelf caves, deep gorges and sweeping overlooks at Hocking Hills State Park (55 miles southeast of Columbus). Expect company on the trails, especially on the weekends, when crowds snake past the fall colors of Ash Cave and Old Man's Cave (left). But on weekdays, you might have the park more to yourself. Nearby Hocking State Forest and Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve also offer spectacular fall foliage.
Kansas: Botanica, The Wichita Gardens
More than two dozen themed gardens spread over 9 acres at Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, showcasing 3,600 species of plants. Sculptures, fountains, waterfalls and streams dot the grounds; in fall, 5,000 mums add fresh blooms throughout the garden, and trees such as the Shantung Maple (pictured) turn brilliant colors. Among the areas to explore: Woodland Walk, Garden on the Rocks, Margie Button Fountain Garden and the Sally Stone Sensory Garden.
Indiana: Parke County's covered bridges
Thirty-one covered bridges punctuate Parke County's landscape like the miniature buildings in a model train set. Here, 55 miles west of Indianapolis in the Wabash River Valley, you'll find the nation's highest concentration of covered bridges. Stop by the visitors center in Rockville, pick up maps and set out on a self-guided trip through time. In October, tour buses roll in for the half-century-old Covered Bridge Festival.
Michigan: Porcupine Mountains State Park
The Porkies (150 miles west of Marquette) embody Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, with 59,000 wild acres, 90 miles of trails and, if you get away from the campsites, not too many visitors. If you only go once, be sure to stop and drop your jaw at the Lake of the Clouds vistas, ringed in fall by a necklace of color. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park also claims dozens of waterfalls, including a spectacular series easily accessible along the half-mile boardwalk of the Presque Isle River Scenic Area.
Illinois: Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
The little towns—not a stoplight among them—along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail offer enough to fill several days. Fresh-picked apples fill baskets at Rendleman Orchards’ Farm Market, and apple dumplings tempt at Flamm Orchards. Walking trails around Cedar Lake cross creek shallows; hilly hikes through Little Grand Canyon and Giant City State Park shred stereotypes about Illinois’ landscape. Dozens of bed-and-breakfasts and cabins burrow in the hills, and the wineries reveal personalities all their own—not to mention a mix of sweet and dry varieties reflecting the region’s deepening understanding of wine making.
Arkansas: Eureka Springs
Art, history and a splash of kitschy fun mingle in Eureka Springs, a Victorian town nestled in the wooded hills of Arkansas. Set aside an autumn weekend to savor its colorful charms.
You'll find a maze of impossibly steep streets lined with quaint homes and inns. Spring Street packs galleries, gift shops and restaurants. Tiny parks protect natural springs, and spas echo the town's history as a haven for healing. Don’t miss Thorncrown Chapel, a glass-walled church in the woods (pictured).
Iowa: Loess Hills
The Loess Hills, which the wind sculpted from silt deposits as glaciers retreated eons ago, dominate a narrow section of western Iowa in the Big Sioux and Missouri River valleys. Enjoy the area's fall foliage from the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, a 220-mile route that links prairies, parks, forests and overlooks stretching to the Missouri (712) 482-3029; visitloesshills.org. The Loess Hills Visitors Center in Moorhead (55 miles north of Council Bluffs) offers maps and brochures to help plan your trip.
North Dakota: Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway
In a state known for its flat terrain, the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway offers a refreshing change. The 63-mile byway follows the route of the Sheyenne River from Lisbon to Lake Ashtabula, winding through a tree-spotted valley rich in pioneer lore and linking sites such as Sheyenne State Forest, Fort Ransom State Park and Little Yellowstone Park. At left, fall leaves cover a trail to a small footbridge along the byway near Valley City (about 60 miles west of Fargo).
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.
South Dakota: Spearfish Canyon
The 20-mile drive through Spearfish Canyon on US-14A winds along Spearfish Creek past cliffs up to 1,000 feet tall. The Black Hills harmonic convergence of rock, water and woods has long lured visitors; it so impressed architect Frank Lloyd Wright that he declared it better even than the Grand Canyon. Fall finds the canyon at its scenic peak, with spruce and ponderosa pines forming a dark green backdrop to the radiant golden leaves of stands of aspen and birch.