6 Great Little-Known Midwest Hikes
When the temperature drops and colors change, make like Robert Frost: Leave the crowds for a trail less traveled by. There’s a special Zen when you get the bounty of fall all to yourself. Here are 6 of our picks for leaf-peeping in some of the Midwest's lesser-known parks and preserves.
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Wisconsin and Minnesota
When a barefoot fly-fisher tells of a discreet trailhead behind a BP gas station, listen up. In Osceola, Wisconsin, Simenstad Trail traverses wooded cliff tops above the St. Croix River and links to other trails. Forest canopy unfurls for miles on both sides of the snaking state border. These short city trails allow plenty of time to drive (8 miles) to Minnesota's or Wisconsin's Interstate State Park for popular bluff vistas.
Beyond the trail Sip and cruise with Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours on the river.
Giant City State Park, Illinois
The state park's Giant City Nature Trail draws a crowd. But regulars seek the quieter Trillium Trail. Where diverse wildflowers mesmerize in the spring, brilliant hickories and maples blaze the 2-mile loop in fall. The trail skirts the base of the park's iconic sandstone shelves, then stretches above them. Southern Illinois's plant diversity spreads autumn color over a full month.
Beyond the trail Pop into the 1930s stone and timber lodge for fried chicken, beer and wine, or cabin rentals.
Turtle Mountain Scenic Byway, North Dakota
Against the Canada border, Turtle Mountain rises like "a blue jewel on the prairie," says Glenda Fauske with the North Dakota Forest Service. An island of woodland in a sea of vast plains, the area sustains elk, moose and bears. After driving 120-plus miles from the nearest interstate, the full 53-mile byway is a must. Head to Lake Metigoshe State Park for Hemerick Point Trail and other lakeside hikes near Turtle Mountain State Forest.
Beyond the trail Straddle the U.S.-Canada border and take pictures of monuments in the International Peace Garden.
Flint Hills, Kansas
Fall's glory isn't stuck in the woods. Each October, waves of Kansas tallgrass turn golden across the largest swath of prairie in the U.S. Cool temps make for perfect hiking and biking. Find Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan or explore Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve one hour south. The hike-bike Flint Hills Nature Trail is Kansas' longest trail system.
Beyond the trail Prairies can be subtle. Learn what to look for at the Flint Hills Discovery Center.
Fontenelle Forest, Nebraska
Minutes south of Omaha, this refuge transports you from ribbons of interstate to serene old-growth forests, wetlands and restored prairie. Boardwalks from the Nature Center draw most traffic to the west side. Park at the Hitchcock Wetlands Learning Center on the opposite endof the property and hike 2.8 miles to Hidden Lake. The route hits all three ecosystems and the Missouri River.
Beyond the trail Suspension bridges near the Nature Center send you into the tree canopy, where birds rehab in shelters at the Raptor Woodland Refuge.
Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin
Coveted tent sites at Wyalusing State Park dot the ridgeline. Below, the Mighty Mississippi and the Wisconsin River merge between Iowa and Wisconsin. Numerous trailheads include Sand Cave Trail, Bluff Trail and Sugar Maple Nature Trail to Pictured Rock Cave. On clear nights, the sightseeing extends past dark in Lawrence L. Huser Astronomy Center.
Beyond the trail Onions or not is the only choice at Pete's Hamburger Stand. The famed Prairie du Chien burger dates back to 1909.