The Best Places to See Fall Foliage in the Midwest

Oct 1, 2019

If the U.S. were Westeros (sorry—we thought we'd moved on, but then the Emmys happened), the Midwest would be Stark territory, where the long, frigid winter ahead is a perennial obsession. The flip side is an autumn that's not just drop-dead gorgeous, but well and truly celebrated. So as the Heartland's leaves put on their seasonal show, here are some of the best places to join the party. 

Door County, WI

Snuggled into a narrow peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Door County is basically all waterfront towns and pastoral charm that cranks up several notches as the trees turn Technicolor for autumn. If you time your arrival right (mid-October and later this year), you'll hit not just the foliage show, but more festivals than should logically fit in a small peninsular county—everything from a cider-pressing party to a lighthouse festival to the obligatory (but no less fun) pumpkin patch festival. 

Great River Road, WI

About an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, Lake Pepin is actually a dramatic widening of the Mississippi River, right on the Wisconsin border. The best views are on the Wisconsin side, with its cozy towns, towering bluffs and winding roads that periodically open onto almost-too-perfect views: the turning leaves to one side, the sailboat-filled lake to the other. Note that there will be plenty of autumn-giddy Midwesterners day-tripping their way through, and you should follow them to the Stockholm Pie Company, whether or not you're remotely hungry. No, really: There's always room for pie this good.

Jay Cooke State Park, MN

The highlight of this nature preserve near Duluth is a thirteen-mile gorge cut by the St. Louis River and spanned by a pedestrian suspension bridge. Stand on one side of the bridge for a moment to take in the rushing water and dramatic view, before crossing to the other side and scrambling on the rocks to get another view, this time of the bridge against a stunning backdrop of yellow, orange and red. For the most immersive experience, BYO lodging and nab a camping spot for a day or two of forest bathing. If you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint—you might even spot a black bear or a timber wolf out for its own walk in the woods. Dire wolves, by contrast...highly unlikely.

Blue Mounds State Park, MN

The outcroppings of Eagle Rock offer a sweeping vista of southwest Minnesota and the park's bike trails let you pedal among the fiery leaves. But. Bison are the real stars of the park, where one of the last herds in the state roams a 533-acre prairie. Register in advance for one of the weekend safari-style tours through late October, when the autumnal amber glow makes everything look extra gorgeous. (Bison, too.)

Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque, IA

This narrow-gauge funicular claims to be the shortest and steepest railroad in the world. And though any rival claimants are uncharacteristically silent on the matter, who cares? The sheer novelty of this 296-foot ride is worth the price of admission ($3), but you're getting a veritable bargain when you throw in the fall foliage: You'll have the rare opportunity to see the spectacle in three states at once, as you gaze across Dubuque and the Mississippi River toward both Wisconsin and Illinois.  Back at the bottom, head around the corner to Monks Kaffee Pub for drink of something crafty in an offbeat, art-filled setting, then get some food to go and head south along Highway 52, which runs parallel to the Mississippi.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, MI

Sprawling across 60,000 acres of the Upper Peninsula (UP to locals), Michigan's largest state park is also one of the Midwest’s largest remaining areas of old-growth forest. The combo makes for a dense, vibrant, truly awesome canopy. For the best views, head to the Summit Peak Observation Tower, the chair lift at the ski area, or the miles of mountain trails. That said, the viewing area above Lake of the Clouds is arguably the park’s most iconic (and, yes, Instagrammable).

McCloud Nature Park, IN

With 6.5 miles of trails plus a prairie maze, this is places makes for the mellowest possible foliage expedition—or a party in a park: The full slate of seasonal programming includes a Fall Colors Festival (Oct. 19), with games, cider, and—lest you thought we were going to send you off with insufficient gourds—more pumpkins! Stick around that evening for a different sort of natural spectacle at the weekly Astronomy Night, hosted by park naturalists and the Indiana Astronomical Society.

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