Wisconsin is a “fall colors” kind of state. There are abundant woodlands here, filled to the brim with maple, oak, and birch trees. Whether it’s on a country drive, out camping with your friends, or a calm canoe ride on flat waters, the peace and tranquility of Wisconsin’s countryside lit in autumnal splendor shouldn’t be missed. Here’s 10 of the top places for fall colors in Wisconsin.
Bayfield is a fun and quirky town in the far-North of the state. Situated on the slopes of Lake Superior and just beside the picturesque Apostle Islands, Bayfield is home to many of Wisconsin’s ex-urban bohemians and active outdoorsy types. Take a sea-kayak out on the big lake or take the ferry over to Madeline Island and be rewarded with great shots of the trees lining the bluffs.
2) Wildcat Mountain
As the name implies, bobcats once proliferated this hilly area in the West of the state. Nowadays there are fewer bobcats around, but they are still there and you can hear coyotes howling at night, and even timber wolves and mountain lions are making a comeback in the region.
Wildcat is a beautiful area of the state, very rocky and shaped by both the erosion from the glaciers and the ancient and winding (perhaps windiest in the world) Kickapoo River. It’s no problem to find a canoe to rent in the area and it’s a great way to see the fall colors. You can also bring your bike along and hop on the Elroy-Sparta trail – the first Rails-to-Trails conversion in the nation.
3) Iron Mountain, MI
Okay, sure, Iron Mountain is technically in Michigan, but that’s not going to stop me from adding it to the list. And let’s be honest here – the Upper Peninsula of Michigan should really be the U.P. of Wisconsin. I mean, you can drive from Wisconsin straight into it – to get there from Michigan you have to drive on an obscenely long bridge over open and dangerous waters. Which makes more sense to you?? But I digress….
Essentially all parts of the U.P. are rugged and beautiful, and even more than normal in the fall. Forests of tall, golden Tamarack and scarlet-colored Northern Pin Oak really make the Upper Peninsula a great location for the changing of the seasons.
4) Door County
Door County is a mixed bag these days; yes, it’s still the “Martha’s Vineyard of the Midwest” and yes, it is still unspeakably beautiful when the weather turns chilly at night and the leaves just begin to drop from the trees, but there is an unfortunate set of circumstances that comes with it. The secret’s out, and everybody in Chicago, Wisconsin, and Minnesota know how beautiful it is, and it’s getting crowded.
That said, as long as you don’t actually go up on the weekend of the fall festival, it’s not too busy and still very enjoyable. If you don’t know about Door County, just know this: it’s an old-school agrarian community that inspired artists, artisans, writers and all sorts of other slightly whacky but altogether enjoyable people. It’s surrounded on all sides by water and is situated on top of a massive limestone deposit. This makes for beautiful boreal forests not normally seen until you get up to central Canada or Scandinavia.
For the fall colors, there are plenty of great options. One of my favorites is to take the ferry up to Washington Island, rent a bike, and cruise around the island. Stop at the petting zoo, check out the Norwegian church, and grab a bite to eat at any of the places along County Rd W.
Another great option is to head to Peninsula State Park, climb up Eagle Tower and get shots of blazing red and gold islands in Green Bay.
5) Rib Mountain
Located in Central Wisconsin, Rib Mountain is a billion-year-old geological formation – one of the oldest on Earth – and is one of the few hills large and steep enough to have downhill skiing in the winter.
Before the temps drop, there is plenty of opportunity for great boating on Lake Wausau and hiking in the state park. There is a 60-ft observation tower on top of Rib Mountain, giving great photo ops any time of year, but of course it’s especially beautiful during the fall. Finish it all up with a cold beer and delicious pizza at Red Eye Brewing Company in Wausau.
6) Chippewa Falls
Chippewa Falls is a great town in the North-West of the state. It has plenty of hiking and water trails for you to enjoy. If you’re a music fan, you can head over to Nucleus Cafe (better known as Racy’s) in Eau Claire and hope to catch a glimpse of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame.
Rent a canoe or kayak and get great pictures of the fall colors from the waters of Lake Wissota or any of the other lakes and rivers in the area. Relax afterwards with a stop at the Leinenkugel Lodge (the 5th oldest brewery in the nation) for a free tour and a cold brew.
7) Mount Horeb / Mazomanie
If you’re looking for fall colors but not into the hiking or boating, a scenic drive is just what the doctor ordered. I can’t think of a better area than the Driftless area between Mount Horeb and Mazomanie.
Just zigzag back and forth between Hwys 18 and 14 and you’ll get views of beautiful pastoral farmlands tucked into the steep hills that weren’t flattened by the glaciers all those thousands of years ago. Our favorite place to go for dinner is the award-winning brewpub The Grumpy Troll, located right the heart of Mt. Horeb.
8) High Cliff State Park
This has quickly become a favorite state park of Becki and I, and is a bit of an undiscovered gem. Situated on the North-Eastern shore of Lake Winnebago – Wisconsin’s largest lake – it really has something for everyone. Limestone cliffs sit high above the lake offering amazing views and great opportunities for hiking and mountain biking. There’s also equestrian trails, rental boats available, and plenty of quaint towns along the way to the park in case you want to stop for a latte.
The scenic overlook provided by the cliffs gives a great view of the water and is a wonderful spot for taking photos of beautiful fall colors of Wisconsin. Likewise being on the water itself can get you some truly amazing shots.
9) Northern Kettle Moraines
About an hour north of Milwaukee lies the Northern unit of the Kettle Moraines. The kettles and moraines are geologic features created by the glaciers that really defined what Wisconsin looks like, and helps explain why it looks so much like the top of Michigan, Ontario, and Upstate New York.
Mauthe Lake is a kettle lake situated in the rolling moraine hills. There are beautiful views to be seen anywhere you look, plenty of hills to hike up so you can survey the region, and row-boats to rent at the lakeshore. Grab your tent and sleeping bag and wake up to the sun’s first light igniting the yellows and reds of fall.
10) Wisconsin River
The Wisconsin River is a big meandering bastard that makes its way all over the state. I can’t speak for every part of it, but I do know that the region of it by Sauk City and Mazomanie will take your breath away when you see it.
Rent a canoe from any of the local purveyors and go for a weekend river-camping excursion. See the bluffs rise above the firework-trees and watch the skies for cranes, herons and see bald eagles plying the river for a meal. There are numerous large sandbars to tie up on so you can setup camp for the night.
Fall Colors in the Milwaukee Area – Bonus!
Don’t get me wrong – I think all of the places listed are beautiful Wisconsin destinations for viewing the colors of autumn, but half the population of the state lives in the Metro Milwaukee area and many people will have to take a whole weekend to visit these places.
So for all my fellow Milwaukeeans out there, here are three great day-trips to see the bounty of fall.
1) Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
Just 15 minutes outside of Downtown Milwaukee, the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is a beautiful piece of reclaimed farmland once owned by – you guess it – the Schlitz family. It now has an impressive and exceedingly-green building, a lookout tower on the edge of the Lake Michigan bluff, and miles of winding trails.
Feel free to get lost in the magic of nature, from the frog marsh to the giant eagle nest in the prairie, or the pounding waves of Lake Michigan during a November storm. Bring your camera, and be careful of the gangs of roving wild turkeys! (The birds, not the whiskey ;)
2) Rustic Route 86 in Waukesha County
This is a great scenic drive just a little ways outside of Milwaukee. The road is old and narrow, and was made back when roads followed the curves of the Earth instead of bashing through them. You’ll wind past horse ranches and historic farm houses under the cover of arching, mature trees. This is a great drive in fall since the trees really do arch over and cover the little old road, and it feels like you’re driving under a red-and-yellow sky.
3) Lapham Peak
Due West of Milwaukee just off I-94 is a great state park, Lapham Peak. This is one of my favorite parks not just because it’s close to my home, but because of the range of activities here. Hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, x-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter… the list goes on.
In the fall, you can climb to the top of the lookout tower and get amazing views of the surrounding countryside. And when standing at the bottom of one of the deep bowls carved out by the glaciers, it can make you feel like there is nothing else in the world but you and the brightly-colored trees.
What do you think of my collection of great fall spots in Wisconsin? Are some of your favorites not on the list? Let everyone know!