Autumn in Wisconsin is all about the color … and getting out to see it. Here are eleven fall color driving tours guaranteed to put you in a front row seat for Mother Nature’s annual show. Of course, you can always design your own fall tour; from urban parks to colorful country roads, Wisconsin is loaded with Colorama opportunities this time of year.
So, without further adue, and compliments of Travel Wisconsin, here are...
11 Classic Wisconsin Fall Drives
1. Marinette County’s Waterfall Tour is a scenic wonder in autumn; a series of 14 falls and cataracts linked in a 125-mile loop tour. See one or see ‘em all; make the trip as long or as short as you want. Half the falls are located in pleasant county parks with picturesque footbridges and practically-perfect picnic areas.
Marinette County boasts some of the finest whitewater paddling in the Midwest on the Pike, Peshtigo and Pemebonwon Rivers. They run fast and clear through pine and hardwood forests that light-up in autumn. Their tributaries offer 623 miles of excellent trout fishing.
Access the falls via Parkway Road on the west side of the county, or Hwy 141 on the east. Blue “waterfall tour” signs mark the route and help you find some of the more hidden – and lovely – falls. For online maps and driving instructions, visit therealnorth.com; or call 715-735-6681.
2. The Hayward Lakes Area in northwestern Wisconsin has developed six fall color tours ranging from 45-70 miles in Sawyer County. Most of the routes traverse portions of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation, or the Blue Hills vibrant with color this time of year. Routes are well-marked with numbered signs that incorporate a distinctive leaf-design.
Hayward is one of Wisconsin’s prime vacation areas, so you’ll find plenty of resort accommodations and eateries, as well as world-class fall walleye and musky fishing. The 74-mile Tuscobia State Trail, popular with ATV riders, bisects Sawyer County and offers another fall tour option.
For online maps, driving instructions, and narratives for each of the tours, visit haywardlakes.com; or call 800-724-2992.
3. The Upper Mississippi River Valley is fantastic in fall; a broad ribbon of water shouldered by sandstone bluffs daubed in amber and rust. Follow Hwy 35 (the Great River Road) from Prescott to Potosi for 234 miles of charming river towns, antique shops, great cafes, and stunning bluff-top views.
Along the way, observation platforms allow you to watch river barges “lock through” at Lock & Dam No. 4 at Alma, No. 6 at Trempealeau, and No. 8 at Genoa. Enjoy three Wisconsin State Parks, a pair of Wisconsin Historical Society sites, terrific walleye and bass fishing, and some of the finest bird watching in the Midwest (they do, after all, call it the “Mississippi Flyway”).
For more information about Wisconsin’s Mississippi River towns, visit wigreatriverroad.org; or call 800-658-9480.
4. Protected by the warming waters of Lake Michigan, the hardwoods of Kewaunee and Door Counties make a colorful autumn drive. You can trace Hwy 42 north from Kewaunee to Gills Rock at the very tip of the Door County thumb (75 miles). On the return trip, follow Hwy 57 down the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula for the “other half” of the Door County experience.
Along the way, enjoy terrific bluff-top views of the lake, a set of four popular state parks (Potawatomi, Peninsula, Newport and Whitefish Dunes), seven picturesque lighthouses in as many charming towns, apple orchards to pick-a-peck, and a 20-minute ferry ride to Washington Island. The Door County peninsula is one of Wisconsin’s premier vacation destinations, so quality accommodations, restaurants, shopping and attractions are always close at hand.
For an online guide to Door County, visit doorcounty.com; or call 800-257-3529.
5. Fall colors frame the views along the Bayfield Peninsula tour. Start in Ashland at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center where a wonderful series of exhibits detail the area’s regional history and culture.
Follow Hwy 13 and the Lake Superior shore north to Bayfield, a quaint harbor town with a great vacation vibe. Bayfield is also the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore; 21 gem-like coastal islands and 12 miles of mainland that are home to six lighthouses, labyrinthine sea caves, terrific blue-water sailing, and some of the best sea kayaking in the world. You can take a ferry to Madeline Island where you can visit Big Bay State Park and a State Historical Society site.
North of Bayfield, Hwy 13 swings west paralleling Lake Superior’s southern shore for forty miles to the Brule River State Forest – 40,000 acres of whitewater canoeing, kayaking, camping and trout fishing.
For more online information visit bayfieldcounty.org; or call 800-472-6338.
6. The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is a 115-mile ramble through the riot of oak, maple and aspen fall color in the 50,000 acres of the southern and northern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forests.
The drive traverses six Wisconsin counties; from Whitewater Lake in Walworth County north to Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County. The forests include much of the terminal moraine (where the last great glacier stopped 12,000 years ago) in south-central Wisconsin. There are many places to picnic, hike, camp, bike, swim and fish along the way.
Marked by distinctive green and white “Acorn” signs, the scenic drive ends near Greenbush and the Wade House – an 1844 stagecoach inn operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society. For online information about the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive, visit www.wiparks.net; or call 262-594-6200.
7. Three of the state’s highest points can be found in central Wisconsin along the Hilltop Color Tour from Wausau to Ogema to Neillsville.
A 60-foot observation tower in Rib Mountain State Park near Wausau affords a breathtaking perspective of the Wisconsin River Valley below. The mountain, estimated at one billion years old, is one of the oldest geological features on the planet.
Timm’s Hill, near Ogema, is the highest point in Wisconsin – 1,939 feet above sea level. The peak is preserved in Timm’s Hill County Park. At its top, an observation tower rises an additional 60 feet for outstanding views of the surrounding forest.
The Highground near Neillsville occupies a ridge that overlooks colorful hillsides and glacial moraines. It is dedicated as a memorial park with many sculptural tributes to Wisconsin veterans.
For more online information, visit travelwisconsin.com; or call 800-372-2737.
8. For more than a century, vacationers have come to the Lake Geneva Area in every season. Autumn is particularly delightful here.
A trio of Wisconsin Rustic Roads (R-11, R-12 and R-36 totaling nearly 20 miles) accesses the Lyons State Wildlife Area just northeast of the city. They are easily accessed via Sheridan Springs Road and Spring Valley Road. These quiet country roads traverse glacial Kettle Moraine topography passing through large wooded areas of oak, maple and hickory, as well as old cranberry bogs and the tiny community of Lyons with its several quaint churches. Of course, the Lake Geneva area offers much more for the fall traveler. Enjoy fall color cruises on the lake, championship golf, spa retreats, boutique shopping, a full range of dining and lodging options – even a chance to see the giant telescope at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay.
For more online information, visit lakegenevawi.com; or call 800-345-1020.
9. The Black River State Forest lies just east of Black River Falls in west-central Wisconsin. Its 68,000 acres accesses some unique geology that makes it a great autumn outing. The forest lies in two lobes; the largest north of Interstate 94, and a smaller lobe to the south. The southern lobe includes Castle Mound. A hike to the top provides views of the former bed of glacial Lake Wisconsin, as well as the unglaciated buttes, sandstone hills and castellated bluffs that dot the fall forest landscape.
You can access the northern lobe of the forest via North Settlement Road (I-94 exit 128 at Millston). The road sweeps north ten miles to the Dike 7 Wildlife Area. Climb the observation tower there to see the autumn splendor, as well as sandhill cranes, geese, ducks, bobolinks, warblers, harriers, and bald eagles.
The forest also offers 98 family campsites, 27 miles of hiking trails, and 33 miles of mountain bike and ATV trails. As a bonus, the Black River Falls area is rich in cranberry bogs, turned red in autumn with the seasonal harvest.
For more online information, visit www.wiparks.net; or call 715-284-4103.
10. The Wisconsin River/Baraboo Hills Tour begins in Lodi and heads west on Hwy 113 for five miles to Cty V and Gibraltar Rock County Park (watch for the signs). The climb to the top is steep and not for the faint-of-heart, but the autumn views are truly spectacular. Two miles further on Hwy 113 and you’ll cross the Wisconsin River aboard the ColSac III carferry – it’s free. Hwy 113 then turns north and bisects Devil’s Lake State Park – one of Wisconsin most popular parks with terrific views of the fall color from the bluffs above the deep blue lake. Hwy 113 continues into Baraboo where the kids will love a stop at Circus World Museum.
For more fall foliage, follow Hwy 12 north seven miles to Fern Dell Road west to Mirror Lake State Park. From there the many amusements of Wisconsin Dells – including autumn boat tours through the carved sandstone bluffs of the Wisconsin River – are just minutes away.
For more online information, visit Baraboo.com; or call 800-227-2266.
11. The drive along Hwy 23 from Dodgeville to Spring Green is one of the most scenic in southwestern Wisconsin. This 18-mile stretch traverses the hardwood ridges and valleys of Wisconsin’s driftless area. Along the way you can visit of pair of Wisconsin state parks, as well as two of the state’s top tourism attractions. For additional autumn color adventure, take any of the intersecting roads that meander the coulees and echo their history – Norwegian Hollow Road, Hunter Hollow Road, or Percussion Rock Road.
Just outside Dodgeville, Governor Dodge State Park offers 5,000 acres of fun with 270 campsites, 28 miles of hiking trails and a scenic waterfall. Closer to Spring Green, The House on the Rock’s daring infinity Room features a 218-foot-long glass walkway that hangs over the autumn splendor of the Wyoming Valley, 156 feet below. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin home, Taliesin, is nearby as is Tower Hill State Park.
For more online information, visit springgreen.com; or call 800-588-2042