As vivid reds, bright yellows, and deep browns take over the green leaves, it’s fall foliage time in the Midwest. Since peak color periods range from late September to mid-October across the region’s 12 states, there can be a challenge in pinpointing the best time to hop in the family fun wagon and find drives or hikes that showcase the Midwest’s beautiful fall foliage.
From Minnesota to Missouri, Midwesterners enjoy plenty of opportunities to see magnificent colors as the region transitions seasons. Here is a look at some of the best places to enjoy the fall season in the Midwest.
1. River Trail Nature Center, Northbrook, Illinois
Enjoy a walk among the leaves at Northbrook’s River Trail Nature Center. With a rainbow of fall colors — orange, yellow, red, and brown — visitors enjoy beautiful views of the season. As leaves drop from the trees, they create a colorful carpet on the easy-to-navigate paths, such as the paved Orange Trail. Unpaved trails include Little Fort, Grove Portage, Green Bay (each is about half a mile long). As you explore the nature center, look for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife that call the trails home.
2. Dunnings Spring Park, Decorah, Iowa
With a waterfall casually making its way down a deceiving slope, Dunnings Spring Park is one of the best spots in Iowa to take in fall foliage. With trails that take you along the waterfall, as well as other areas of the park, you’ll trek among vibrant fall colors. While trails vary in difficulty, fall hikers can find one that meets their preferences. Follow the trail to the Ice Cave, a rare geological attraction at the park that creates a cave of ice that lasts from winter until the end of summer. As part of the Driftless Area — a region of land including northeastern Iowa that was never covered by ice during the Ice Age and wasn’t impacted by glaciers — Decorah offers other scenic drives during autumn.
Pro Tip: The ice cave has narrow passages that may not be safe for some visitors.
3. Brown County State Park, Nashville, Indiana
As Indiana’s largest state park, with about 16,000 acres, Brown County State Park is perfect for fall foliage viewing. Nicknamed “Little Smokies” for its views, hike any of the park’s trails, ranging from easy to rugged, and get up-close to oaks, birch, and maple trees. Hike along lakeshores for beautiful views including colorful reflections of the trees in the water. The visitor center and other spots offer amazing views of the fall colors. Consider a guided weekend horseback ride along the park’s trails. With about 20 miles of tree-lined roads, you can also enjoy a comfortable drive through the park, stopping at several overlooks along the way.
4. Overland Park Arboretum And Botanical Gardens, Overland Park, Kansas
With 300 acres of trees, plants, and flowers, a walk through Overland Park’s arboretum is full of color during the fall. With 6 miles of paved and wood chip-covered trails, visitors can walk among the colors as they explore trees and plants at Overland Park Arboretum and Gardens. Sculptures and special exhibits are also available on the trails. With 75-foot-long pedestrian bridges, hikers cross Wolf Creek during their treks through the park, including an open prairie, as well as a small lake (with a sculpture of artist Claude Monet painting the Kansas scenery).
5. North Shore Scenic Highway, Lutsen, Minnesota
A 150-mile drive from Duluth to Grand Portage State Park in northeast Minnesota ranks among the most beautiful areas in the United States any time of the year, but it’s especially enticing during fall. With Lake Superior on one side and the Superior National Forest covering much of the other, trees, coves, smaller lakes, and more create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for fall foliage fans. While a drive along Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais offers beautiful scenery, Lutsen Mountain in Lutsen rates as the area to visit for fall colors along the North Shore. With thousands of acres of trees showcasing all the colors of autumn, the view is enhanced with a ride on the Summit Express Gondola, traveling from the base of the mountain to the top of Moose Mountain. With several trails to follow, enjoy a hike among the region’s tall trees, while enjoying views of the Sawtooth Mountains and a seemingly endless landscape of orange, yellow, red, green, and brown.
6. Upper Peninsula, Grand Marais, Michigan
Michigan’s upper peninsula features some of the most beautiful fall scenery in the Midwest. Consider a drive from Grand Marais to Munising, along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. With its unique rock designs set against the season’s colors, the park may rate as one of the most impressive sights in the country. While at the park, revert to your childhood and have fun at the Devil’s Logslide. The scenic drive includes overlooks, which give you outstanding views of nature’s art, as well as Au Sable lighthouse.
7. Lake Of The Ozarks State Park, Kaizer, Missouri
Fall foliage scenery in southeast Missouri is enhanced with a visit to Lake of the Ozarks State Park. Missouri’s largest state park features acres upon acres of forests fading from green to hues of yellow, red, and orange. With rolling hills and the gleam of the Lake of the Ozarks, a drive through the park includes breathtaking moments of immaculate beauty. Enjoy a hike along any of the park’s 13 trails, including Rocky Top Trail, which covers 2 miles through white oaks, bluestem grasses, and other native trees. After crossing a ravine, you’ll find yourself atop dolomite cliffs with picturesque views of the Lake of the Ozarks.
8. Indian Cave State Park, Shubert, Nebraska
Hugging the Missouri River, Indian Cave State Park in southeast Nebraska combines fall foliage with a hint of Halloween. Decorations, such as hay characters and ghosts, highlight a drive through the park. With Nebraska’s leaves forsaking green for gold, red, orange, and autumn brown, a drive through the park offers impressive views. Follow the road to the cave, and stand next to the river, taking in the beauty that nature radiates. Hayrack rides provide opportunities to view the fall colors from different angles.
Pro Tip: A daily or annual permit is required for entrance to Indian Cave State Park.
9. Turtle Mountain Forest, Bottineau, North Dakota
North Dakota may not be known for its trees, with an old joke being that the state tree is a power pole. But, the Peace Garden State is home to more than 7,500 acres of aspen, birch, and bur oak trees in the Turtle Mountain Forest. While not actual mountains, the rolling hills add to the beauty of the region.
While enjoying fall foliage in the forest, visit the Mystical Horizons. Located on the western edge of the Turtle Mountains, “Stonehenge of the Prairie” offers views of the farmland in the valley below. The attraction features stone and cement fixtures celebrating summer, winter, and the equinox. A working sundial helps keep time on the mountain. Lake Metigoshe State Park offers scenic water and foliage views as part of your tour through Turtle Mountain State Forest.
10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Brecksville, Ohio
Maple trees are among the first to change colors, with leaves turning bright red, orange, and yellow. They’re soon followed by white oaks, dogwoods, and black gum, among others, at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. With 33,000 acres and more than 125 miles of trails, the views are endless. Follow the trail to Brandywine Falls, and soak in the natural beauty surrounding it. Ledges Overlook presents breathtaking scenery of miles of trees displaying colorful views. The national park also offers biking trails and kayaking/canoeing opportunities.
11. Vanocker Canyon, Sturgis, South Dakota
South Dakota’s Black Hills provide immaculate views year-round, so it’s pretty easy to find amazing views of fall foliage. Selecting one area to highlight is more challenging than you may think. However, Vanocker Canyon ranks as one of the most beautiful drives to enjoy fall foliage in South Dakota. A 17-mile drive through the canyon provides views of pine trees and the golden hues of Aspens. Explore the northern Black Hills on any of the trails along the way, as you search for more and more glorious views of the land considered sacred by Lakota (Sioux) Native Americans.
12. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield, Wisconsin
Hop aboard a cruise boat and appreciate the fall colors of the Apostle Islands. With leaves typically turning colors later in the season than on the mainland, “leaf peepers” can extend fall foliage viewing a little longer. With vibrant red, yellow, and orange leaves accented with deep brown ones, the islands offer stunning views. Once back on the mainland, explore more of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, with another 12 miles of majestic colors on display. The annual apple festival also takes place in Bayfield the first weekend in October.
Pro tip: While in Bayfield, visit Frog Bay Tribal National Park, the nation’s first Native American-owned and managed national park. With about 300 acres of forest and wetlands, Frog Bay includes 4,000 feet of undeveloped lakeshore.
For more fun-filled fall locations to visit in the country, visit: