The Midwest’s Fall Colors Give New England A Run For Its Money

These are your new leaf-peeping hotspots.

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore | Ali Majdfar / moment / getty images
The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore | Ali Majdfar / moment / getty images

While New Englanders loudly and proudly brag about their fall colors (while simultaneously complaining about out-of-town leaf peepers), Midwesterners spend the fall sipping hot cider, content in knowing that their region is hiding some of the most vibrant colors in America. That will happen when your collection of states include tens of thousands of lakes both great and pretty good; glacially carved river valleys; mountains; and veritable seas of trees.

Drive most any Midwestern road and you’ll find spectrum-spanning colors in the treelines. But visit these locations and you’ll likely start wondering why Cape Cod isn’t called The Door County of New England come fall. 

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Great River Road

As the land of 10,000+ lakes and the birthplace of the Mighty Mississippi (plus Prince and Bob Dylan, NBD), the North Star state is practically exploding with color in the fall. But one spot that surely shouldn’t be skipped is on the Great River Road between Red Wing and Winona. State parks like Frontenac and Great River Bluffs showcase the seasonal beauty of the area, with their dense woods and 500-foot-high bluffs rising up from the river valley. However, the changing trees can be especially striking on the shores of Lake Pepin, the widest natural part of the Mississippi. 

If you have time, stop in to the Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop in Red Wing, famous for baking over 1,000 free cakes for pandemic grads in the spring of 2020 and for their campaign cookies, which have successfully predicted the presidential election for decades. 

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Door County, Wisconsin
Door County, Wisconsin | JamesBrey / E+ / getty images

Door County

Door County earned the nickname “the Cape Cod of the Midwest'' thanks to its miles of stunning shoreline and a plethora of lighthouses. But unlike its New England counterpart, the crowds dwindle in the fall -- just in time for the colors to pop and light up the vibrant shores of Lake Michigan. The area is perfect for a drive, but why rush? Drink some cherry wine or cherry moonshine at Door Peninsula & Distillery, enjoy a hike or kayak in Peninsula State Park, check out the state’s first International Dark Sky Park at Newport State Park, and gallery hop to see the work of local artists at places like The Hardy Gallery in the village of Ephraim. 

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Madison County

At one time, the covered bridges of Madison County (see what I did there?) numbered 19. Only six remain today, with five on the National Register of Historic Places. And nothing amplifies a gorgeous fall foliage backdrop quite like a classic covered bridge. There’s a self-guided driving tour of the bridges available, and for those who prefer not to drive on gravel, two are accessible on paved roads. This Des Moines-area destination is also well known for its county seat of Winterset, birthplace of a John Wayne, whose stance on leaf-peeping remains unknown. 

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park 

Ohio’s gem of a National Park is usually pretty packed, thanks to its proximity to Akron and Cleveland. But come fall, the folks who throng the boardwalk to gawk at Brandywine Falls thin out, leaving the 125 miles of trails, spectrum-defying tree canopies, and gorgeous waterways ripe for exploration. Come on a weekday and you’ll basically have the place to yourself. 

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Tennessee’s Nashville may be more famous, but what Indiana’s lacks in country music cred it makes up for in stunning autumnal colors. Home to Brown County State Park and the Hoosier National Forest, this wooded wonderland should be on every Midwest leaf-peeping list. Brown County is the largest and most visited state park in Indiana -- and of the largest in the whole US -- so there’s plenty of room to spread out and enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, biking, horseback riding, and more. After all the outdoors time communing with nature, you’ve more than earned a beverage or three, so consider stopping at Bear Wallow Distillery, Hard Truth Hills, Brown County Winery, or Country Heritage Winery. Your move, Tennessee. 

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Famous for evoking the Emerald Isle, Galena is a cozy river town with forested hilltops, 19th century architecture, and lots to do and see. For the ultimate best-leaf peeping views, visit the well-known Horseshoe Mound outside of town, which can offer views to three states -- Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois -- on a clear day. Visitors should also spend time at Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub & Grill for the best trad (traditional) music outside of Ireland. Architecture buffs will also appreciate Galena’s many properties on the National Historic Register, including the Italianate Ulysses S. Grant House, which, like all things here, is even more dreamy with a fall backdrop. 

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Northwest Lower Peninsula

The Great Lakes State has unbelievable fall foliage all over, but only the northwestern part of the lower peninsula -- the pinkie, if you will -- packs sweeping coastal vistas, forests beaming with colors, picturesque lake towns, lighthouses, and a wholly overlooked wine region. 
Between Harbor Springs and Cross Lake, drive the famous Tunnel of Trees (M-119), which boasts incredible tree coverage adjacent to Little Traverse Bay. Closer to Traverse City lies M-22, which hugs the shoreline of Lake Michigan for over 100 miles along the Leelanau Peninsula. Stretch your legs near Empire at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where a hike along the Empire Bluff Trail offers stunning views with minimal effort. Afterward, try some of the region’s famous wine, starting with world-class riesling at Suttons Bay’s Black Star Farms

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Wine Country

In a shocking twist, Missouri is home to both the United States’ oldest American Viticultural Area (AVA) as well as the only indigenous grape to North America, the mighty Muscadine. Centered around Augusta, this region has tons to offer fall seasonal visitors. Bike the Katy Trail, visit a winery or brewery, or hike the Lewis and Clark Trail for beautiful bluff views near the Missouri River. If there’s time to journey about an hour further, there’s another wine region near St. Genevieve, just south of St. Louis. Both Charleville Vineyard & Winery and Chaumette Vineyards & Winery have great views, and there’s even a walking trail between the two properties. Pro tip: If you imbibe a little too much on varietals like Norton and Chambourcin to get safely home, rent one of the villas at Chaumette for an overnight stay. 

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Home to Kansas State University, Manhattan lights up in the autumn: Think rolling hills, a big lake, Harry Potter-esque architecture and more. Nestled in the Flint Hills of Northeast Kansas, Manhattan is also home to a world-class state park, Tuttle Creek. Outdoor enthusiasts can picnic, hike, bike, horseback ride, through a sea of colors before settling in at a panoramic picnic at the reservoir near Tuttle Creek Dam.

North Shore

Running along the northern Minnesota waters of Lake Superior, the North Shore is a quintessential road-trip destination no matter when you take it. But in the fall, the 150-mile stretch winds through the rolling hills like a snake shrouded in eye-popping color, with picturesque lighthouses, adorable small towns, and waterfalls adding layer upon layer to the wow-factor. Oh, and there’s a fantastic beer scene hidden here too, and nothing pairs better with a crisp fall breeze than a cod brown ale. 

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The Upper Peninsula , Michigan | Ajay Thakur / 500px Prime / getty images

The Upper Peninsula

Michigan’s isolated Upper Peninsula is one of America’s best-kept secrets, and come fall -- a short period before it turns into a veritable tundra -- the entire place comes alive. From the ancient psychedelia of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to the deep valleys of the Porcupine Mountains and the shoreline encompassing three Great Lakes, there is no corner of the UP that isn’t at its most vibrant during the season. Pick your spot -- be it the giant Tahquamenon Falls, the forests beneath the huge Cut River Bridge, or the wilderness around Copper Harbor -- and prepare to be awed. 

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Nebraska City

Less than an hour south of metropolitan Omaha, Nebraska City takes its trees very, very seriously -- it is, after all, the place that spawned Arbor Day. For the most autumnal vibes, visit Kimmel Orchard & Vineyard; check out the Arbor Day Farm; or hike or bike the Steamboat Trace Trail, an old rail trail next to the Missouri River.

If you can, time your visit with the AppleJack Harvest Festival. For over 50 years, Nebraska City has been hosting this wildly popular event famed for its ode to all things apple; this year, due to COVID-19, they are spreading the mostly outdoors event over four weekends to limit crowds and make it safer for attendees to score their legendary apple cider donuts.

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Katy Spratte Joyce is a contributor for Thrillist.
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