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 (and simultaneously complain about out-of-town leaf-peepers), Midwesterners spend the fall sipping hot cider, content in knowing that their region hides some of the most vibrant foliage in America. Not surprising, considering this collection of states includes tens of thousands of lakes (both Great and pretty good), glacial-carved river valleys, rugged 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, in particular, and you’ll really start to wonder why Cape Cod isn’t called The Door County of New England come fall.

a road stretching past a lake through fall trees
The Great River Road | Photo courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

Minnesota, Illinois, and beyond
The Mississippi River is truly the place to be around this time of year. That being said, we highly recommend anchoring your autumnal excursions to the Midwestern stint of the Great River Road, one of the longest and oldest scenic byways in the US.

Technically, this 3,000-mile scenic route runs through ten states all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. For the purposes of this trip, though, you’ll likely want to wind along the riverbank between northern Minnesota and Missouri. Along the way, you’ll spot vibrant fall foliage, as well as all manner of riverside attractions, including spectacular state parks like Frontenac and Great River Bluffs, thundering waterfalls, historic forts, art museums, and more.

Door County, Wisconsin
Door County, Wisconsin | JamesBrey/E+/Getty Images

Door County earned the nickname “the Cape Cod of the Midwest'' thanks to its miles of stunning shoreline and 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 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.

a river winding through fall trees
Effigy Mounds has some of Iowa's best fall foliage. | QZ/Shutterstock

When it comes to fall, you really can’t go wrong with a stop along this stretch of the Mississippi River—or anywhere in northwestern Iowa, for that matter, given the vast expanses of tree-speckled countryside you’ll come across on a drive along the Driftless Area Scenic Byway. But if the state's very best views of cherry-red and amber trees is what you’re after, you’ll want to take a jaunt through Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Small but mighty, the 3-square-mile national monument welcomes outdoorspeople and history nerds alike: Effigy Mounds is just as well known for its archeological sites as it is for its hiking trails, boasting more than 200 prehistoric effigy mounds built by Native Americans. Plus, about 10 minutes downriver, you’ll find even more scenic views of the Mississippi in nearby Pikes Peak State Park.

an enormous bridge over a river and a fall forest
Cuyahoga Valley is one of America's most popular national parks. | Paul L. Csizmadia/Spec3 Photography/Moment Open /Getty Images

One of the most popular national parks in the US, this Ohio gem usually stays 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.

a boardwalk leading through an autumn forest
Nashville is home to one of America's largest state parks. | Michele Korfhage/Shutterstock

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 Midwestern leaf-peeping list. Brown County is the largest and most visited state park in Indiana—and one of the largest in the entire US—so there’s plenty of room to spread out and enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, biking, horseback riding, and more.

After communing with nature, we're sure you'll agree that 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. 

a autumn forest on a hill with a river in the distance
Galena is Illonois' coziest river town. | Shalini Joiner/500px/Getty Images

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 leaf peeping views, visit the well-known Horseshoe Mound outside of town, where you can catch views of three states at once—Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois—on a clear day. Merrymakers should also spend time at Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub & Grill for the best trad (traditional) music outside of Ireland, while architecture buffs will appreciate Galena’s many properties on the National Historic Register, including the Ulysses S. Grant House, which, like all things here, is even dreamier with a fall backdrop. 

a sweeping beach lined by autumnal grasses
Empire Bluff: low effort, high reward. | John McCormick/Shutterstock

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 color, 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

a vineyard amongst fall colors
Get your fall foliage with a side of wine. | Chaumette Winery

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 you have 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, rent one of the villas at Chaumette for an overnight stay. 

a person standing in front of a sweeping prairie vista
Way more fall foliage than the Manhattan out east. | Eddie Brady/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Home to Kansas State University, Manhattan lights up in the autumn: Think rolling hills, a big lake, Hogwarts-reminiscent 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, and ride horseback through a sea of golden colors before settling in for a panoramic picnic at the reservoir near Tuttle Creek Dam.

sheep grazing in fall grasses near a large rock formation
Badlands National Park offers sweeping desert and autumnal paradise. | Danita Delimont/Shutterstock

South Dakota
South Dakota is already one of the most underrated states in the US, meaning that its sweeping natural landscapes rarely find themselves crowded with tourists—especially come fall. Around the beginning of October each year, golden hues wash over all 244,000 acres of Badlands National Park, the tall, swaying yellow grasses butting up to already-blood red rock formations to create a truly unique vision of autumn.

Hike the 1.5-mile Notch Trail, which’ll take you up from the depths of a canyon, up a ladder, and onto a sweeping prairie, or the more strenuous Saddle Pass Trail, where you’ll be able to gaze out across the grasslands (just look out for loose gravel!). You may even spot bighorn sheep or herds of bison wishing you a happy fall.

an enormous grove of autumnal trees on a hillside
The North Shore promises foliage, waterfalls, and beer. | JodiJacobson/E+/Getty Images

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 lucky for you, nothing pairs better with a crisp fall breeze than a cod brown ale.

The Upper Peninsula, Michigan | Ajay Thakur/500px Prime/Getty Images

Michigan’s isolated Upper Peninsula is one of America’s best-kept secrets, and come fall—just 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 Cut River Bridge, or the wilderness around Copper Harbor—and prepare to be awed.

a farmland covered in pumpkins in fall
Pick apples and sip wine at the Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard. | Kimmel Orchard

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, a wildly popular event famed for its ode to all things apple that's been held in Nebraska City for more than 50 years.

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Katy Spratte Joyce is a contributor for Thrillist.

Tiana Attride contributed to the reporting of this story.