Good Leaf: 5 Wisconsin Hotspots for Autumn Visuals
a guide to some of Wisconsin’s best fall drives
Autumn in Wisconsin is all about the color and getting out to see it. Here are five fall color tours within easy driving distance of the Chippewa Valley that are guaranteed to put you in a front row seat for Mother Nature’s annual show. Of course, you can always design your own fall driving tour; from urban parks to colorful country roads, Wisconsin is loaded with colorama opportunities throughout the autumn season.
1. Black River State Forest
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 destination for fall foliage road trips. 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 colorful fall 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.
While driving through the beautiful fall colors, you can access the northern lobe of the forest via North Settlement Road (I-94 exit 128 at Millston). The road sweeps north 10 miles to the Dike 17 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.
2. Hilltop Color Tour
Three of the state’s highest points can be found in central Wisconsin along the Hilltop Fall 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’s fall foliage 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 – 1,951 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 and its breathtaking fall colors.
One of the best fall foliage drives includes The Highground near Neillsville which occupies a ridge that overlooks colorful hillsides and glacial moraines. It is dedicated as a memorial park with many sculptural tributes to Wisconsin veterans.
3. Upper Mississippi River
The Upper Mississippi River Valley is fantastic for scenic fall drives; a broad ribbon of water shouldered by sandstone bluffs daubed in amber and rust. Follow Highway 35, affectionately known as the Great River Road, from Prescott to Potosi for nearly 250 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”).
4. Hayward Lakes Area
The Hayward Lakes Area in northwestern Wisconsin has developed six fall color tours ranging from 45 to 70 miles in Sawyer County. Most of the driving routes traverse portions of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation, or the Blue Hills, which are vibrant with fall color this time of year. Fall foliage scenic routes are well-marked with numbered signs that incorporate a distinctive leaf design.
Hayward is one of Wisconsin’s prime fall 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 other fall driving tour options.
5. Bayfield Peninusla
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.
During your scenic fall driving tour follow Highway 13 and the Lake Superior shore north to Bayfield, a quaint harbor town with a great fall 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, Highway 13 swings west paralleling Lake Superior’s southern shore for 40 miles to the Brule River State Forest – 40,000 acres of beautiful fall color, whitewater canoeing, kayaking, camping, and trout fishing.