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Fall Finds in the Midwest

New England has a reputation for being the premiere place to view spectacular fall foliage, but don’t discount the Midwest. 

From Minnesota to Missouri, Midwestern states have no shortage of scenic natural areas that come alive with color as the weather turns cooler. Here are 10 destinations group travelers should consider in the middle states that are well worth a visit any time of the year but are particularly mind-blowing in the autumn.

Brown County, Indiana

Visitors come from all across the country to visit Indiana’s largest state park, Brown County State Park. And while the park is beautiful year-round, the scenery is even more amazing in red, orange and yellow. The best leaf-peeping times are from the end of September to the first two weeks of November, although that can change depending on how cold and wet the area gets during the summer months. 

The park sits on 16,000 acres and features nearly 20 miles of tree-lined roads. There are plenty of trails in the park for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, as well as seven overlooks that are perfect for viewing the fall foliage. The park is only a three-minute drive from the village of Nashville, with its 200 shops, art galleries and restaurants. 

Nearby Browning Mountain is a hidden gem in the county offering a 928-foot climb to the top, which is a great spot for seeing fall color. The village of Story was founded in 1851. The entire town has been turned into the Story Inn, with 14 rooms and cottages, a gourmet restaurant and bar in the former general store, and a barn that hosts live music and comedy shows.

Upper Peninsula, Michigan

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a nature-based destination that touches three of the Great Lakes: Huron, Michigan and Superior. The peninsula shares most of its rocky shoreline with the largest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior, which has created porcupine mountains and over 300 waterfalls. That also makes it a perfect place to view the fall colors. The Upper Peninsula accounts for only 3% of the population of Michigan, meaning the bulk of the area’s 7 million acres is full of trees.

The key locations to see the changing of the leaves are Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park; Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts out into Lake Superior; Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; and Tahquamenon Falls State Park, which covers 50,000 acres and features numerous waterfalls along the Tahquamenon River. On the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula is Mackinac Island. Groups can book a Soo Locks boat tour from historic Sault Ste. Marie, giving guests a perfect view of the fall colors from the water. The locks connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron and are the busiest locks in the world. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point on Lake Superior is another must-see group attraction.

Red Wing, Minnesota

Group travelers visiting Red Wing, Minnesota, can stay in town and play or take in the changing of the leaves along the Great River Road National Scenic Byway to Winona. The best time to view the fall colors is from the end of September to the second or third week of October. The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River from Minnesota all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through 10 states and hundreds of towns. 

Red Wing visitors can hike Barn Bluff to take in the unparalleled views of the Mississippi River Valley in all its fall glory or drive up to Memorial Park, which sits on top of a bluff and offers expansive views of downtown Red Wing and the river valley to the north. Another way to enjoy the fall colors is to bike the Cannon Valley Trail from Red Wing to Cannon Falls. Red Wing hosts its Annual Fall Art Festival during the second week of October every year.

Hiking, biking, fishing or picnicking along the banks of the Mississippi offer additional ways to enjoy the red, orange and gold leaves of fall.

Branson, Missouri

The entertainment capital of the Midwest is also a great place for leaf peeping. Just a few miles from the Branson, Missouri, entertainment district, Highway 165 is a 22-mile loop road that offers majestic views from the top of ridges, including of Table Rock Lake and Dam. The drive itself is a wonderful way to see the fall colors. The Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area offers nature trails, hiking and bird watching as well as a lookout tower. Groups don’t have to get out and hike to enjoy the bounty of what nature has to offer in this park as much of it is accessible by car and at a scenic overlook. 

Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve is a must-visit when the leaves are changing. Branson Scenic Railway offers a 40-mile round-trip excursion through the Ozarks’ foothills and tunnels and is a nice way to sit back and relax and take in the autumn colors. 

More adventurous groups may want to zipline through Branson’s autumn foliage or ride the Runaway Mountain or Branson Coasters that begin at the top of a pinnacle and allow riders to race to the bottom through a maze of fall foliage.

Cuyahoga/Akron, Ohio

The fall foliage in the greater Akron, Ohio, area and nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park typically peaks in mid-October. The national park has deep forests, rolling hills and open farmlands with the Cuyahoga River running through the middle of it. Visitors can walk or ride along the Towpath Trail to follow the historic route of the Ohio River and Erie Canal. The Towpath originally was used by mules to pull canal boats and currently spans 90 miles across four counties.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs through the heart of the national park and is a nice, calm way to see the changing leaves. Groups can get comfortable on one of the railroad’s many historic railcars for a 90-minute leaf-peeping tour within the park and along the Ohio River and Erie Canalway. One stop on the railroad is Hale Farm and Village, a living history museum in the heart of the valley that features the farm’s original brick farm house and 34 historic structures.

In addition, Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens is a historic estate featuring a 65-room Tudor Revival manor house, a Gothic Revival conservatory, a gate lodge and about 70 acres of landscaped grounds and formal gardens.

Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Manitowoc, Wisconsin, is on the shore of Lake Michigan. Foliage season usually encompasses the first three weeks of October, with the peak beginning around October 10 and lasting about a week. For visitors who don’t want to get out of their vehicles, the best way to see the fall colors is to drive Highway 42 along the coast of Lake Michigan or Highway 151 as it comes into Manitowoc County.

Lower Cato Falls is a county park about eight miles west of the City of Manitowoc and features wooded hills, rock outcroppings and the Manitowoc River flowing through a narrow gorge, forming waterfalls. Groups can capture panoramic views of the river and falls from various scenic overlooks. Pinecrest Historical Village dates back hundreds of years and features historic homes and an old schoolhouse. Visitors bask in fall’s brightest colors while learning more about the settlers who made the area their home. 

Point Beach State Forest in Two Rivers, just outside Manitowoc, is another great leaf peeping location with white sand beaches, dunes and unspoiled coastline. It sits on 3,000 acres along the shores of Lake Michigan, with great views of the Rawley Point Lighthouse. While groups are in the area, they should make sure to visit the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

Alton, Illinois

Alton, Illinois, is on the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, a 33-mile scenic stretch of the Great River Road from Hartford to Grafton at Pere Marquette State Park. The road follows the mighty Mississippi, but Alton is where the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers converge. Peak colors have been getting later due to weather changes, but groups will start seeing the leaves change in early October, with the peak coming around the first week of November. Glorious trees line the limestone river bluffs, making a drive along the scenic byway a must for leaf peeping.

Pere Marquette State Park is the largest state park in Illinois with 8,000 acres. The Illinois River snakes through the park and visitors love to hike the scenic bluffs to enjoy panoramic views of the river and its backwaters. In Grafton, visitors can take a ride on the Grafton Sky Tour, open air chairlifts or enclosed gondolas that take guests from the riverfront up 300 feet to Aerie’s Resort, with its winery, restaurant and ziplines. The Hakuna Matata excursion boat takes groups of 49 people on fall color tours on the Mississippi River out of Grafton Harbor.

Brownville, Nebraska

Brownville, Nebraska, sits across the Missouri River from the state of Missouri and is about two hours north of Kansas City. Indian Cave State Park is about 10 miles south of town and is the best place to get out into nature and see the changing leaves of the hardwood forest, shrubs and other native vegetation. October is the best time to see foliage, and history lovers will enjoy seeing a restored schoolhouse and general store from the old river town of St. Deroin on their visit.

The park sits on 300 acres and, surprisingly enough, doesn’t actually have a cave. Instead, the park features a large rock overhang on the river bluff where Native Americans used to gather. Visitors can still see some petroglyphs carved into the rock face. Groups also can take a scenic cruise on the Missouri River to see the fall colors. Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum in Nebraska City is only 30 miles south of Brownville and is where the Morton family first devised Arbor Day. The property includes a mansion, arboretum, walking trails and 200 varieties of lilacs.

Dubuque, Iowa

The second week of October is usually peak leaf-peeping season in Dubuque, Iowa. Groups wanting to catch a glimpse should take a ride on the area’s famous Fenalon Place Elevator, a narrow-gauge funicular railway that takes passengers 189 feet up the side of a bluff for amazing views of the entire city. When the weather is clear, visitors can see all the way to Illinois and Wisconsin. 

Another great location to see fall colors is Eagle Point Park, which overlooks the Mississippi River and Lock and Dam No. 11. It costs $5 for a motorcoach group to go up, and there’s a viewing area right above the lock and dam with stunning views of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Mines of Spain Recreation Area and E.B. Lyons Interpretive and Nature Center are on 1,437 acres of beautiful woods and prairie just south of Dubuque. The area is full of walking and hiking trails and is a popular spot to view the changing leaves. Visitors can see the Horseshoe Bluff Interpretive Trail, the 15-acre wetland, creeks, forest, prairies, cropland, meadows and the Mississippi River from on high.

A cruise on the American Lady Yacht riverboat offers spectacular views of the changing leaves along the River.

Atchison, Kansas

The best place to spot fall foliage near Atchison, Kansas, is on the Missouri River Bluffs, right across the Mo-Kan bridge heading into Missouri. Due to the changing weather patterns, it has become difficult to predict when the leaves will start changing color, but they usually begin in early to mid-October. Fall is a great time to visit Atchison because of its many fun seasonal festivals. The Muddy River Festival takes place on the Kansas side of the Missouri River. This year, the event is on September 24 and is a day-long event, featuring multiple bands. Oktoberfest takes place in Atchison’s downtown area on October 1, and the city offers its weekend Haunted Atchison Trolley Tours through historic downtown, September 23 to October 29.

International Forest of Friendship is an arboretum and memorial garden established in memory of aviation and space explorers from around the world. Planted alongside Warnock Lake, the trees represent the 50 states and 35 countries these explorers hailed from. It’s a great spot to see the leaves changing color.

When groups have had their fill of foliage, Atchison has plenty to keep them entertained. Several historic homes offer tours, including the Amelia Earhart Birthplace.