Fall Colors: Where to See the Best of the Midwest

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things to do in the fall in Michigan - trees bloom with color along the highways
The trees bloom with color during the fall months all throughout Michigan. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Autumn is the season when the Midwest dresses up in brilliant reds, warm oranges, sunny yellows and deep purples. But the fall season is a fleeting moment in time. So pack up the car and head off in search of Mother Nature’s beauty with a fall foliage road trip to see the best of the Midwest.

Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan offer lots of options for seeing the brilliant fall colors. These are our don’t-miss spots to see the best fall colors in the Midwest.

But first, a quick note on when to go to see the best of the fall colors.

Photo credit: Destination Door County

When is Peak Fall Color Season This Year?

Predicting when the trees will be at their most brilliant is always more art than science. It’s a combination of the air temperature and the amount of rainfall. This map is the one I consult each year to find the peak fall foliage season.

While it changes every year, generally leaves across the US start to change in New England (late September) and finish in southern California (early November).

The Farmers Almanac predicts Midwest peak fall colors in the Midwest for 2022 will be:

  • Wisconsin: Oct. 12-28
  • Michigan: (Northern) Oct. 1-17; (Southern) Oct. 5-21
  • Illinois and Indiana: (Northern) Oct. 5-21; (Southern) Oct. 12-28

Read More: 30+ Ideas for Great Midwest Road Trips

The fall colors of the Midwest as seen through the dramatic rock formations at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois.
The fall colors of the Midwest as seen through the dramatic rock formations at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. Photo courtesy Starved Rock State Park

1. Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Located along the south side of the Illinois River, one mile south of Utica, Starved Rock State Park has 13 miles of hiking trails and 18 canyons to explore.

Starved Rock is one of my favorite day trips from Chicago. Visiting in the fall for a walk through the blazing colors of the state park just two hours from Chicago is a highlight each autumn.

Drive along the Great River Road to see the firey fall colors of the Midwest.
Drive along the Great River Road to see the fiery fall colors of the Midwest. Photo courtesy of Enjoy Illinois.

2. Galena, Quad Cities, and Iowa

Nestled alongside the Mississippi River in the northwest corner of Illinois, the gently rolling hills of Jo Daviess County make this one of the prettiest parts of the state.

The Great River Road National Scenic Byway runs along both sides of the river from its headwaters up north all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. But the 125 miles from Galena south to Muscatine, Iowa, on the bluffs above the Mississippi, offer some of the best glimpses of the river and the trees that border it.

Take Route 20 south of Galena to Fulton, pick up Route 84 to the Quad Cities, then take Route 92 into Muscatine for the best views.

To see the fall colors from the Mississippi River, hop on board the Celebration Belle, a non-gaming riverboat that offers Fall Foliage cruises in early October that includes lunch.

Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin. Photo credit: Destination Door County

3. Door County, Wisconsin

This is the place Chicagoans go to play — and see blazing fall colors. The peninsula that extends from Green Bay, Wisconsin into Lake Michigan is always one of the best places in the Midwest to see fall colors.

Peak foliage in Door County is predicted to be the second week of October.

fall colors at Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin
Photo credit: Wisconsin Dells

4. Wisconsin Dells

While this central Wisconsin spot is best known for its over-the-top indoor waterparks, it’s also a gorgeous spot to commun with nature. In fact, Travel + Leisure named  the Dells one of the nation’s “21 Best Places to See Fall Foliage.”

That’s because there are four state parks in the area, with a combined 50+ miles of hiking trails through thick forests and sandstone and quartzite cliffs.

If you like a little adventure with your fall colors, you can zipline over the trees for a birds-eye view.

Midwest fall foliage road trips should include a visit to the covered bridges of Parke County Indiana.
Smith Covered Bridge photo by Nyttend via Wikimedia Commons

5. The Covered Bridges of Parke County

Home of the famous Covered Bridge Festival, Parke County, Ind., is about an hour west of Indianapolis, near the Illinois-Indiana state line.

Drive around this southern Indiana area to see the 31 covered bridges scattered throughout the heavily wooded county. Download the guide before you go to get driving directions for the county’s five covered bridge routes (color-coded black, brown, red, blue and yellow). Each route takes you in a different direction.

The blue route, for example, heads north from Rockville and includes a drive over two of the longest covered bridges—the 176-foot-long Cox Ford Bridge and the 102-foot Wilkens Mill Bridge.

The 2021 Covered Bridge Festival runs from Oct. 8-17.

SheBuysTravel Tip: You’re only about two hours from the gorgeous Brown County State Park, which is just east of Bloomington Indiana in the gently rolling hills of southern Indiana. If you can carve out an extra day or two, don’t miss a chance to visit there in the fall. It’s the largest state park in Indiana.

6. Manistee National Forest, Michigan

This western Michigan wonder is lovely any time of the year, but it’s especially gorgeous in the fall. Visit Manistee County has a free downloadable 2021 Fall Color Guide that lists top photo spots and four self-guided color tour driving routes (inland, coastal, downtown Manistee and M-22 Scenic Highway).

The Smoky Mountains guide predicts peak fall color season will be in mid-October.

Biking is one of many popular things to do on Mackinac Island.
Biking the 8.2-mile bike trail around Mackinac Island is a great activity for all ages. Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

7. Mackinac Island, Michigan

More than 80 percent of this no-cars-allowed island is a tree-filled state park. And the lack of motorized vehicles makes it a peaceful spot to commune with nature on a crisp fall day — except for when the cannon at Fort Mackinac booms every day at noon!

You’ll get the best views of the fall colors from the ferry on the way to to the island. Once you arrive, take a horse-and-buggy ride into the center of the island to immerse yourself in the autumn leaves.

Pro Tip: If you’re driving north along the western edge of Michigan on your way to Mackinac, forego the interstate and stick with M-119 to drive through the famous Tunnel of Trees, which starts just north of Petosky. 

Why Do Leaves Change Color?

For all your science nerds wondering just why we get these brilliant fall colors in the Midwest, the answer is chlorophyll and photosynthesis.

Chances are you learned about those things in grammar school science class. If (like me) you need a refresher, the USDA explains it this way: Chlorophyll is the chemical that helps trees take in sunlight. The trees use that sunlight for photosynthesis, which is how trees eat. The process also keeps leaves green.

Tree leaves have orange and yellow pigment called carotenoids. During the warmer months, the yellow and orange hues are masked by all the chlorophyll active inside the leaves. When the days grow shorter and the night grow cooler, chlorophyll production declines, allowing the reds, yellows, oranges and purples to shine through.

The Best Places to See Fall Leaves Outside the Midwest

The great thing about the changing colors of fall is if you miss the peak season in the north, you can head south to see it.

Start following the changing colors with a visit to the Northeast USA. Visit the mid-Atlantic states for fall beauty or learn what autumn colors mean in the Deep South.

Where is your favorite fall foliage road trip? Share with us in the comment section below.

Take a fall color tour to see some beautiful trees! Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen
Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of SheBuysTravel.com. She also is the mom of two now grown kids who have traveled with her since that first, fateful plane ride when one preschooler discovered a barf bag in his seat pocket and his sister, finding none in hers, demanded, “I want a barf bag too!” She has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, an editor at Chicago Parent and Catalyst Chicago and an instructor in the graduate school at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
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5 responses

  1. Absolutely stunning! Thank you on a detailed impressive guide!

  2. We love this region and these destinations close to Chicago are so gorgeous. That is a definite area that we will return to. I love Fall road trips, and your photos have captured it wonderfully. I love that first photo. You should frame it!

  3. These are some great suggestions for road trips. I hadn’t thought of most of these looking forward to exploring some of these options.

  4. The landscapes you can find in autumn are incomparable. I really liked your publication.

  5. There’s actually a very nice fall foliage route in Oklahoma of all places. The Talimena Scenic Byway runs about 60 miles across far southeast Oklahoma and far southwest Arkansas. It’s about 2 hours from OKC and Tulsa, and 3 hours from Dallas. The road is constructed like the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Ouachita Mountains, and some of the views/color are just as spectacular, though the peak season is quite a bit later (mid-November). There’s also not nearly as much traffic as on the Blue Ridge. Nice secret weekend getaway from Dallas that you can even do as a day trip.

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