Fall is that short yet sweet time of year for Wisconsinites to really appreciate our state’s outdoors in its pure splendor. Cramped between the summer and winter seasons is a period where trees fade to a dazzling display of yellows, oranges, reds, and maroons. Everyone rushes outside to enjoy the perfect 60 to 70-degree temperatures and join in seasonal festivities before the cold hand of winter emerges. But where does one begin to appreciate such natural scenery? With so many routes to discover, the choices may seem difficult. Here are 11 fall drives worth exploring this season:
Starting off at one of the most rustic locations on our list is Forest Road 164 in the heart of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The road is about a 30-minute drive west of Hayward and spans 20 miles. This is one of the most rural areas of Wisconsin, so expect to see several species of trees and animals. You might even catch a black bear or gray wolf if you’re lucky (hopefully from inside your car). Bask in the serenity of Moose Lake to get the best views of the autumn colors reflecting off the sparkling water. End your night at one of the local resorts and bars after a long day of sightseeing.
410th Street and 420th Street
Travel along the 5-mile road that traverses alongside the Red Cedar River south of Menomonie. The Red Cedar State Trail that runs adjacent to these roads are the perfect spots to stop for a view of the prairies, farmlands, and sandstone bluffs. The Red Cedar River is renowned for its large walleye if you decide to bring along a fishing license. Be on the lookout for the unique Devil’s Punch Bowl, a locally famous small canyon with a waterfall.
County Road H and G
This route is special for its six homey lakes that surround the 14-mile road, spanning from the small community of Mercer up to the border of Michigan. Any nature-lover will find their time well spent at this natural area with plenty of sights to appreciate. The many lakes in the area offer a limitless supply of boating and fishing. If you’re in the mood for hiking instead then check out the historic Flambeau Trail, which served as the first transportation route for local Native Americans.
By far the longest route on our list, Parkway Road spans both paved and gravel roads for a total of 37-miles. Running alongside most of the path is the grand Peshtigo River and Peshtigo River State Forest. This gem of Marinette County is known for its fly fishing and many local parks to camp in. We recommend Caldron Falls Reservoir and High Falls Reservoir to visit for sightseeing and fishing as you make your way along the winding road. There is something that will interest everyone at this fantastic Wisconsin route.
It was probably inevitable that we’d end up in Door County. Glidden Road travels about 7-miles along the shoreline of Lake Michigan between Brauer Road and Whitefish Bay, offering a truly romantic view that would be hard to recapture. Marvel in awe from the glowing sunsets along the breezy lake with a colorful autumn canopy just behind you. Travel just north of the route to find the Whitefish Dunes State park or go a little further south to stay your night in Sturgeon Bay. There is a larger-than-life feel to Door County, and fall is the perfect time to experience it.
We drive north and hop on a ferry to Washington Island. Located at the tip of Door County is one of the best fall experiences you’ll find. Explore vineyards, Scandinavian architecture, and quaint pathways around this cozy island. There are 27 miles of rustic trails along most of the island’s roads, making basically the entire landmass a hotspot for activities. Many festivities can be found such as the Fall Fun Fest and Cider Pressing Party or Fall Harvest Dinner during early October. Escape the stresses of your life by enjoying “Island Time” at Washington Island.
County Road M
Want to view some amazing murals and buildings? Our next 14-mile route offers just that. County Road M traverses rolling fields between the small communities of Wittenberg and Tigerton. Wittenberg presents the Walls of Wittenberg, a bold project that began in 2005 to paint the walls of the downtown buildings with astounding results. Eighteen murals have been painted creating a unique art gallery that has attracted many visitors. On the flipside, Tigerton offers the Tigerton Historical Society Museum Complex. A step back in time for travelers to take a glance into the community’s old-world past. The setup of the museum consists of a town hall, church, and pioneer log cabin making for some great photography.
We head back into the heart of the forest at our next destination -- the heart of Forest County that is. This 26-mile road is actually a few roads that span in a large loop through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, beginning and ending back at the lumber-based community of Wabeno. Enjoy bird watching? Take a walk along the Knowles Creek Interpretive Trail for some close encounters with owls, hawks, bald eagles, or waterfowl. If bird-watching is not on your priority list then you can meet up with the passing Nicolet State Trail, which meanders over 90 miles through the forest. Here you’ll find an abundance of rivers and hiking paths making for fantastic mountain biking or nature viewing.
North Settlement Road
Begin your 12-mile journey in the small town of Millston then head north along North Settlement Road exploring the Black River State Forest. Wildlife enthusiasts will be happy to know that as of 2015, elk are making a comeback in the area after 125 years of absence. Come and view these large cervines along with many other wildlife at this hardwood forest. The densely packed woods are a spectacle to experience at least once in your life. What’s more, the great selection of camping, hunting and fishing spots are guaranteed to fulfill all your outdoorsy needs.
Want to experience the full seasonal experience but don’t want to travel far from the big city? If you live in the Milwaukee area, we recommend Waterville Road located just a little west of Waukesha. This 7-mile road begins at the edge of Delafield and heads straight south while providing some of the best views of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Not to mention the road intersects with some famous hiking and biking trails like the Ice Age Trail, Glacial Drumline State Trail, and the Scuppernong Hiking Trail. A little further east is Lapham Peak, the highest point in Waukesha County and home to a magnificent view of the fall colors.
Our last stop takes us through the epic rolling hills along the border of the Central Sand Hills and the Southeast Glacial Plains. Start your 10-mile journey from Portage and travel west along the Wisconsin River. The Pine Island Wildlife Area occupies most of the drive, where you can view the large display of foliage among the massive hills and even dotted amongst the islands of the Wisconsin River. Many species of famed wildlife can be found here, including Canadian Geese and Sandhill Cranes. This is probably why the area is also home to Wisconsin’s natural pride, the Aldo Leopold Reserve. Levee Road is a short drive north from Madison so be sure not to miss out on this drive come mid- to late-October.
We hope you enjoy the lovely fall ambiance and colorful displays. Check us out on social media to share your favorite Wisconsin fall foliage pics. There are still so many routes to see that weren’t mentioned on this list and we want to hear about them from you!
Ken Virden is a member of the Discover Wisconsin crew. He spends his recreational time with family and friends going camping, attending rock festivals, and running his own podcast ‘Virden Interviews’. Watch Discover Wisconsin TV Saturday mornings at 10 on Fox Sports Wisconsin. (Twitter: @DiscoverWI)