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Changing autumn leaves bring delightful fall colors. Brilliant reds, warm oranges, sunny yellows, deep purples. But the fall season is a fleeting moment in time. So pack up the kids, hop in the car and head off in search of Mother Nature’s beauty with a fall foliage road trip. This year, more than ever, we need to get away. A Midwest road trip is a properly socially distanced way to travel and see some of the best colors anywhere this time of year.
Ah…the amazing colors of fall! Orange, red, yellow, purple, black, blue, orange, magenta, and brown – oh my! Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan offer lots of options for seeing the brilliant fall colors. Our don’t-miss spots are listed below. But, first, a short science lesson.
Why Do Leaves Change Color?
Remember 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.
When is Peak Fall Color Season 2021?
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 2021 will be:
- Wisconsin: Oct. 5-14
- Michigan: (Northern) Oct. 1-17; (Southern) Oct. 5-21
- Illinois and Indiana: (Northern) Oct. 5-21; (Southern) Oct. 12-28
Where to Find the Best Fall Colors in the Midwest
1. Starved Rock State Park and Ottawa
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.
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.
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.
4. 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.
TravelingMom 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
TravelingMom 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.
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. City lovers can head to Philadelphia for fall colors. 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.