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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! The Midwest offers lots of options for seeing the brilliant fall colors. Some of our favorites 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 nonprofit American Forests 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.
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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?
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. The US Forest Service explains it this way:
“A succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp but not freezing nights seems to bring about the most spectacular color displays. During these days, lots of sugars are produced in the leaf but the cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. These conditions – lots of sugar and light – spur production of the brilliant anthocyanin pigments, which tint reds, purples, and crimson. Because carotenoids are always present in leaves, the yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant from year to year.
“The amount of moisture in the soil also affects autumn colors. Like the weather, soil moisture varies greatly from year to year. The countless combinations of these two highly variable factors assure that no two autumns can be exactly alike. A late spring, or a severe summer drought, can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks. A warm period during fall will also lower the intensity of autumn colors. A warm wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights should produce the most brilliant autumn colors.”
Smoky Mountain National Park maintains a fall foliage map of the United States that predicts when leaves are likely to be at their peak from New England (late September) to southern California (early November).
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.
Check for the Fall Color Weekend and guided hike. Starved Rock Lodge also offers a Fall Colors Trolley Tour. It includes a 45-minute guided hike to two of the park’s canyons, a trolley ride and lunch at the Lodge.
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
Take a scenic drive along the Great River Road to see the fiery fall colors of the Midwest. Photo courtesy of Enjoy Illinois.
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.
For a more laid-back experience, hop on board the Celebration Belle, a non-gaming riverboat that offers Fall Foliage cruises in early October.
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, nabbed the top spot in a USA Today poll of best places for leaf peeping in 2020. It edged out some national favorites, including the Catskills and the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, the Green Mountains of Vermont and Jackson County in North Carolina.
Peak foliage in Door County is predicted to be the third 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. Sadly, the annual festival has been canceled for 2020, thanks to the coronavirus.
However, the leaves still will change color and you can still drive around the 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 Smoky Mountains fall color report predicts peak season in southern Indiana will be at the end of October.
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 2020 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). You can sign up for weekly color status updates as well. (The Smoky Mountains guide predicts peak fall color season will be in mid-October.)
If you get tired of driving, you can take a 30-minute fall colors airplane tour ($30/person), a sunset cruise around Manistee Lake, Manistee River channel, and Lake Michigan (prices range from $200 for 1 to 3 people, to $400 for 5 to 6 people) or a chairlift ride at the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in nearby Thompsonville (one of my family’s favorite Midwest resorts!) for $5/person.
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, the Tunnel of Trees.
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.