MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Fall color

Great fall festivals

Here are the best of the autumn fests in 2022.

Fall is made for festivals. It's harvest time, and the fields and orchards are overflowing. Trees turn red and gold. And it's the last time we'll enjoy warm weather until spring.

The many people who heed the urge to get out and about on crisp autumn weekends make it the busiest tourist season of the year.

Any town that can hold a fall festival does, and well-established ones, such as Bayfield's Apple Festival (see Big apples), become almost too popular.

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Toasting Oktoberfest

These festive tributes to Bavarian tradition put the oompah into fall.

When fall arrives, we get a sudden urge to hoist a stein of beer, eat a grilled bratwurst and listen to red-cheeked men in little felt hats play the accordion.

Fall belongs to the Germans, who streamed into the Upper Midwest in the 1850s and still are the largest ethnic group in every state. Which is a good thing, because Germans like to have fun.

In October 1810, they had so much fun at the wedding of Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, held in a meadow near Munich, that they decided to do it every year.

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Cheap fall getaways

Here are 20 places to enjoy autumn colors without going into the red.

Fall is the busiest travel season of the year — we all know the nice days are numbered, and we're going to try our darndest to make them count.

But with pretty much everyone heading out to look for fall color, especially on weekends, there are few bargains.

That's why those of us on a budget look to our old friends: the state parks, the mom-and-pop motels, the environmental centers, the outdoors clubs.

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Autumn on horseback

For a treat, enjoy the fall scenery on a guided trail ride.

In fall, we all love to get out and see the colors on a good tramp through the woods.

But why not let a horse do the walking?

I don’t ride much, but when I do, it’s always autumn. Crisp air and colorful forests call for a trail ride, and the view is always better on a horse.

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Quiet time on Minnesota's North Shore

Late fall is marked by stark beauty, cheaper stays and the gales of November.

The skies were leaden and forbidding as Lake Superior slid into view and we descended into Duluth. The wind mauled our hair as we stood alongside the harbor canal, waving to the crew of the Sea Pearl II as it pushed toward Malta with a load of grain.

Driving up the shore, we listened to taped stories of shipwrecks: The sidewheeler Lotta Bernard, pummeled into pieces off Gooseberry Falls on Oct. 29, 1874.

The steamer Edenborn, hurled into the mouth of Split Rock River and broken in two on Nov. 28, 1905. The Lafayette, pulverized against a cliff near Encampment Island on the same day.

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15 great late-fall getaways

It's the mellowest time of the year, when hotel rates drop with the leaves.

Late fall — when crowds fade and hotel deals appear — is one of the best times to make a getaway. 

For hikers, it's the sweet spot between the fall-color rush and hunting season. For shoppers, it's the time to get a head start on the holidays, before the craziness starts.

More often than not, the weather still is gorgeous, and stubborn oaks and willows offer color that lasts into the middle of November.

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Autumn along the St. Croix

On fall days, this scenic river valley is dressed to impress.

On a lovely day in fall, few places show off this region better than the St. Croix River Valley between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The 52-mile stretch from Taylors Falls to the St. Croix’s confluence with the Mississippi at Prescott has everything a tourist could want — shops, historic houses, theaters, train excursions, boat cruises.

But mostly, it has scenery — scenery I wanted to show my nieces Alissa and Livia, who had left Florida to start careers in the Twin Cities. As it turns out, the St. Croix in autumn looks awfully good to people raised in Florida.

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Pursuing the hues

With luck, leaf peepers can squeeze seven weeks of color out of fall.

As anyone who’s ever planned a fall trip knows, peak leaf color can be elusive.

Betting on a burst of spectacular color is like plugging nickels into a slot machine. To win, all of the figures have to line up: the right number of warm days and cool nights, the right levels of sugar produced, the right amounts of moisture.

Predictions always are chancy. What experts look for are summer rains that give trees plenty of moisture, and sunny days that are warm but not hot enough to stress trees.

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15 great trails to ride in fall

Here's where to get your fill of flora, fauna and fall colors.

It was a classic fall weekend when we rode the Willard Munger State Trail in eastern Minnesota.

It's a peaceful corridor through forest that, on the second weekend of October, surrounded us with a warm palette of honey and cinnamon, mixed with evergreens and the white of birch trunks and milkweed pods.

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Best of fall

The chase is on as autumn colors start to coat the countryside.

We always get a little frantic in fall, trying to make the most of a too-brief window of opportunity.

Fall is the best time for a lot of things: hiking, after frost has knocked off the bugs; road trips, when the countryside is at its loveliest; and wildlife-watching, when birds and beasts are on the move.

Plus, it's gorgeous. Most people try to catch the reds and oranges of maples at peak, but tamaracks, tallgrass and oaks keep things glowing through October.

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So many festivals, so little fall

The season is short, so go on a power trip and catch two or three festivals each weekend. Here's where to go.

In this part of the world, fall is sweet but way too short.

All of the quaint little towns along rivers and in the bluffs have to pack their autumn festivals into the same six weekends, rolling out parades, pumpkin contests and oompah bands for all the leaf-peeping tourists.

The choices are paralyzing. Flea market or scarecrow contest? Pumpkin regatta or studio tour? Yodeling contest or dachshund races?

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Colors of the North Shore

In fall, eager crowds pursue the hues along Lake Superior.

In autumn, crowds of leaf-peepers mob Minnesota’s North Shore, looking for fabulous fall color.

The last week of September is peak for inland maple forests and in the forests farthest north. The first weekend of October should be peak farther south, and the forests of Duluth stay golden through the second weekend of October.

Here's where to look for the finest fall color by foot or by car.

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10 cool ways to see fall colors

When the trees put on a show, get a front-row seat that can't be beat.

In fall, you don't need to limit yourself to seeing the colors while speeding by in a car or even at a snail's pace from a hiking trail.

You also can watch the show on horseback, by boat or from a train. Or try a different kind of conveyance — say, covered wagon, chairlift or Venetian gondola.

The important thing is get out there and see as much as you can while it lasts. Here are 10 cool ways to view the hues.

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30 classic fall hikes

For autumn scenery, these beautiful trails are the best of the best.

An autumn Saturday dawns, sunny and mild. It’s a perfect day for hiking — but where?

This time of year, you could walk down the street and see something nice.

But if you're looking for the kind of hike that makes you marvel at nature and feel glad to be alive, you'll probably have to look a little farther afield.

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15 great fall drives

Chase the colors through glorious autumn landscapes.

On a crisp, sunny fall day, we all get the urge to go for a drive.

The countryside is alight with color, and there's a lot going on — art-studio tours, corn mazes, hay rides and harvest festivals in every little town.

And you'll be chasing the colors, of course.

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Autumn in the studios

On fall art tours, treasure hunters strike gold.

In September and October, artists everywhere throw open their studio doors, inviting the public to see some fall colors along with fine art.

It's tempting because of the scenic landscapes in which so many artists live: the bluffs of northeast Iowa, the coulees of southwest Wisconsin, the towns around Lake Pepin, the lumpy terrain of the Ice Age Trail.

"This is such a pretty area in the fall, and we thought it would be nice to have a tour where people could travel through it,'' says potter Diana Johnston, who helped found southwest Wisconsin's Fall Art Tour, the region's oldest.

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Hawk heaven

On a ridgetop in Duluth, bird watchers keep eyes on the fall skies.

On Duluth's Hawk Ridge, a bird in the hand is worth at least two in the sky.

They're impressive when spotted overhead. But up close, it's easier to get to know a bird — say, the northern goshawk, a fierce predator whose image once adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun.

As she held a young goshawk by the legs, naturalist Willow Maser struggled to make herself heard above its high-pitched screeches.

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Fall in Door County

On this Wisconsin peninsula, autumn colors gild a much-loved landscape.

Around the Upper Midwest, Door County is the tourist destination that other tourist destinations envy.

Everything a tourist loves, it’s got: Lighthouses, craggy shorelines, sand dunes. Golf courses, boutiques, bistros. Bicycle paths, hiking trails, beaches.

There’s a little bit of New England in the white-frame buildings of Ephraim, where tourists click photos of Wilson’s, a century-old ice-cream parlor.

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Great grape stomps

At winery harvest festivals, compete with your feet.

During harvest time in a vineyard, turning purple has nothing to do with the Minnesota Vikings.

Purple is what you'll be if you get into a wooden tub of grapes and try to turn them into juice with your bare feet.

Vineyards don't get their juice that way anymore, but many still offer a grape stomp, and there's nothing goofier to do on an autumn day.

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Bash on a bike trail

In fall, kick up your wheels at a small-town festival.

In September, when the air turns crisp, everyone starts thinking the same thing: Time to plan a weekend trip.

Autumn is a great time to try out a new bike trail, not only because of fall colors and invigorating weather but because so many small towns throw harvest festivals in September and October.

Since trails go right through towns, bicycle tourists are right in the middle of the action — but not the traffic jams.

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One fall swoop

The roller-coaster hills and riverside bluffs of northeast Iowa yield a photo album of panoramas.

Long before the second-growth forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s north woods became fall destinations, sightseers were flocking to northeast Iowa.

Flat? Hardly. In this part of Iowa, only the river is flat. Towering bluffs line the Mississippi, providing unparalleled views of the sprawling river plain.

For more than 150 years, people have gone to great lengths to see these views. In 1851, when the town of Lansing consisted of a few log cabins, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed a particularly steep bluff there.

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Wisconsin Dells in fall

For many, the scenery is best when the crowds are gone.

In the Dells, when the children go home, the adults come out to play.

Autumn is a quiet time in Wisconsin Dells. The outdoor water parks are closed, many attractions are shuttered and the water-ski show performers are in Florida for the winter.

In the rush of summer, many tourists spend a whole week in Wisconsin Dells and never see the dells that drew tourists in the first place.

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High color in Cable

Fall frames the abundant beauty around a northwest Wisconsin town.

In the forests and lakes around the northwestern Wisconsin town of Cable, the reds, oranges and yellows of fall are mere gilding on the lily.

This landscape, much of it part of Chequamegon National Forest, is beautiful in any season.

In winter, cross-country skiers glide along forest paths and the 52-kilometer Birkebeiner trail, on which North America's largest and most famous Nordic-skiing race is held each February.

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Tracing the Ice Age Trail

In north-central Wisconsin, a slow-moving monolith left a playground for weekend wanderers.

When the last glacier melted out of Wisconsin, it left a gift to future generations.

It wasn't much at first — boulders, heaps of gravel, water, chunks of ice trapped under rubble.

But over time, the ice seeped away and created kettle lakes for fishermen. The raging meltwater stripped away softer rock, leaving walls of volcanic rock for climbers and scenic river gorges for canoeists.

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15 great fall views

From these overlooks, see rolling waves of color light up the landscape.

In autumn, the pilgrims head for Holy Hill.

Some want to pay homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary, for whom the basilica was built in 1930. But many others just want to see the amazing view, which includes the Milwaukee skyline and surrounding Kettle Moraine State Forest, dappled with colors.

The basilica was built atop a kame — a mound filled with glacial rubble — that has one of the highest elevations in southeast Wisconsin and the highest in the 120-mile-long kettle moraine, where two lobes of the last glacier collided.

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Autumn in the Brainerd Lakes

In fall, this lake-resort area is a hideaway in plain sight.

It was a warm, sunny fall day in the heart of Minnesota. The woods were aglow with color, and there were many ways to wallow in it — on trails for hiking, paved paths for biking, lakes for boating.

But something was missing. Where were all the people?

Apparently, they were on the North Shore, fighting for space amid crowds that arrive as reliably as spawning salmon.

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King of the hill

With a huff and a puff, hikers earn a view of fall colors.

When it comes to hiking, we all like to be on top.

There's nothing like a great view, especially in fall. Climbing until we're eye level with birds and caressed by breezes, watching the land roll away into the horizon, we feel as if we're on top of the world.

Even military officers and scientists turn into poets when faced with a beautiful view, such as those at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the Upper Peninsula.

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Braking for blooms

In late summer and early fall, you'll find the best array of wildflowers on bicycle trails.

In late summer and early fall, bicycle trails burst with blooms.

They're a favorite habitat for wildflowers because they’re on disturbed ground and have open, sunny edges. Many trails skirt lakes and bogs, but since most are on old rail lines, fires sparked by passing trains created openings for prairie species, too.

Take the Paul Bunyan State Trail past Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota. One side is lined with water-loving plants — Joe-Pye weed, jewelweed and swamp milkweed, beloved by butterflies and bees.

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What makes leaves turn color?

Look for consistent summer moisture, followed by warm days and cool nights.

Every year, it happens like magic: In September, the uniform green of the hardwood forests starts morphing into a rolling wave of reds, russets, golds and orange.

Often, the colors are glowing, as if lit from within, but sometimes they're dull and faded. Some years, the maple color is spotty, turning here and there over several weeks, and there's no real peak.

In a bad year, there's barely any color at all, just mousy yellows on leaves that drop in the first stiff wind.

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