MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

10 cool ways to see fall colors

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

A gondola on Lutsen Mountains.

© Lutsen Mountains

On Minnesota's North Shore, Lutsen's Mountain Tram glides over maple forest.

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.

Covered wagon

In the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, Buena Vista Ski Area offers Top of the World Fall Color Covered Wagon Rides along the Continental Divide, the ridge that separates rivers flowing north to Hudson Bay and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

For public rides, Sept. 20-21 in 2019, cost is $6, $3 for children 5-12. Private rides also are available.

Chairlift, elevator and gondola

At Copper Peak ski-flying hill near Ironwood, Mich., you ride a chairlift to the crest of a volcanic outcrop, ride 18 stories on an elevator to an observation deck, then climb eight stories to the top starting gate. Cost is $20, $8 for youths 5-14.

Just to the east, the ski hill in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park near Silver City, Mich., offers chairlift rides on weekends from mid-September to late October. They're $7, free for children 12 and younger.

Many commercial ski areas offer chairlift rides, including Granite Peak in Wausau, Wis., which offers chairlift rides Thursdays through Sundays from Sept. 20 to Oct. 20, $12 round-trip, $8 for children 6-15.

In northwest Michigan, chairlift rides are free for resort lodging guests at Boyne Mountain near Boyne Falls ($10 for non-guests) and Boyne Highlands near Harbor Springs ($5 for non-guests). 

On Minnesota's North Shore, Lutsen Mountains offers rides on its Summit Express Gondola to the top of Moose Mountain, 1,000 feet above Lake Superior, where there's a deli and viewing platform. Rides are daily through mid-October, and the cost is $24, $16 for children 6-15. Pay $4 less and hike down on the Superior Hiking Trail.

In the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, Hyland Hills Ski Area offers chairlift rides the second weekend of October, with live folk music, lantern-lit hiking, s'mores and games. Cost is $6.

River gondola

A gondola on the St. Croix River.

© Gondola Romantica

See fall colors on the St. Croix on a gondola ride in Stillwater.

In the Minnesota border town of Stillwater, Gondola Romantica gondoliers row passengers along the St. Croix River in a real Venetian gondola. They're usually offered in the evening, but lunch cruises are offered in fall, $139 for two.


In the northern half of Wisconsin's Door County, Off Road Segway Adventures offers rides through fields, orchards, parks and headlands around Sister Bay. Tours are one to two hours and cost $50-$85.

Glide N.E.W. also offers rides in parks and orchards and on country roads around the peninsula and also in Green Bay. Cost is $74-$89.

Steam train

Many vintage trains, run by railroading enthusiasts, offer fall-color excursions.

In northwest Michigan, the Steam Railroading Institute offers three different all-day, round-trip Fall Color Tours, with time to explore each destination: from Kalkaska to Petoskey  with a one-hour side-trip from Petoskey the same day; from Mount Pleasant to Cadillac, with a one-hour side trip from Cadillac; and from Alma to Owosso, with a side trip from Owosso.

Cost is $79-$109 for the round-trips. The one-hour country side trips are $20-$40. Reserve as early as possible.

From the Twin Cities, the steam locomotive 261 usually pulls a fall-color train.

For more fall-color excursions, see Riding the rails.

Hot-air balloon

If you can afford it, you'll see all the fall colors on hot-air balloon rides over the countryside. Flights often are grounded by weather conditions, though.

Cruise boats on the Fox River.

© Beth Gauper

On Illinois' Fox River, the St. Charles Belle offers weekend cruises.

Rides on tethered balloons offered at festivals are less expensive and a little more dependable. In East Moline, Ill., the Quad Cities Balloon Festival is Sept. 27-29 in 2019.

Cruise boats

Excursion boats operate all summer long, but the view is best in fall. You can find  fall-color cruises on the Mississippi, the Wisconsin, the St. Croix, the Fox, the Rock and on Lake Minnetonka, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

For more, see Cruising into fall.


Fall colors always look great from horseback. In Minnesota, we've enjoyed fall rides trail rides at Pine River Riding Stable near Pine River and Outback Trail Rides near Brainerd.

Most vacation areas and some ski hills have stables that offer trail rides. Check Travel Wisconsin's Horseback Riding Directory, Explore Minnesota's list of horseback trail rides and Pure Michigan's directory of Horse Stables and Riding Trails.

For more, see Autumn on horseback.

Small airplane

Fly to Ironwood, just over the Wisconsin border on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and the flight alone will give you a guaranteed view of the fall colors.

For less than a ride on a hot-air balloon, you can get a round-trip flight on Air Choice One from Minneapolis, Chicago, Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula and, in Iowa, Mason City, Burlington and Fort Dodge.

From Ironwood, rent a car and explore the surrounding national forest, the waterfalls along the Black River or Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Last updated on August 29, 2019