Best Road Trips for Fall Foliage in Wisconsin

Fall and Wisconsin go together like PB&J, macaroni ‘n’ cheese, bacon and eggs, milk and—okay, okay, you get the point. 🙂 Thanks to the Mississippi River to the west, Lake Superior to our north and Lake Michigan bordering our eastern coast—not to mention all the ridges, rivers and rural scenes in between—Wisconsin is the ideal road trip state, especially during the autumn months:

Central Wisconsin

Highway 22 – See Map

This scenic route begins at a convalescent home in Waupaca and ends at a burial mound in Oconto, and let me tell you, the trip is as dynamic as its terminuses. First, follow Highway 22 from the Wisconsin Veterans Home and Museum on Waupaca’s chain of 22 spring-fed lakes. Along the way, you’ll pass through a town called Embarrass, where you shall shamelessly snap a selfie near the population sign. Then, enjoy the ride as you roll over hillside, through woodlands and past more waterways.

Once you get to Shawano, consider breaking out your bicycle in Wisconsin’s barn quilt capital for a rural tour of this pretty county. In Oconto County, stroll through the magnificent and grandiose Cathedral Pines, explore the site of a prehistoric cemetery of those who occupied the northern Midwest circa 4,000 – 2,000 BC and if you’re lucky, catch a glorious Bay of Green Bay sunrise at Breakwater Park.

Take Highway 22 to Oconto County and catch a sunrise at the Breakwater Park. [Photo by AJ Marz]
Take Highway 22 to Oconto County and catch a sunrise at the Breakwater Park. [Photo by AJ Marz]

Northwestern Wisconsin

Highway 35 – See Map

Willow River State Park is about 10 minutes off of Highway 35 near Hudson. [Photo by Melinda Martin]
Willow River State Park is about 10 minutes off of Highway 35 near Hudson. [Photo by Melinda Martin]
Highway 35 is approximately 412 miles of magnificent beauty and the longest state highway in Wisconsin. Its southern unit, AKA the Great River Road, is perhaps touted more often but don’t miss out on what the northern half has to offer. The northern terminus of Highway 35 is located in Superior and from there, traverses Pattison State Park and Manitou Falls in Douglas County and Big Island State Natural Area in Burnett County. Journeying further south, you’ll pass Bedrock Glades State Natural Area in Polk County and cross over the Willow River in St. Croix County.

Wisconsin Lake Superior Byway – See Map

Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Byway trails the southern shoreline of the largest of the Great Lakes along the Bayfield Peninsula. [Photo by Jim Peacock]
Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Byway trails the southern shoreline of the largest of the Great Lakes along the Bayfield Peninsula. [Photo by Jim Peacock]
Discover the beauty of this 70-mile byway, mile by mile. Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Byway trails the southern shoreline of the largest of the Great Lakes along the Bayfield Peninsula. The route captures so much of what makes Wisconsin great: old-world harbor towns, bucolic farm scenes, pristine sandy beaches and glittering waters. Begin your adventure at the intersection of Highways 2 and 13 in Barksdale. Continue around the Bayfield Peninsula all the way to Cloverland in Douglas County. Along the way, relish the diverse geographical and cultural opportunities including the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Area. Ugh, this road trip is just so darn gorgeous—I love it!

Highway 70 – See Map

Highway 70 crosses a plethora of beautiful northwoods counties for nearly 250 miles. Starting on the west end in Burnett County, explore Governor Knowles State Forest in Grantsburg for hiking, horseback riding and wildlife-watching. Then drive through Washburn, Sawyer and Price Counties. My recommendations along the way: Tuscobia State Trail in Winter, Chequamegon National Forest and Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips off Highway 13. Continuing on Highway 70 into northeastern Wisconsin…

Northeastern Wisconsin

Highway 70 – See Map

…and we find ourselves in the popular tourism draw that is Minocqua. If you’re up for a little “offroading,” look for the romantic covered bridge on Forest Rd. 148 in the Chequamegon National Forest. Oh! And in itty bitty Woodruff, you’ll find the World’s Largest Penny. Onward to Vilas County, home of the Lac du Flambeau Reservation and the “Snowmobile Capital of the World.” If you guessed Eagle River, you’d be right! While Eagle River is arguably the more popular destination in the county, don’t overlook Sayner, St. Germain and Star Lake—a trio of charming small towns that are dotted with dozens of lakes, many of which hug the highway along the drive. Unearthing more autumn allure, we’re eastbound into Forest County, where we’ll again cut through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and bring our Highway 70 road trip to a close in Florence County, where you absolutely need to pencil in a couple hours to discover the county’s seven cascading and enchanting waterfalls.

Highways 57/42 – See Map

The northern end of Highway 42 in Door County is one of the most popular scenic routes in Wisconsin. [Photo submitted by Door County Visitors Bureau]
The northern end of Highway 42 in Door County is one of the most popular scenic routes in Wisconsin. [Photo submitted by Door County Visitors Bureau]
This isn’t an article about fall foliage without mention of Door County’s Coastal Byway (DCCB). Cruise Highways 42 and 57 for 66 miles of the stunning Door Peninsula. I recommend kicking your journey off just north of Sturgeon Bay and following State Highway 57 north along the eastern side of the Peninsula to Northport and Gills Rock at the very tip. Then head south on State Highway 42 to relish views of the bayside of Door County. You’ll be “ooh’ing” and “aah’ing” the entire way!

Southeastern Wisconsin

Lake Michigan Circle Tour – Learn More

Created in 1988, the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, is a designated scenic road system that links all five Great Lakes plus the St. Lawrence River. Here in Wisconsin, the LMCT traces Highway 41 south to Interstate 43 in Green Bay and from there, the route runs up to the Door Peninsula along highways 57 and 42. You’ll then make your way to Port Washington and briefly follow Highway 32.

Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive – Learn More

The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is a designated scenic route that connects the southern and northern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Bursting with picturesque panoramas galore and historic glaciated areas, the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is a 115-mile adventure that begins at Whitewater Lake in southeastern Walworth County.

Upon leaving Walworth County, you enter Jefferson County, home to Glacial Drumlin State Trail in Helenville. Next, make your way to Waukesha County, where you’ll be tempted to hike the Lapham Peak Unit of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. If you have kiddos on board, they’ll love Old World Wisconsin in Eagle. Continuing on to Washington County, where you’ll be amazed by the views provided by Holy Hill in Hubertus. Rounding out the trip are forays through Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties, the latter of which claims Wade House, a former stagecoach inn and one of Wisconsin’s 12 official historic sites.

You’ll be amazed by the views Holy Hill offers. [Photo by @midwest_explorer, Instagram]
You’ll be amazed by the views Holy Hill offers. [Photo by @midwest_explorer, Instagram]


Southwestern Wisconsin

Highway 35 – Learn More

Perhaps the state’s most notorious thoroughfare for fall foliage seekers, the Great River Road—also known as Highway 35—is a national scenic byway and for very good reason. Road trippers will love riding 250 miles through 33 charming towns on Ol’ Man River. Beginning north in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, make your way through the river towns of Prescott, Diamond Bluff, Hager City, Bay City and Maiden Rock in Pierce County. Next—don’t blink! You’re driving through Wisconsin’s smallest county, Pepin County. Cross the Chippewa River and you’re in Buffalo County, home of Nelson, Alma, Buffalo City, Cochrane and Fountain City, where you’ll pass the entrance to Merrick State Park.

Fountain City in Buffalo County is one of 33 river towns along the Great River Road. [Photo by Steve Kessenich]
Fountain City in Buffalo County is one of 33 river towns along the Great River Road. [Photo by Steve Kessenich]
You’ll encounter the teeny tiny communities of Centerville and Trempealeau in Trempealeau County. Keep on to Holmen, where you may want to consider making a pit-stop to explore the Van Loon Wildlife Area and the McGilvray Bridges. Continuing on the Great River Road, you’ll drive from the small settlement of Midway and home of the Great River State Trail to the beautiful town of Onalaska, “Sunfish Capital of the World.” The city of La Crosse is your last stop in La Crosse County on Highway 35 and represents the largest community located on the Great River Road. Vernon County is stunningly beautiful; here’ll you’ll pass through the towns of Stoddard, Genoa and Victory.

The city of La Crosse is your last stop in La Crosse County on Highway 35. [Photo by Gary Flohr]
The city of La Crosse is your last stop in La Crosse County on Highway 35. [Photo by Gary Flohr]
The final and most southern stretch of Wisconsin’s segment of the Great River Road includes Crawford County from De Soto down to Prairie du Chien. Definitely take some time to explore Wyalusing State Park. Finally, explore Grant County from Wyalusing down to Kieler, Wis.

Highway 171 – See Map

Highway 171 is a 35-mile route that runs in southwest Wisconsin from Ferryville to Boaz. [Photo taken in Boaz by Ricki Bishop]
Highway 171 is a 35-mile route that runs in southwest Wisconsin from Ferryville to Boaz. [Photo taken in Boaz by Ricki Bishop]
Highway 171 is a 35-mile route that runs in southwest Wisconsin from Ferryville to Boaz. In Ferryville, make your way to the observation deck for a beautiful vista across Lake Winneshiek, an expanded region of the Mississippi River created by the Lynxville dam. Hit the road for 15 miles and make a stop at Sunrise Orchards for their famous apple cider doughnuts. From Gays Mills to Boaz, enjoy the glorious countryside views of rural Wisconsin.

Highway 113 – See Map

Take a trip down Highway 113 to Gibraltar Rock County Park in Lodi for gorgeous views this fall. [Photo by Stacey Meanwell]
Take a trip down Highway 113 to Gibraltar Rock County Park in Lodi for gorgeous views this fall. [Photo by Stacey Meanwell]
Running north-south through the counties of Dane, Columbia and Sauk, Highway 113 is a wonderful way to see fall color from Madison to Baraboo. You’ll depart Dane County and make your way to Gibraltar Rock County Park in Lodi for gorgeous views this fall. Travel a couple more miles and you’ll need to cross the Wisconsin River so drive aboard the (free) Merrimac Ferry, the last ferry in the Wisconsin state highway system. On your way to Baraboo, don’t continue without stopping at one of Wisconsin’s most beloved parks: Devil’s Lake State Park. Take lots of pics!

 

Love road trips? In search of even more routes? Read 8 Amazing Scenic Drives in Wisconsin.

 

Mariah Haberman hosts the nation’s longest-running tourism TV show, Discover Wisconsin. She hails from Evansville, where she was brought up in a family of seven in a small farmhouse outside of town. Some of her favorite memories include Lake Michigan fishing trips with her Dad, showing sheep at the Rock County Fair and buzzing around the farm on an ATV with her little brother. Watch Discover Wisconsin Saturdays at 10 a.m. on FSN Wisconsin’s outdoor block. (Twitter: @DiscoverWI)

 

 

 

3 Responses to “Best Road Trips for Fall Foliage in Wisconsin”

  1. Ann Daley

    My husband and I drive the northern half of the Kettle Moraine Forest every year. It’s beautiful.

    Reply
  2. Christine Paape

    So beautiful thanks , we will take you up on some of these trips.

    Reply
  3. Lynn Bird

    My husband and I owned a cottage in Sayner, WI for many years. We enjoyed the fishing and the beauty was unbelievable. We now reside in Florida which is nice enough just not northern Wisconsin. We love it there.

    Reply

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