When fall in Wisconsin turns the landscape from vibrant green to a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and yellows, it’s time to grab the camera or smartphone and start hiking. Here’s a roundup of prime locations – from the tops of bluffs to remote lakeshores – that are well worth the hike or climb. The reward at the end is a stunning view and a great photo to remember it.
And once you get your photo, share your scenic vista with other fall hikers by uploading your image to the Travel Wisconsin Fall Color Report.
Interstate Park: The Grandfather of Wisconsin Parks
Head to the town of St. Croix Falls, where Interstate State Park straddles the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Technically, the park exists in both Wisconsin and Minnesota but we think our side is better. As Wisconsin’s oldest state park, people have been visiting since 1900. Hike the Pothole, Summit Rock or River Bluff trails for the best views of the Dalles of the St. Croix. This steep-sided gorge was created after melted water from the Ice Age sculpted the riverside into uniquely carved bluffs. At the observation deck from Pothole or Summit Rock trails, the view looking southwest is of colorful trees, rock formations and water. Keep an eye out for the “old man.” We’re referring to the Old Man of the Dalles, a rock formation carved in the bluffs in the shape of an old man’s face – it’s the Wisconsin version of Mount Rushmore.
Timm’s Hill: Where Hill is an Understatement
How about climbing to the top of Wisconsin for a view of fall color? Timm’s Hill in Ogema is Wisconsin’s highest geographical point. Sitting at 1,951.5 feet above sea level, you can see 30 miles out from the top. In order to get a view from over the treetops, climb 88 steps to the top of an observation tower that sits on the hill. The trek is worth it because at this high altitude you’ll see surrounding glacial hills packed with vibrant trees below. To the north is Timm’s Lake and to the south you can see Placid Bass Lake and High Point Village Resort. If you have a panoramic setting on your camera, you’ll want to use it here.
Door County Coastal Highway: The Long and Winding Road
In this case, the destination is worth the drive, rather than hike. Head all the way up the Door County Peninsula near Gill’s Rock on Highway 42. A Wisconsin Scenic Byway, this stretch of Highway 42 twists and turns like a snake, offering views of winding road and brilliant fall leaves. Photographers love this spot, especially in the fall because the road is dripping with a mixture of northern hardwood, aspen and oak tress, with a few pine trees sprinkled in for a touch of green.
Rib Mountain: Pre-Ski Views
Granite Peak in Rib Mountain State Park is Wisconsin’s largest downhill ski hill. And while Granite Peak is primarily known for its skiing, did you know they offer fall color rides on its ski lift? That means amazing views and far less coats, hats, gloves, snow pants and gear. The Granite Peak Fall Color Sky Comet Ride gives visitors a chance to sit back and enjoy the views of Wausau from the comfort of your own 700-foot elevated chair. When you get to the top, hop off and take a hike around the park. No need to worry, your round trip ticket takes you back down.
Parnell Observation Tower: A Real Vantage Point
The Kettle Moraine State Forest, both north and south units, are popular for fall hiking and scenic drives. In the Northern Unit, a hike to the Parnell observation tower is the candles on the cake. Take the 3.5-mile Parnell tower trail loop to the highest point in the forest where a 60-foot observation tower awaits. At the top of the tower, see 25 miles out. Look south at farmland and rolling hills. Look north for a vast view of forests and glaciated hills in the distance. Look left and you’ll likely see someone enjoying the same view as you.
Perrot State Park: Tall Bluffs Meets Fall Vistas
For one of the most stunning views on the Mississippi River head to Perrot State Park. The park marks the meeting point for the Mississippi River and Trempealeau River and is known for its 500-foot bluffs and views of the surrounding wetlands and riverbank area. But no one said a trip for the best view was easy; there’s climbing involved here. The park offers a variety of trails that will take you to different lookout points. We recommend the views from Brady’s Bluff East and West. Both are under a mile long and when you get to the top, your hard work is rewarded with a stunning view. Make this the spot for your holiday card photo.
Holy Hill Basilica: A View That’s Just Divine
Standing atop the observation deck at Holy Hill Basilica in Hubertus is an almost spiritual feeling. Maybe it’s the view – at 192 feet tall,you’ll see a stunning view of the Kettle Moraine Southern Unit. Or, maybe it’s the history of the location. Holy Hill Basilica was declared a Shrine of Mary in 1903 and in 2006 became a Minor Basilica. History and divinity aside, there’s something to be said about the climb to the top. With 178 steps to the observation tower (the highest point in southeastern Wisconsin), it’s practically a miracle when you make it to the top. Look to the east and make out the Milwaukee skyline 30-some miles away. Look down and see the fall color spreading across the Kettle Moraine State Forest. If you're feeling up to more hiking, check out the Ice Age Trail. While you’re at Holy Hill visit the shrine and chapel and walk the grounds to soak in the entire experience.
Devil’s Lake State Park: Hanging Cliffside
It’s the largest and most popular state park in Wisconsin for a reason. Drive into Devil’s Lake State Park this season and you’ll be blown away by fall color. It starts at the main entrance road with a welcome tunnel of bright gold maple leaves. It’s a favorite photo op spot, but that’s not all. Take either the East Bluff or West Bluff trails for amazing views of the park and the 500-foot tall quartzite bluffs. These rock bluffs are oddly shaped and Devil’s Lake’s signature feature, attracting photographers from all over to capture their unique beauty. And don’t be alarmed if you see someone hanging from the side of a cliff. Rock climbers like fall color too, and this is a popular place to climb.
Geneva Lake Shore Path: A Path with Million Dollar Views
For a more leisurely stroll with the million dollar views, take a stroll along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. The footpath, which stretches for 21 miles around Geneva Lake, offers beautiful views of water and fall colors. But we’re not going to beat around the bush here. We love this path because it gives visitors the perfect opportunity to gawk at the gorgeous mansions that ring the lake. Whether it’s the Lake Geneva Estates, Stone Manor, or the Wrigley Estates, these mansions, with their perfectly groomed lawns and fall color trees, are a sight to make anyone’s jaw drop. Take a photo and tell your friends you won the lottery. We won’t tell.