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It happens every year, but somehow it never gets old.

Pops of yellow, orange and red begin to dot the trees, like corn popping – a few, slowly at first, then a whole tree, and all of a sudden the hillsides, trails and roads are full of fall color.

And as the leaves pop, leaf peepers hit the road to see them.

With such pursuits come two questions: when and where.

When will the colors be at their peak, and where is the best place to see them?

Only Mother Nature knows the precise answer to the first question. When the leaves change is a product of both sunlight (or lack thereof) and weather: warm days followed by cool, but not freezing, nights equals brilliant reds, while heavy rainfall or an early frost can put a damper on the display.

If conditions are right, however, color in Wisconsin begins appearing in early September and usually peaks anytime from late September to late October, starting in northern Wisconsin and moving south.

The Wisconsin Department of Tourism maintains an online Fall Color Report that’s helpful for chasing peak colors. More than 100 observers contribute to the report, posting updates on how colors are looking in each of the state's 72 counties, including Milwaukee. Sign up for email updates or explore the map at travelwisconsin.com/fall-color-report.

The answer to where to see fall colors is a little easier. While Wisconsin's vast northern forests provide some of the state's best leaf-peeping opportunities, the Milwaukee area still has dozens of spots to take in the changing leaves a little closer to home. From hiking and biking trails to scenic drives and observation towers, here are 15 spots to get you started.

1. Holy Hill 

One of the area's best spots for seeing fall colors, Holy Hill tops 1,300 feet and on clear days offers views extending to Milwaukee, 30 miles southeast. Climb to the top of one of the basilica's towers for an even better view of the changing leaves. Go early on the weekend or on a weekday to avoid crowds: the narrow staircase up the tower backs up on Saturdays and Sundays. 1525 Carmel Road, Hubertus. 

2. Lapham Peak 

Hike among the changing foliage on 17 miles of trails, including the paved, accessible 1.8-mile Plantation Path. Then climb the 45-foot observation tower for sweeping views of Lake Country. W329-N846 County Highway C, Delafield. 

3. Pike Lake 

A spring-fed kettle lake is the namesake of this Kettle Moraine State Forest property, but it's another glacial formation that shines in fall. Follow the orange trail as it winds up Powder Hill, a glacial kame that reaches 1,350 feet, to climb an observation tower for views of the surrounding forest and lake. 3544 Kettle Moraine Road, Hartford. 

4. Schlitz Audubon Nature Center 

The observation tower at this nature center north of Milwaukee boasts views of the area's Great Lake plus more than 185 acres of the surrounding forest and beyond. Six miles of trails wind through the property, which features a variety of landscapes from forests and wetlands to restored prairies and Lake Michigan shoreline. 1111 E. Brown Deer Road, Milwaukee. 

5. North Point Lighthouse 

A historical gem in Lake Park (a great spot for fall colors regardless), North Point Lighthouse is open for tours and climbs up the 74-foot lighthouse tower from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The views of Lake Michigan, the park and downtown Milwaukee are worth the climb. Lake Park, Milwaukee. 

6. Havenwoods State Forest 

The state's only urban forest features more than 200 acres of woods, wetlands and grasslands. Explore more than six miles of trails through the park, including a 2.7-mile loop that circles the property. 6141 N. Hopkins St., Milwaukee. 

7. Grant Park 

The 2-mile Seven Bridges Trail is a favorite at this Milwaukee County Park. Hike through a ravine, blanketed in maple, yellow birch and white ash, then down to the beach for views of the autumn-colored bluffs to the north. 100 Hawthorne Ave., South Milwaukee. 

8. Bald Bluff 

In the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, a steep, half-mile trail leads to the top of this 1,050-foot bluff and views of the surrounding countryside. Feeling extra ambitious? Continue hiking along the bluff to hook up with the Ice Age Trail. Follow it northeast to Stone Elephant, an erratic rock that resembles the head of an elephant. County Highway H, 2.5 miles south of Palmyra. 

9. Parnell Tower  

The 60-foot observation tower here provides terrific views of the surrounding Kettle Moraine State Forest, but don't stop there. Follow the 3.5-mile trail around the hilly glacial terrain surrounding the tower for a more immersive leaf-peeping experience. County Highway U, 0.25 miles west of County Highway A, southwest of Plymouth.

10. Oak Leaf Trail 

This trail lives up to its name, with oaks and other hardwoods framing much of the paved path. Start a fall bike ride at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Follow the trail over Lincoln Memorial Drive and continue pedaling north along the lake before cutting into the city to head northwest. End your nearly 5-mile ride with a stein of beer at Estabrook, another great spot for seeing fall colors.

11. Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive 

A scenic drive is a great way to take in changing leaves. Follow the green acorn signs of this 115-mile route through the colorful Kettle Moraine. The route travels through state forest, rural countryside and small towns stretching from Elkhart Lake to Whitewater. Find directions at dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/kmscenicdrive.html.

12. Ice Age Trail – Monches segment 

This scenic segment of the state's Ice Age Trail travels 3.1 miles through wetlands and hardwood forest along the Oconomowoc River in Waukesha and Washington counties. The forest features large stands of maple that are especially gorgeous in fall. Find the trailhead and parking on Kilbourne Road just west of County E near North Lake.

13. Whitnall Park 

Seven miles of trails wind through this wooded 230-acre Milwaukee County park. Hike the half-mile Woodland Trail Loop, which passes through hickories, oaks and lots of sugar maples, a fall-color favorite that turns yellow, orange and red as the season progresses. Don't miss the waterfall at the northern edge of the park's pond, and stop by the Wehr Nature Center to join naturalist-led hikes and other activities such as the popular Cider Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 4. 5879 S. 92 St., Franklin.

14. Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve 

Most people head to this small park in Ozaukee County for the bluff-top trails that offer stunning views of Lake Michigan. But don't miss the interior trails that pass through a heavily forested gorge covered in a rainbow of colors in the fall. The park is also a great spot for watching raptors during their fall migration. 511 High Bluff Drive, Grafton. 

15. Riveredge Nature Center 

Southeastern Wisconsin's oldest nature center includes 10 miles of trails on nearly 380 acres of woodlands, wetlands and restored prairie in Ozaukee County. The trail along the Milwaukee River is especially beautiful in fall. The nature center also has a unique tree climbing program, which lets visitors with little to no tree climbing experience get up into the colorful canopy. Register for the next open climb (Oct. 8, $35 for non-members) at riveredgenaturecenter.org4458 County Highway Y, Saukville.

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