Waterfalls, bluffs and a Great Lake: 3 fall drives in Wisconsin
Scenic drives are as quintessentially fall as cider and pumpkins.
Especially in Wisconsin, where a drive almost anywhere brings a whir of red, orange, yellow and green.
Even as the trees become more bare moving into winter, a road trip is a great chance to see some of Wisconsin's unique topography that's usually obstructed by foliage.
Here are three drives worth considering if you're looking for a scenic getaway this fall.
Link three stellar state parks packed with waterfalls on this drive through Wisconsin's Northwoods. This road trip is great no matter the season: fall brings changing leaves, winter brings smaller crowds and frozen cascades.
Start at Copper Falls State Park outside Mellen, where the park's namesake drops 30 feet over the black-red rock of the Bad River Gorge. The more robust Brownstone Falls is nearby at the confluence of the Bad River and the Tyler Forks, a tributary.
Both are made more dramatic by the sometimes 100-foot craggy cliffs of the gorge.
Note that the trail to access the falls is a nature trail, so pets are not allowed.
From Mellen, head southwest along County Highway GG through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. In fall, you might hear the distant bugle of an elk. The animals are native to Wisconsin, but were extirpated by the late 1800s due to overhunting and changes to their habitat. In the '90s, they were reintroduced in the Clam Lake area and now number around 165.
Continue west through the forest along County Highway M and turn north on Highway 63 at Cable. In Drummond, turn north onto Forest Road 35 and head 10 miles north to the Delta Diner, a restored 1940 Silk City diner in the forest (open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. until burgers are gone or 7 p.m. Monday).
Enjoy inventive twists on diner classics, but don't linger too long: more waterfalls await to the west at Amnicon Falls State Park.
Follow County Highway H northwest to Iron River, then follow Highway 2 west.
There's a waterfall on every bend of the Amnicon River through this state park southeast of Superior. Trails and bridges let you get close to more than seven of them, including the namesake that tumbles above and below a picturesque covered bridge.
Amnicon's waterfalls are impressive for their quantity, but the waterfalls at Pattison State Park to the west have them beat on size.
From Amnicon Falls, signs will take you about 15 miles southwest to Pattison, home to the state's tallest cascade and the fourth highest waterfall east of the Rockies, Big Manitou Falls at 165 feet. A short walk leads to two observation areas that provide terrific views from both sides of the river.
The park is also home to Little Manitou Falls, a smaller waterfall at 31 feet but with trails that allow a closer look than Big Manitou.
You can hike between the two waterfalls — a 3-mile round-trip via the Beaver and Little Manitou Falls trails — or drive down Highway 35 and park at Little Manitou.
All three parks have campgrounds with sites open year-round. Superior also has lodging and dining options, including the Thirsty Pagan Brew Pub, where the pizza is complemented by a range of beers, including a number of superb sours.
Forested hills ablaze in the colors of autumn, towering bluffs framed by the changing leaves, historic towns — this road trip has it all.
From Madison, head west along Highway 18, then south on County Highway PB to tiny Paoli.
The town has a handful of galleries and quirky shops (CLUCK the Chicken Store, anyone?), plus a couple of dining options including the Paoli Schoolhouse Shops & Café.
Continue south on PB to Highway 69, then follow that west and south to New Glarus, where you'll find a town proud of its Swiss heritage and namesake beer. Sip the latter at New Glarus Brewing Co. perched on a hill south of town before heading south to Monroe.
Here in Green County (as with many other parts of Wisconsin), cheese reigns supreme. Pause for a taste of one of the county's most pungent offerings, Limburger, at Baumgartner's. Monroe's Chalet Cheese Company is the only place in the country that makes the stinky cheese.
Bartenders at Baumgartner's in Monroe demonstrate how they add dollar bills to the bar and cheese shop's ceiling.
Time is short and the best views of the drive are yet to come. From Monroe, follow Highway 11 west through a handful of small towns to Highway 61, then turn north toward Kieler.
The town marks the southern gateway to Wisconsin's segment of the Great River Road, a national scenic byway that hugs the Mississippi River for 250 miles north to Prescott.
Sometimes the road drifts inland, other times it snakes between the bluffs that line the mighty river, all while passing through more than 30 small towns with their own attractions.
The road bustles with traffic in the summer and fall, drawing leaf-peepers from Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Crowds die down in the winter, and some businesses do shut down for the season, so be sure to call ahead if you plan to visit in the off-season.
Following Highway 61 north to Highway 133 and turn west toward Potosi. There, stop to admire the world's largest cone-top beer can, a yellow Good Old Potosi beauty, before heading into the brewery for a more human-size one. The brewpub is adjacent to the National Brewery Museum, home to a large collection of brewing memorabilia and artifacts, including dozens of cone-top cans like the one outside.
From Potosi, continue following the Great River Road (Highway 133) north to Cassville. Divert off the road and onto County Highway VV to stretch your legs at Nelson Dewey State Park. The small state park offers stunning views of the river from observation areas on a few short hiking trails.
Retrace your route back through Potosi to Dickeyville and pick up Highway 151 heading northeast.
The highway cuts through the bluffs of the area, revealing their layered, white insides.
Those rocks were shaped into homes and businesses in Mineral Point in the middle of the 19th century, and today the historic buildings house artist galleries, shops, restaurants and exhibits on the past at Pendarvis, a state historical site.
North of Mineral Point, follow Highway 23 north through Dodgeville to Governor Dodge State Park.
Drive through the forested hills of the large park, and stop to hike some of the trails. The short Stephens Falls trail is a good option and leads to a small, 20-foot waterfall. The trail is paved and accessible to an overlook above the cascade, where rustic stairs lead to its base.
There's one more park on the agenda, so continue east on Highway 151 to Blue Mounds. Drive up the hill into Blue Mound State Park to climb its two observation towers for views from the highest point in southern Wisconsin.
The ocean-like expanse of Lake Michigan serves as a dramatic backdrop for a scenic drive.
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is as it sounds: a 1,100-mile drive around the Lake Michigan shoreline.
In Wisconsin, the route takes you through Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Manitowoc on its way up to Green Bay and the Door County peninsula, then up into Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Combine a modified circle tour along the lake with a drive back to Milwaukee through the Kettle Moraine for a nice fall road trip.
From Milwaukee, the official tour route follows I-43 to Grafton, then Highway 32 to Port Washington where the route rejoins I-43.
North of town, divert off the interstate onto County Highway D to visit Harrington Beach State Park in Belgium. Hike along one mile of Lake Michigan shoreline, or stroll through the changing leaves around Quarry Lake.
Back on I-43, continue north to Sheboygan, where the tour follows Highways 28 and 42 through the town.
You could hop back on the interstate, or follow Lakeshore Road for a more scenic and leisurely drive north to Manitowoc and Two Rivers.
The two towns are linked by a great bike trail right on the lake, the 6-mile Maritime Trail.
A short jaunt through city streets in Two Rivers will bring you to Point Beach State Forest, which boasts 6 miles of sandy Lake Michigan shoreline.
The park also has a working lighthouse (no tours), and 11 miles of hiking trails through a forested ridges and swales topography, including five miles of the Ice Age Trail.
Look for the golden hue of the tamarack on one of the swales (low points) late in the fall. Tamaracks masquerade as evergreens but are actually a coniferous tree with needle-like leaves that change and drop in the fall.
From Manitowoc, head back to Milwaukee via a more inland route, first along Highway 151 then Highway 67 through Elkhart Lake, Plymouth and the Kettle Moraine State Forest's northern unit.
At the northern end of the forest, stop at the Parnell Tower off County Highway A, which is also part of the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive.
A short hike leads to the observation tower, which offers terrific views of the surrounding forest from above. The tower also has an access trail to the Ice Age Trail for more hiking.
On the Road: 16 road trips through Wisconsin's 72 counties