The hues of autumn invigorate the soul, especially when they harmonize with other elements of nature and man-made attractions. But prime viewing season is short. Grab your camera and hit the open road to explore Wisconsin’s fall beauty with a drive along one of these three routes.
Within the United States are 150 routes the federal government has designated All-American Roads and National Scenic Byways, because they show off America’s scenic beauty.
Before being considered for the honor, a route must gain state distinction, and that’s what happened in 2010 when the Door County Coastal Byway – about 66 miles that shadow much of the peninsula’s perimeter – was designated a Wisconsin State Scenic Byway.
The route follows highways 42 and 57, starting north of Sturgeon Bay and traveling north to Northport, then south through Baileys Harbor to Jacksonport. Expect deep and abundant leaf color – sumac, maple, birch and oak – especially from Egg Harbor to Fish Creek, Ellison Bay to Northport, and in and near Baileys Harbor.
Those who have visited Door County – Wisconsin’s answer to Cape Cod – know 42 and 57 well. The byway connects the dots between most communities and three of our finest state parks: Peninsula, Newport and Whitefish Dunes.
Outside Sturgeon Bay, veer east onto 57 to explore the Door’s more serene and less-populated side, like The Ridges, a biologically diverse nature sanctuary near Baileys Harbor. The western route along 42 offers a mix of markets, shopping and dining.
While driving, keep in mind that state legislators chose 2010 as the Year of the Niagara Escarpment, a reference to the 1,000 miles of ancient sea bottom that lead (sometimes underwater) from Wisconsin to Niagara Falls. This string of geologically unusual formations (often with steep ledges and cliffs) passes through Peninsula State Park and is most evident along the 2-mile Eagle Trail. Walk it on your own or with a guide, but wear sturdy shoes for this somewhat strenuous 90-minute hike. Afterward, visit the 75-foot-tall Eagle Tower for sweeping views of Green Bay and beyond.
Watch Lake Michigan’s waves crash against limestone walls and caves at Cave Point County Park, north of Whitefish Dunes, and walk the hardwood forests of Newport State Park, the state’s only official wilderness park.
Consider picking up tickets to a show at the Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek, an outdoor venue in a cedar forest that has been entertaining patrons for more than 75 years. Dine elegantly yet leisurely while watching the sun set at the Inn at Kristofer’s in Sister Bay, and end your trip with a stay at the Blacksmith Inn on the Shore in Baileys Harbor, where wild shoreline is just a boardwalk away.
Color typically peaks in early to mid-October, often coinciding with autumn-themed festivals in Egg Harbor and Sister Bay.
Don’t miss: Fruit smoothies and eggs, cheese, potatoes and meat wrapped in cilantrospiked tortillas at Good Eggs in Ephraim, where Joel Bremer keeps track of eight griddle orders at once. You don’t need utensils or big bucks to chow down a hearty breakfast here. Sit at a table made from an old surfboard and enjoy the beach view. Closed in winter. 9820 Brookside Lane, Ephraim; 920.854.6621.
Highway 10: Stockholm to Milladore
The 250-mile Great River Road that hugs the Mississippi River from Kieler to Prescott makes a tremendous drive any time of year, but eventually, you’ll likely need to veer east.
When that occurred to me in Pepin County, Herdie Baisden, co-owner of Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery (W12266 King Lane, Stockholm), was just the guy to help with navigation. He cheerfully sketched a quick map of how to reach U.S. Highway 10 “in an interesting way,” and I was set.
Stock up on his provisions – a bushel of Honeycrisp apples, a bag of Ellsworth cheese curds and a bottle of Scrumpy or Smooch cider, for later – then savor Baisden’s alphabet soup before heading out.
From the winery, it’s a right on County Road E and a left on K, which turns into J. Notice the sign for sweet St. Sophia’s, a liberal Catholic church where women in the group Hot Flashes rehearse bebop on Tuesdays. Nearby is another lovely country church, Sabylund Lutheran, and the neatly tended Mission Covenant Cemetery.
Continue straight as J becomes CC/SS then SS, then turn left on N. This intersection sits at the northern end of the aspen- and oak-rich Tiffany Wildlife Area, where the Chippewa River and Dead and Silver Birch lakes feed a maze of smaller ponds and wetlands.
Continue following N north to Highway 10 at Arkansaw. The engaging hills and curves of this roughly 30-mile trip from the winery bring gentle forms of rural life into full view.
From Arkansaw, venture 120 miles east along Highway 10 to witness the fall harvest of crops while winding through Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Less obvious are expressions of country humor, creativity and opinion. Notice the odd and tidy ceramic lawn art preferences, scrawlings about politics and patriotism, and unique and flamboyant mailboxes.
Roadside art seems as prevalent as the bucolic communities: Mondovi, Strum, Price, Fairchild, Auburndale, Blenker. Their combined populations won’t touch 10,000.
From Mondovi to Price, Highway 10 follows the Buffalo River. The terrain gains more woods and wetlands in Clark County. Best place to stretch: The Highground, near Neillsville. This memorial park honors the sacrifices and survivors of wars through the ages. Sculptures of bronze, granite, stone, stainless steel and more define this 146-acre park. Most fetching is a 125-foot-wide star made of golden sunkist arborvitae shrubs, dedicated to families affected by the consequences of battle. View the living tribute in its entirety from the park’s crest, which also overlooks a wooded area with patches of aspen, pine and tamarack. Four miles of walking trails meander through green ash and white birch in The Highground’s developmental forest.
Resume the drive on Highway 10 to Milladore, then turn north on County Road S and drive 7 miles to the George W. Mead Wildlife Area, where hundreds of bird species chirp and chatter within more than 33,000 acres of swamps, forests and grasslands.
From start to finish, it’s about 150 miles of pure Wisconsin: uncluttered, environmentally rich and especially stunning during the peak of color in early to mid-October.
Don’t miss: Pie by the tin or slice at the original Norske Nook Bakery & Restaurant in Osseo, where waitresses wear Norwegian garb and diners eat lefse wraps any time of day. On the bakery menu is the Northwoods Root Beer Float and 15 other kinds of blue-ribbon pie. We’re talking about the National Pie Championships, not the county fair. 13804 Seventh St., Osseo; 800.294.6665.
Some kettles hold water. Others hold lush vegetation. All are reminders of the glaciers that plowed through Wisconsin millennia ago, leaving remarkable hills and dales that today make for one gorgeous drive, especially in October.
The “Kettles” (Kettle Moraine State Forest) were almost in my back yard during childhood, so it’s easy for me to take these beautiful 50,000 acres for granted. The forest is divided into northern and southern units, stretching into six counties (Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Washington, Waukesha, Jefferson and Walworth). The 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive hits the most awesome parts of it.
The best way to navigate the Kettles is to download DNR directions that contain a dizzying array of local, county and state roads. Green and white road signs also identify the route, much of which follows Highway 67. To grossly oversimplify, pick up this highway near Elkhart Lake and head south, ending near U.S. Highway 12, southeast of Whitewater.
Nothing beats a panoramic view of autumn, so begin by climbing the Broughton Sheboygan Marsh Park Tower, an 80-foot-tall observation deck (Wisconsin’s tallest that is made of wood) that overlooks swampland and the northernmost kettles in Sheboygan County, north of Glenbeulah.
Compare the stands of cedar and tamarack here to what’s visible about 20 miles southwest from the top of 60-foot-tall Parnell Tower, located south of Highway 67 off County U. Mature red oaks reign but basswood, sugar maple and myriad other tree species enrich the view.
Before hiking, consult the nearby Ice Age Visitor Center on Highway 67 to learn about the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail and the 31 miles of it that weave through the Kettle Moraine.
For a more spiritual uplift, tour the basilica on Holy Hill, located on 435 acres near Hubertus, where respectful visitors of all religious affiliations are welcome. Climb the 178 steps up the Scenic Tower on the area’s tallest hill for the best view of the southern Kettle Moraine.
Old World Wisconsin, a state historic site with more than 60 preserved farm and village structures, connects with the change of seasons in a more intimate way. Walk the site’s 600 acres, near Eagle, still beautiful and forested despite suffering tornado damage in 2010. Special events like Autumn on the Farms further deepen your relationship with nature and history.
Linger a little longer in the forest with an overnight stay at Eagle Centre House Bed and Breakfast, a three-story replica of a stagecoach inn 3 miles from the Kettle Moraine’s southern headquarters. Breakfast arrives via candlelight.
Travel writer Mary Bergin of Madison occasionally puts 1,000 miles on her odometer in one week, or less. This article appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Wisconsin Trails.
- Day Out: Nature and history meet at Natural Bridge State Park
- Weekend Getaway: Wassail concerts enliven Rittenhouse Inn
- Day Out: All aboard for great comfort food at Franks (1)
- Wisconsin Christmas tree farms are a festive family tradition
- Winter Getaways: Bayfield bustling with outdoor activities in winter
- A Wisconsin holiday feast
- Hey Blockhead! Aluminum Christmas trees regain their shine (6)
- Wine and cheeseheads a successful pairing
- Winter Getaways: Lakewood ski trails offer rustic, quiet experience
- Weekend Getaway: Wisconsin prime terrain for cross-country skiing (1)