Journey into autumn: Explore Wisconsin's best places to capture the scenic beauty of fall color

Sep. 23, 2013


The sights and sounds of autumn in Wisconsin once again bring a new season of rich color, cool weather and long-held journeys into our wild places to enjoy it all.

Fall begins today, but you’ll have to be patient before you embrace the season’s full color palette.

“I think we should be right on target for full color by the second week in October,” said Cynthia Mueller, a naturalist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at High Cliff State Park in Sherwood.

Each fall season, dozens of websites dedicated to tracking the progress of fall color from north to south across the state begin to tell the story of another autumn.

Families begin to plan their annual fall color trips across the state to follow the parade of color as it marches on. Often, these ritualistic journeys become voyages as colorful and memorable as the trees themselves, as new memories are made and the spectacle of the transforming landscape is seen through new eyes.

Many of the best places to see fall color in Wisconsin are close to home for residents here in the Fox Cities. Enjoy fall this year by visiting one or all of these stunning natural wonders.

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High Cliff State Park

At High Cliff State Park, a variety of different tree species, growing in statuesque form on top of the Niagara escarpment overlooking Lake Winnebago, beckon visitors to this nearby outdoor paradise.

“Colors are just starting to show at High Cliff but it won’t be long before the sugar maples will be bursting with deep lemon yellow to orange colors,” Mueller said.

“We have a great diversity of trees here, with the browns of the white and bur oaks, orange sugar maple, yellow shagbark hickory, red sumac and the most gorgeous red oak you have ever seen.”

One of the best places to see the colors at High Cliff is to visit the old quarry at the top of the hill as the park road forks. Lining the top of the bluff, towering birch, oak, hickory, maple and sumac combine to form one of the most beautiful fall panoramas you’re bound to see anywhere. The brilliant colors, towering over the brilliant white layered limestone bluff, offer stunning scenic beauty.

“Although I love the color in the quarry, and I wait for it every year, I am partial to the oaks in the sand country of central Wisconsin, “ Mueller said, when asked to describe her favorite places to view the beauty of fall.

For more information, visit the Friends of High Cliff State Park at

High Falls Flowage and Marinette County waterfalls

The pristine shorelines of High Falls flowage in Marinette County, as well as the adjoining Caldron Falls flowage, offer some of the most beautiful fall color found in our area. Preserved as the Peshtigo River State Forest and Governor Thompson State Park, the area boasts some of the most spectacular, undeveloped shoreline found anywhere in the state.

Towering granite outcroppings rise a hundred feet or more over the lakes in some areas, layered with swaths of colorful oaks, pines, maples and birch.

Along with a self-guided waterfall tour, which brings you closer to even more pristine scenic beauty, visiting Marinette County is the highlight of the fall foliage season.

For more information on Governor Thompson State Park, visit

For more information on Marinette County waterfalls, visit Click on the Waterfall Tour menu option on the left.

Hartman Creek State Park

The mirrored waters of the many lakes and ponds at Hartman Creek State Park, south of Waupaca set the stage for spectacular fall beauty.

Along the shoreline trails, hike deep into the forest and enjoy the silent beauty of the fall trees reflecting on the smooth, spring-fed waters. Colorful maples, paper birch, oaks and sumac line the shores, along with towering pines, tamarack and shadbush.

Enjoy the fall colors by bicycle at Hartman Creek, one of the best places to enjoy a leisurely bike ride in the area. Rent a paddle boat, canoe or kayak and enjoy the color from the water for an even more amazing autumn experience.

For more information, visit

Navarino Wildlife Area

A weekend walk among the rolling sandhills at Navarino Wildlife Area, surrounded by towering oaks and maples gleaming in brilliant fall color, is a treasured memory of growing up for many Fox Valley residents.

Located just 25 miles north of Appleton, the sprawling Navarino Wildlife Area covers more than 15,000 acres. Towering oaks, maples and pines line the many ridges and valleys, as well as the shorelines of several wild, pristine flowages.

Here it is the oaks and the tamaracks that are the true stars of autumn. Rising from the sandy soils, the towering oaks begin transforming their colors later than many of the other trees. Painting the forest in gold, red, orange and rich caramel brown, the many species of oaks hold their leaves longer in the season as well. Many oaks retain their leaves throughout winter.

The tamaracks come even later, glowing bright golden yellow against the clear blue autumn skies. The tamarack is one of just a few conifers found in our area that sheds its needles each fall. Before it does, however, those needles turn a brilliant brassy gold.

Navarino Nature Center boasts many miles of trails that lead up and down these rolling sandhills.

For more information on Navarino Nature Center, visit

Chain o' Lakes

The vast network of spring-fed, clear water lakes that make up the popular Chain o’ Lakes area is a wonderful place to enjoy the colors of fall in all of their pristine beauty.

From the water, the many channels and open water lakes offer countless vantage points to enjoy the spectacle of fall color as the surrounding shores light up with the reds, golds, oranges and yellows of the season.

Here, too, enjoy the parade of color from the water by pontoon, kayak or canoe and spend a full day traveling the many passageways that lead through the vast network of lakes and bays.

For more information, visit

Horicon Marsh and Ledge County Park

Fall in Wisconsin means Horicon Marsh. For the flavors, sights and sounds of the season, there is no better place to experience the full glory of autumn in Wisconsin than at Horicon. The unmatched scenic beauty of the world’s largest freshwater cattail marsh, combined with the majestic sites of hundreds of thousands of Canada geese filling the air during their annual fall migration is simply breathtaking.

The oak forest uplands, along with hickories and maple, create a vibrant tapestry of color throughout the marshland as well as upon the Niagara Escarpment, which runs along the southern and eastern edge of the marsh.

There are several locations along the escarpment to stop, hike, and enjoy the scenic beauty of the fall colors.

Ledge County Park, located at the southern edge of the marsh is one of the finest, with the towering ledge and surrounding ponds and trailways gleaming with fall color. Up and along the ridge, colorful maples, sumac, birch, aspen, cottonwood, hickory and oak mix and match to create a rich palette of seasonal sensation.

The Oakfield Ledge State Natural Area, which travels south along the Niagara Escarpment from Oakfield, features spectacular natural beauty along the steep limestone ledge. Here caves and crevices in the limestone offer wonderful places to explore among the jagged cliff.

The marsh itself is alive with the awesome fall spectacle of migrating waterfowl. Hundreds of thousands of Canada geese stage here during fall migration, joined by ducks, snow geese, tundra swans, sandhill cranes, American white pelicans, shorebirds and many more bird species.

The many orchards that line the northern and western edges of the marsh offer the perfect fall atmosphere, with fresh apples, bakery goods, hot cider, pumpkins, fall mums and more.

For more information on Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, visit

For more information on Ledge County Park, visit

For more information on Oakfield Ledge natural area, visit

Rib Mountain

One of the oldest geological features on the planet, Rib Mountain, located near Wausau, is a beautiful place to enjoy fall colors. Maples, hickories, oaks and more light up the hillside.

Enjoy the one-of-a-kind thrill of observing the fall colors from the ski lifts riding up the side of the slope at nearby ski hills or simply enjoy the drive through and around the hills and valleys in the Wausau area.

For more information on the Rib Mountain area, visit

Door County

While many people enjoy Door County in summer, the beauty and tradition of exploring this wonderful outdoor destination in fall are not always as well known. However, autumn in Door County is it’s most beautiful season.

Rocky shoreline bluffs, crowned with towering stands of maples, oaks, hickories and ash, reflect off of the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, alongside towering, picturesque lighthouses.

Many rustic roads and scenic drives lead up and down the peninsula, as well as criss-crossing from the east side to the west side, offering fall color watchers unlimited access to the blazing rural landscape found here.

Several state parks and scenic natural areas beckon exploration, including Potawatomi State Park, Whitefish Dunes State Park, Newport State Park, Rock Island State Park, Peninsula State Park, Cave Point County Park and the Ridges Sanctuary.

“I particularly love Door County in the fall,” said Sally Marchel Handrich of Waupaca, “because they decorate for the season so nicely, with each street corner adorned with mums, ornamental cabbage and kale, scarecrows, asters and other fall decorations. It’s also festival time. Apple Festival in Sister Bay, Art Fair in Ephraim, where I mostly enjoy it for crafts. One of my favorites from the past is the Pumpkin Patch festival in Egg Harbor. All of these happen in October.”

For more information on Door County, visit

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