Wisconsin fall hikes that offer picture-perfect views

Peter Watson

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

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Wisconsin in FallKulnisha Studio/Shutterstock

Here’s a round-up 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 I 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.”

I'm 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.

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.

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A winding road in Fall in Door County, WisconsinNejdet Duzen/Shutterstock

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 trees, 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 it offers fall color rides on its ski lift?

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Riding the ski lifts of Rib Mountain in Fall, WisconsinAaron of L.A. Photography/Shutterstock

That means amazing views and far fewer coats, hats, gloves, snow pants and gear. The Granite Peak Fall Color Ski 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. The rides are available for three weekends this fall (Sept. 29-30, Oct. 6-7 and Oct. 13-14) and round trip tickets are $8.

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.

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 icing on the cake.

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Parnell Observation TowerTravel Wisconsin

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, you can 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 Meet 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. I 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.

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The Holy Hill Basilica in WisconsinKeith Homan/Shutterstocl

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 feel like you need more hiking, the Ice Age Trail hooks up to the Kettle Moraine below and offers gorgeous fall color views from solid ground.

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.

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Devil's Lake State Park, WisconsinMarynaG/Shutterstock

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

Take a walk along the Geneva Lake Shore Path for a more leisurely stroll with million-dollar views.

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.

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Geneva Lake in Wisconsin during FallRichard Stockman/Shutterstock

I 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. I won’t tell.

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Peter Watson is a writer, photographer and adventurer. A keen trekker and climber he can usually be found on the trails of the Greater Ranges. He’s visited over 80 countries and is currently focused on climbing the seven summits – the highest mountain on every continent. Four down, three to go... He has also travelled extensively around the US developing a penchant for American backcountry, abandoned buildings and natural wonders en route.

Phoenix, AZ
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