25 Ultimate Fall Drives

State Sanatorium Bridge
Photo: Ackerman + Gruber

Our all-time favorite drives deliver memorable scenery, towns, restaurants and lodgings. You'll see familiar routes, plus a few surprises.

01 of 24

Indiana: Arts Road 46

Indiana: Arts Road 46
Brown County State Park. John Noltner

Just 40 miles on State-46 separate Bloomington (great food), Nashville (quaint crafts shops) and Columbus (fascinating architecture), but they're some of the prettiest in Indiana. The drive passes harvest-gold farmland and thickly wooded Brown County State Park; allow at least a day per town.

Tip: The portion of the highway described above (dubbed Arts Road 46) is a tourism magnet for good reason, but we also enjoyed the less-traveled stretch of State-46 east of Columbus. Old German farms dot the hills, and picturesque churches host fried-chicken fund-raisers nearly every weekend.

02 of 24

Illinois: Northwest Illinois Loop

Illinois: Northwest Illinois Loop
Mississippi Palisades State Park. Clint Farlinger

If your fall plans include a shopping weekend in Galena, make time for a fresh-air escape to the state parks and recreation areas outside town. You can see all of these on a 4-hour loop drive from Galena: Mississippi Palisades for river views, White Pines Forest for thick groves, Lowden Memorial for The Eternal Indian (aka Black Hawk) statue and Lake Le-Aqua-Na for trail rides. Road trip stop: ice cream at Freeport's Union Dairy, next to the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate.

03 of 24

South Dakota: Black Hills

Needles Highway Custer State Park South Dakota
Needles Highway. Ackerman + Gruber

Most Midwesterners have to commit at least a week of vacation time to reaching and exploring western South Dakota's squiggly, wiggly scenic-drive paradise. Trust us. It's worth it. The Black Hills and Badlands put the West in Midwest: hairpin turns, alpine creeks, towering rock formations, mountain goats, not to mention Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Jaw-dropping scenery abounds throughout the region, but everyone should drive these scenic byways: the 70-mile Peter Norbeck, 20-mile Spearfish Canyon and the 31-mile Badlands Loop. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway includes the legendary Needles Highway.

04 of 24

Indiana: Covered Bridge Tour

State Sanatorium Bridge
Ackerman + Gruber

Parke County (aka the Covered Bridge Capital of the World) has 31 historic bridges, many built in the 1800s and still in use. They're especially charming nestled amid fall foliage, and autumn is a great time to hike or go on a horseback ride at Turkey Run State Park. Well-marked driving routes, each about 30 miles long, make finding the bridges and exploring easy.

During the Covered Bridge Festival in October, vendors and artists set up booths in Bridgeton, Mansfield, Rockville and other towns. Yes, it's crowded—book rooms early—but we like the lively atmosphere in this normally sleepy area.

05 of 24

Minnesota: Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway

Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway, Minnesota
Rushton, Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway.

The Root River State Trail draws bicyclists to southeast Minnesota, but the river valley looks just as pretty from State-16 on a stretch known as the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway. Trees blanket rolling hills, and quaint towns line the 88-mile byway. Visit Laura Ingalls Wilder sites in Spring Valley, stay at one of many B&Bs in Lanesboro, and order a wedge of rhubarb custard pie at the Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan.

In Harmony, just 8 miles south of the byway, tour Niagara Cave, or check out the orchards (and Mississippi River views) along the winding Apple Blossom Scenic Byway, which forks off State-16 in La Crescent.

06 of 24

Kansas: Flint Hills Scenic Byway

Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie, Kansas
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Blaine Moats

How do you experience autumn in a land of few trees? Along the Flint Hills Scenic Byway, you watch grasses that ripple like an ocean fade from vibrant green to tawny brown. You peer through binoculars to cross a coot off your birding list. And through it all, you have the tingly satisfaction of knowing this swath of prairie looks just as it did when pioneers crossed Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail.

Among Kansas' Western-flavored towns, Swedish-settled Lindsborg (a couple hours west of the Flint Hills Scenic Byway) stands out. Be sure to buy a colorful souvenir Dala horse.

07 of 24

Michigan: Tunnel of Trees

Michigan: Tunnel of Trees
Tunnel of Trees. Brian Confer

We asked on social media, and you answered with surprising unanimity: M-119, better known as the Tunnel of Trees, is your favorite Midwest fall drive. Gold-dappled boughs arch over the deliciously curvy road snaking north of Harbor Springs, following Lake Michigan for 20 miles. (A few minutes more, and you enter Wilderness State Park.)

In Good Hart, shop at arty-rustic shop Primitive Images, and in Cross Village, dig into a hearty Polish meal at quirky Legs Inn.

08 of 24

Illinois: Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway

Illinois: Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway
Matthiessen State Park. Jason Lindsey

White pelicans soar above Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, flapping down to roost in the water. Truth be told, migrating birds might be the biggest concentration of creatures (animal or human) you see along this peaceful 291-mile Illinois Road Road National Scenic Byway in the heart of the state. Explore the riverfront in Peoria, and pick pumpkins at Boggio's.

Visit with costumed interpreters on Illinois and Michigan Canal boat tours, take a fall-color hike at Starved Rock State Park or explore quiet Matthiessen State Park.

09 of 24

Minneapolis: Grand Rounds Scenic Byway

Grand Rounds Scenic Byway Minneapolis
David Nevala

The nation's only urban scenic byway starts in downtown Minneapolis and loops 55 miles around the city, linking lakes, parks and vibrant neighborhoods. You can experience the route in pieces, jogging around Lake Harriet or taking the kids to Minnehaha Falls, but driving it all in a day is a true escape—without leaving city limits.

The Grand Rounds includes the Mississippi riverfront. Mill City Museum has immersive history exhibits, and the Old Stone Arch Bridge beckons for strolls. Enjoy downtown views and memorable breakfasts at the Nicollet Island Inn.

10 of 24

Mississippi River Valley: Great River Road

Mississippi River Valley: Great River Road
Mark Twain statue in Hannibal. Jason Lindsey

From its burbling start at Itasca State Park in Minnesota to its languid terminus in the Delta, the 2,000-plus-mile Mississippi River carries a nation's worth of history, culture and lore in its muddy waters. Mark Twain (whom you'll "meet" in Hannibal, Missouri) wrote that the river he knew was "as tranquil and reposeful as dreamland." How much has it changed? We'll leave that for you to discover.

Savor sweeping views from parks along the Great River Road byway, which runs the full length of both sides of the river. Our faves include Perrot State Park in Wisconsin, Frontenac State Park in Minnesota and Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.

11 of 24

Michigan: M-22 color tour

Michigan: M-22 color tour
M-22. Ryan Donnell

A single highway, M-22, traces the Lake Michigan shore up from Manistee, around the Leelanau Peninsula, then back down to Traverse City-116 gorgeous miles in all. The scenery on this drive flits between idyllic towns and breathtaking vistas of 300-foot golden sand dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore crowned with an autumn cap of red, green and gold leaves.

Tip: Northern Michigan's rich soil and lake-tempered climate make for fantastic local wine and produce. Look for roadside fruit stands with the final harvest of heirloom tomatoes and squash-or the first of pears and apples.

12 of 24

Missouri: Wineries Trails and Tours

Missouri's Stone Hill Winery, Hermann
Stone Hill Winery. Courtesy of David Bishop and Stone Hill Winery

Fall arrives late and lingers along the Hermann Wine Trail, a compact drive along State-100 west of St. Louis. German-founded Hermann has a wine tradition dating back almost 175 years. Enjoy a German meal at Stone Hill Winery's Vintage 1847 Restaurant, and treat yourself to a stay at the Inn at Hermannhof, where the Hillside Cottages offer bird's-eye views of town.

Tip: Pack your bike! The Katy Trail goes right by Hermann as it follows the Missouri River across the state.

13 of 24

Wisconsin: Door County Circle Tour

Things to Do in Door County--Peninsula State Park
Peninsula State Park. Courtesy of Destination Door County

A geographic quirk—70 north-south miles of narrow peninsula—means autumn stretches for weeks here. Fall color creeps down Door County like mercury in a thermometer, from Washington Island in mid- to late-September to Green Bay in October. The Circle Tour links galleries, orchards, lighthouses, state parks, shops and, yes, those famous fish boils, whose roaring fires and steaming potatoes are extra-enticing on chilly fall nights.

Tip: If you would rather enjoy the scenery without focusing on the road ahead, a variety of trolley and boat tours highlights fall color.

14 of 24

Ohio: Ashtabula County

Ashtabula County, Ohio
Benetka Covered Bridge.

In fall, frosty whitecaps splash along the Lake Erie shore, sending visitors scuttling inland-just in time for leaf peeping and wine tasting. Make The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake your base camp and head out on drives that lead to 18 covered bridges, as well as many of the area's family-run wineries. The Covered Bridge Festival in October celebrates the region's rural beauty and history.

Tip: If you try to see every bridge, expect to drive a lot and find yourself on a few dirt roads. It's a fun quest, but many visitors stick to the wineries and enjoy whatever bridges happen to be nearby.

15 of 24

Wisconsin: Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive

Wisconsin: Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive
Holy Hill Basilica. Kevin J. Miyazaki

In the 1940s, residents of the glacier-formed hills between Madison and Milwaukee envisioned a scenic drive that would draw city folk to the region's state parks and forests. Today, ubiquitous green acorn signs for Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive make navigation a snap. Highlights of this scenic drive include a hike up Bald Bluff, a romp through history at Old World Wisconsin and a climb to the top of Holy Hill Basilica.

The posh town of Delafield adds a splash of variety along an otherwise woodsy route. Stylish shops and galleries fill Colonial-style storefronts, and the chic restaurant Zin serves California-Italian cuisine worth a drive.

16 of 24

Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ontario: Circle Tour

Chapel Rock, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Upper Peninsula Michigan
Chapel Rock, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Aaron Peterson

The world's largest freshwater lake looks different every day: blue, gray, choppy, glassy, intimidating, exhilarating. The legendary 1,200-mile drive that loops Superior has just as many personalities: arty, woodsy, upscale, blue-collar. Whether you travel with a tent in your trunk or hop inn to inn, savor the variety—and bring a passport for entering Canada.

The quality of food can get patchy along the Circle Tour, but you'll find some of the Midwest's best restaurants, too. Nosh on fresh-caught fish and chips (served on local pottery) at the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, Minnesota. In Bayfield, Wisconsin, indulge in an elegant feast at the Rittenhouse Inn's Landmark Restaurant.

17 of 24

Missouri, Kansas: Kansas City Scenic Escape

Missouri, Kansas: Kansas City Scenic Escape
Jackson Park Overlook, Atchison. Harland J. Schuster

This mellow ribbon of a drive never strays more than an hour from the Kansas City metro, but surrounded by picturesque farms and small towns, you'll never know KC is so close. Follows State-45 from Parkville to Weston, where a slew of shops line Main Street and Weston Bend State Park is a nice place to stretch your legs. Take State-92 and finally US-73 to Atchison, home of the new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum, a tribute to the aviation legacy of this Atchison native.

This drive makes an easy day trip but can stretch into a leisurely weekend. Stay at the gracious Murphy House bed-and-breakfast in Weston.

18 of 24

Iowa: Historic Hills Scenic Byway

Iowa: Historic Hills Scenic Byway
Des Moines River at Bonaparte, Iowa. Jason Lindsey

Autumn color paints the valleys and family farms between the Villages of Van Buren County, seven historic burgs punctuating this quiet 105-mile drive along the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa. During the Scenic Drive Festival, craft vendors and friendly pancake feeds add to the small-town appeal.

In Bentonsport, the husband-wife team of Bill and Betty Printy (aka Iron and Lace) draw scores of art-lovers with her Queen Anne's lace pottery and his hand-forged metal pieces. Watch them work during the fest.

19 of 24

Michigan: Copper Country Trail National Byway

Keweenaw Peninsula. Bob Stefko

More than 150 years ago, a copper boom drew thousands to the Keweenaw Peninsula, a mountainous thumb sticking out of the Upper Peninsula into Lake Superior. Visiting the small-town museums, ghostly mines, fort and lighthouses along this 47-mile byway, you can't help but admire the miners' grit and ambition for settling in such a remote land. A 9-mile offshoot, the Brockway Mountain Drive, offers spectacular views.

We love the UP's iconic meat-and-veggie pasties, but we found fancier fare, too. Try cedar-planked trout at the Michigan House Cafe and Red Jacket Brewing Co. in Calumet or feast on at Jäger Schnitzel at Harbor Haus in Copper Harbor.

20 of 24

Ohio: Ohio and Erie Canalway America's Byway

Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Randall L. Schieber

The trails, scenic railway and waterfalls of Cuyahoga Valley National Park are the autumn stars along this newer national byway in northeast Ohio, but the 110-mile route, which snakes south from Cleveland, also includes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. On fall weekends in Canal Fulton, a horse-drawn boat plies the byway's namesake.

Like the opposing pole to Cleveland's urban bustle, the sleepy, beautifully preserved village of Zoar hides quietly at the southern end of the drive. Walking tours and museums highlight the town's Utopian history.

21 of 24

Iowa: Loess Hills National Scenic Byway

Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek, Iowa. Ginger Crichton

More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers receded and left finely ground silt and sand that wind blew into vast mounds—the Loess Hills. The grass- and tree-covered ridges follow western Iowa's state line. Keep in mind, you don't need to drive the whole 220-mile national scenic byway to get a taste of the scenery. Popular destinations include Preparation Canyon State Park, Waubonsie State Park, Loess Hills Lavender Farm and Hitchcock Nature Center.

22 of 24

Missouri: Arcadia Valley

Elephant Rocks State Park
Elephant Rocks State Park. Courtesy of VisitMo.com

The hills, hollows, caves and springs of the Missouri Ozarks all promise great fall drives. We like an Arcadia Valley route that features memorable state parks as well as historic Civil War sites and solid choices for dining, lodging and shopping. Build your trip around three state parks with distinctive features: pink boulders at Elephant Rocks, mountaintop views at Taum Sauk and natural wading pools at Johnson's Shut-Ins. The Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site offers details of the 1864 battle as well as the development of the Arcadia Valley.

23 of 24

Ohio, Indiana, Illinois: Ohio River Scenic Byway

Ohio River and Ripley, Ohio, from the Rankin House.
Ohio River and Ripley, Ohio, from the Rankin House.

At the Rankin House, an Underground Railroad site in Ripley, Ohio, visitors stand atop Liberty Hill and look across the Ohio River to the forested hills of Kentucky. In the 1800s, slaves stood on the southern bank and looked across to freedom. Shivers? You bet. Myriad historical sites, leafy state parks and uninterrupted views make the Ohio River Scenic Byway one of the most satisfying river drives in the Midwest.

History defines this 943-mile drive: the Northwest Territory's first settlement in Marietta, Ohio; the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana; Civil War grave sites at Mound City National Cemetery in Illinois; and, yes, Superman kitsch in Metropolis, Illinois.

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Iowa: Amana Colonies and the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway

Amana Colonies

A bucolic harvest landscape unfurls along the 77-mile Iowa Valley Scenic Byway: red barns, hay bales and laundry flapping on clotheslines. A section of the byway loops around the seven historic villages of the Amana Colonies and makes a lovely mini drive. Take your time in Amana for shopping and Wiener schnitzel, then drive on US-6 to Fireside Winery in Marengo for a glass of dry Cordovan by the crackling fire. Snuggle in for the night at the Hotel Millright created within the revitalized Amana Woolen Mill complex.

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