Bid Farewell to Summer with These Fall Foliage Drives from Chicago

Chicago Fall Foliage Drive

That chill in the air signals the end of summer. Fortunately, nature offers a nice antidote to packing away the grill and the beachwear: the brilliant display of golden yellows, fiery oranges and deep reds as the leaves change.

According to the Illinois State Climatologist’s Office, our recent weather — sunny, mild daytime temperatures, with cool, but not freezing, nights — trigger leaf changes.

Fall colors only last a few weeks, and the areas in our region usually hit their peak color around the middle of October, according to

Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota’s tourism departments all offer suggested routes for taking in the beautiful colors. So pack up the kids and car, and take a drive to enjoy fall in the Midwest. Don’t forget the fun diversions along the way, including apple picking, hayrides and festivals.

Wisconsin: Lake Geneva

Wisconsin’s Fall Color Report provides updates on the progress of changing leaves for every county in The Badger State. The state’s Department of Tourism also offers suggestions for scenic drives to take in fall color, from short trips just over the Illinois border to excursions to Door County and parts closer to Minnesota.

For a day trip from the Chicago area, a drive to Lake Geneva takes about two hours — less time from the northern suburbs — even with the construction on I-94. The Grand Geneva Resort suggests several routes for checking out the changing leaves of the maple, black walnut and witch hazel, including a short drive that circles the lake.

If you want to stretch your legs, the Geneva Lake Shorepath Walk offers 21 miles of public trails that take you through the backyards of mansions along the lake’s shore. estimates the “peak week” in the Lake Geneva area to be the second week of October.

Michigan: New Buffalo, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor

Head east from Chicago on I-94, and a two-hour drive puts you across the border in Michigan. lists more than 25 fall color tours across the state, but if you’re looking for a day trip from Chicago, try the area around New Buffalo, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. This portion of the state’s fall foliage, including Red Oaks, Witch Hazel, Ironwood and Sugar Maple, is best viewed in mid- to late October.

The suggested route for the New Buffalo trip is a 170-mile loop around southwest Michigan, up the shoreline and across the rolling hills of the interior part of the state. You could easily cut the drive to a shorter stretch up I-94 and the Red Arrow Highway to experience stops for wine tasting, state park hikes, apple picking and antiquing.

Minnesota: Mississippi River Valley

Lake Superior

Seven hours from Chicago you can adventure along the North Shore of Lake Superior.  Photo By: Ed Menendez via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

To make a weekend out of fall foliage viewing, a drive to Minnesota’s Mississippi River Valley might be just the trip. It’s about a six hour drive from Chicago, on I-90 most of the way.

The route along U.S. 61N, between Red Wing and LaCrescent, features hillsides full of elm and maple trees, scenic overlooks to view the leaves, and roadside apple stands, according to The site says leaves here usually peak near mid-October.

If you’re up for a longer haul — about a 7-hour drive from Chicago — check out the route along the North Shore of Lake Superior. The stretch from Duluth to Grand Portage has been named an “All American Drive” — one of only 15 in the country known for its scenic views, according to Color here usually peaks in mid-September to early October.


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