Picture a small town where goats on a restaurant roof can cause a traffic jam in a county where visitors to its scenic towns often gather around huge outdoor pots to watch traditional fish boils.
It is Door County, a peninsula that separates the calm waters of Green Bay from turbulent waves of Lake Michigan and where the must-take-home items are chocolate covered cherries or cherry pies and the must-visit time of year is fall.
An easy drive from Green Bay’s airport, the route on the way to the Sturgeon Bay, the first vacation town on the peninsula, is dotted with the crimsons, golds and pinksm of changing leaves. And, as TV ads say, “But wait.” The colors keep intensifying, driving northwest along curving roads through picturesque villages.
You don’t have to drive across country to find gorgeous tangerine and magenta vistas. Four easy-to-get-to Midwestern areas, Galena, IL, Geneva and Door County, WI and Bloomington/Brown County, IN, put on a color show that attract leaf-peepers as September merges into October. Sure there is good color throughout the region but these areas also have fun shops and good accommodation choices. You do need to make your reservation now, however, because they are not a secret. Best plan is to go during the week to avoid the crowds.
Tucked into the northwest corner of Illinois at the Mississippi River, the town of Galena ripples down hilly streets and scenic roads. About a three hour drive northwest of Chicago, its hilly terrain is vastly different from Illinois’ Lake Michigan and prairie landscape. Leave time to explore the Galena Territory where every road turn and over every hill there is another photo op and color-filled vista.
Shopping the town’s main street is delicious because there are wine-tasting places and yummy ice cream and candy shops. Check with your accommodations host for restaurants that have your favorite cuisine.
There are lots of good B&Bs in town and even a historic hotel. Or if looking for expansive color vistas consider Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa. Only 6 minutes from the village’s downtown in the Galena Territory, it has lots of room choices so is perfect for a family or girls getaway. Eagle Ridge also has horseback riding, hiking and biking trails and balloon tours.
Nearby, are a stage coach trail, fort and the scenic vistas of Galena’s Jo Davies County. There is usually a balloon, wine or other festival taking place in the area so with all the outdoor recreation and activities around you probably won’t need a book to fill slack time.
Do like Chicago’s upper crust used to do. Drive up to Lake Geneva across the Illinois border into Wisconsin. The town is still filled with estates but also has B&Bs and resorts. About 1 ½ hours north of Chicago, Lake Geneva has been a vacation destination since the 1800s.
Visitors can hear about the estates that border Geneva Lake. The lake here is called Geneva Lake but the town reverses that by calling itself Lake Geneva. Take a boat ride that also delivers the mail pier-side or an evening sunset cruise to hear about the estates or celebrate fall with a glass of wine. The boat excursions are a good way to see some of the grand houses and resorts around the lake away from Lake Geneva. Motor boat rentals are also available.
To get away from the crowd after cruising shops and the lake and to see even more good color vistas, check the Grand Geneva for dinner or accommodations. It is just outside of town and the spa is a destination by itself.
About four hours north of Chicago, the fun and scenic vacation destination of Door County is on a peninsula that pokes like a finger into the waters east of the City of Green Bay. One side of The Door edges the watery way called Green Bay. The other side is lapped by the waves of Lake Michigan.
Bring a bike or rent one. Even though there are no traffic lights once past Sturgeon Bay where a canal allows boat traffic to cross, the car and pedestrian traffic of fall-color aficionados make moving from cute town to quaint town and good shops and restaurants to harbors and forest roads a bit slow on the Green Bay side. Driving the forests on the Lake Michigan side or crossing the peninsula between farms and fields is easier and just as colorful.
Bike or hike Peninsula State Park on Green Bay between Fish Creek and Ephraim. Go camera or smart phone ready to snap a ton of photos to download to Facebook or Instagram. To try whitefish done the Door County way reserve a spot at a restaurant’s fish boil. Tip: check for the annual fall color festival then try to go the week before or after it for better chance at accommodations and restaurant reservations.
About three hours south of Chicago, Brown County’s boutique and arts-filled Nashville (no not TN) and Brown County State Park have arguably been a prime peeper destination long before other regional areas publicized their fall colors.
Possibly, it was because in neighboring Bloomington, which adds golds and oranges to its usual red and white colors, Indiana University students and their parents knew about Brown County’s fall transformation. But you don’t have to go to a football game here or take a class to become immersed in the area’s amazing fall kaleidoscope of color.
A good selection of accommodations can be found in Bloomington and Nashville. Tip: Look up IU’s football schedule so you don’t go that weekend. Better yet, go during the week anyway.
The best part of vacationing in Door County, WI is the way its delightful harbors make you feel you left work and daily stress miles back at the last stoplight.
The county actually begins back a ways on a thumb shaped peninsula that separates Lake Michigan from Green Bay (the body of water, not the city). There are a smattering of stoplights at its southern end.
But once you cross a drawbridge over Sturgeon Bay, a shipping waterway cut across the peninsula to connect Lake Michigan to Green Bay, you enter a world where a curve in the road reveals yet another scenic view and where villages have a few scattered stop signs, not stop lights.
However, to experience the dangerous waters where Lake Michigan waves bump against those from Green Bay that give the peninsula its name, you should drive north about 40 miles from Sturgeon Bay to Gills Rock and then a short distance to Northport. There you would take a ferry across to Washington Island.
Among the stories floating between the peninsula and the island is a tale of how when one native tribe lured another tribe to cross from Washington Island to the peninsula, those who attempted the crossing died in the stormy waters, thus giving the crossing the name Death’s Door.
Safe? Yes, though sometimes the trip can be rocky. But the Washington Island Ferry is so popular the best plan is to check the season’s schedule and get to its departure ramp at Northport ahead of time so there is room for your car.
While exploring look for Island Stavkirke, a recreated 12th century Norwegian church and the Jacobsen Museum of island artifacts.
OK, you’re here, meaning at the Door County room, condo, guest house or cottage or other lodging you booked ahead of time, and you are already gazing out at the quiet blue expanse of Green Bay or the ever changing colors of Lake Michigan.
A little fall travel homework now saves trip stress later on
The signs are there, teasing the Northern US and Midwestern states with nippy air and barely tinged maple and aspen leaves. It’s time to plan a fall color getaway.
But before you pencil in your destination there are a few tips to consider so that fall color fever does not have to be treated with two aspirins a day.
1. Even though weekends may be easier on your work schedule, it won’t be easier on your drive or stay at popular fall destinations.
Do try to go during the week or you will find yourself in bumper to bumper traffic along normally scenic roads, staying at less desirable locations and grabbing “to-go” from a drive-in instead of relaxing at a good local restaurant.
2. Once you have determined where you want to go, take a look at that area’s Convention and Visitors Bureau websites for accommodation listings.
It is OK to call the CVB for suggestions and recommendations. They want visitors to be happy. They may even have a list of places in your price range and that meet your needs that are booked and those with vacancies.
3. Accommodations in popular color destinations are often filled months, sometimes a year, ahead so book as early as possible. Also, broaden your options to include Bed & Breakfasts, condominium rentals and suite hotels.
Remember that a place that may sound pricey but includes breakfast could end up cheaper than somewhere without breakfast. Also a condominium with kitchen facilities may also save on meal costs.
4. Choose an area that has more to do than drive around looking for the best snapshot to post on Facebook or go into the family album. Areas rich in fall color often have additional attractions such as wineries, harvest festivals and art galleries.
Knowing more about an area than its reputation for color may help deciding when and where to go.
5. Whether you have a destination in mind or not, you will have a better idea on when peak color comes if you check a state’s website. States want you to come so they have color watch and color information.
Knowing ahead that color comes the last week in September in one state or area of a state and mid-October in another state or area, will help you schedule your trip.
Here are some Midwestern scenic and color websites sites to check (other states have similar sites):
A vacation in the Elkhart Lake area of Wisconsin can combine a scenic getaway with cooking classes
Imagine preparing 19th century basic but delicious dishes over an open hearth fire and on a wood-burning stove in an 1860’s inn. Or at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, learn slicing and sautéing ala French Classic cuisine in a gleaming, up-to-date cooking school.
Both experiences are in and near Elkhart Lake, a Wisconsin resort town north of Milwaukee.
The experience might start with checking in at the Osthoff Resort, a lakeside property that looks as if it were welcoming guests since Victorian times but was built mid 1990’s. Plan to stay a while. All rooms are suites with balconies, fireplaces and full kitchens.
Staying at the Osthoff means merely walking downstairs to L’ecole de la Maison, a culinary school operated by Chef Scott Baker.
During a recent class, students learned how to make, among other things, Cocquilles St. Jacques and Crepes Suzettes.
The school offers more than a dozen choices ranging from Italian Pastas and Sauces and Summer Soups and Stocks to European Brunch and French Classic.
A one-day L’ecole de la Maison course typically costs $185. The Osthoff Resort, 101 Osthoff Avenue, Elkhart Lake WI 53020, 800-876-3399
However, Elkhart Lake is also about a 15 minute drive to the Wade House, a historic Wisconsin stagecoach inn that has Hearthside dinners and breakfasts where visitors who have signed up ahead of time can learn to cook old-fashioned, hearty meals using century-old style cooking tools and methods.
A recent lunch hear consisted of squash soup, red cabbage with apples, mashed turnips, pork loin roast, bread pudding, cranberry bread and cider cake. A class is $45 a person.
Breakfasts will be offered July through September. Dinner-style lunches will be available Oct. 22 and 29 and November 12.
Tour Wade House before or after the meal. The upstairs still has its small rooms for overnight guests and the rooms used by the inn’s family. Call 920-526-3271 for more information.
Wade House, PO Box 34, W7824 Center Street, Greenbush, WI 53026
It is not too early to plan your fall color excursion. Indeed, it might even be too late if you expected to snag a weekend B&B or hotel room in such popular “leaf peeper” destinations as Door County in Wisconsin, Brown County in Indiana and Bennington and Addison Counties in Vermont.
Those are great fall destinations, but they are not the only places to celebrate nature’s coat of many colors.
Here are some guidelines to fit color around your schedule:
Consider your timeline and be flexible.
Expect color seekers to crowd the roads on weekends so try to schedule your trip for during the week to see more than the back bumper of the car ahead. Early in the week is also best to find a choice of accommodations and restaurants.
Based on past years, towns typically hold their fall fests during a top color weekend but nature’s show usually starts a couple of weeks before and continues a couple of weeks after the festival so you might have better reservation luck just before or after the hoopla.
Try a new destination that will best fit your schedule. To help you, most states have a fall color chart that is updated weekly. Even if the chart does not yet show color the state site usually has suggested color routes and a guide to what shrubs and trees change and when.
The second week of October tends to be prime time almost all across the country from Connecticut to Colorado so to avoid the color jams look north for an early trip or south for a later one.
For an early fall color trip check the color charts put out by cold-weather states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Michigan. Spectacular mid-September color comes to the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, the west end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the woods north of Michigan’s Traverse City.
Trees on the Leelanau and Mission Peninsulas next to Traverse typically pull out the paint tubes late September to early October due to the still warm waters of Lake Michigan and Traverse Bay. The same is true of Door County, a peninsula that sticks out like a thumb into Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
Don’t worry that you missed the show if you can’t get away until the end of October. Look at charts for the southern tips of a state. Leaves tend to change later in the southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri where scenic cliff, rolling hills and meandering waterways add another component to the getaway. Drive from Brown County, Indiana and the Hocking Hills in Ohio south to the Ohio River for late fall color. Or drive through the national and state forests of Tennessee from east to west from October into November.
Do you really just want to see red?
Obvious as it may seem, the hot color spots are related to tree types. Vermont is popular because it is maple country – yeah, maple syrup. However, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois also have an abundance of maple trees. But except for evergreens, you can find forest paths among shades of gold, copper and oranges to make your fall trip a photo odyssey.
Here is a sampling of fall color charts and sites. Please add your favorite fall foliage destination in comments.
Check Federal properties of the US Forest Service or call the US fall color hotline at 1-800-354-4595.