Best Midwest Fall Hikes

Person hiking on trail with colorful yellow leaves

Fall in the Midwest is the perfect time to hit the trails. The mosquitos and summer crowds are mostly gone, wildlife is more abundant and the autumn colors are in full display. So pack some cider or hot chocolate, fill your lungs with fresh air and enjoy the crunching of leaves underfoot. Here are some top destinations near large cities that we recommend:

Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park is a couple hours away from Chicago, IL and the large state park offers 13 miles of well maintained trails that go through various canyons and cliffs. The main trail starts from the visitor center and offers some of the best panoramic views along canyons and the Illinois River. This time of year, the waterfalls from the canyons are mostly dry but the leaves are absolutely gorgeous. One tip is to also go a couple miles southwest to Matthiessen State Park. The bluff trail will take you up and down and offer you a few chances to cross the creek a few times.

Clifty Falls State Park

Clifty Falls State Park is within a two hour drive from both Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Louisville and offers some beautiful fall hiking with waterfalls, creeks, and ravines galore. There are numerous out and back trails that are usually short but more rugged with few steep areas, but you will enjoy the changing colors of the leaves and see the waterfalls. The water volume will depend largely on weather and recent rain but cooler fall temperature makes the hike far easier during this time of the year. One tip if you are adventurous, try hiking the longer 3 mile out and back trail (#2) along the creek bed to see the Big Clifty fall from the bottom. It is considered very rugged due to the rocks of the creek bed and having to hike down and back up with only a few intersections with two other trails. So wear hiking boots, stay hydrated, and keep your eyes out for fossils.

Kohler-Andrae State Park

Kohler-Andrae State Park is straight north of Milwaukee, WI and just under an hour drive. The almost one thousand acre state park is situated next to Lake Michigan and the best hike is the boardwalk trail that gently goes up and down on the rolling dunes. This beautiful trail has blue waters on one side, dune grass all around and plenty of pine and birch trees. Of course the kids will love the beach and there is a pretty decent Nature Center for you to learn more about the local wildlife, history, and dune formation. One tip is they have a fantastic campground for both RV and tent camping so perfect for a weekend trip. Many of the campsites are among towering pines yet plenty of sites offer large spaces for longer RVs and the overall facilities are clean and updated.

Shawnees National Forest

Shawnees National Forest is about 140 miles away from St. Louis and offers a wonderful weekend escape to multi-day excursions. The area includes numerous spots that are well worth exploring. First off, there is Little Grand Canyon where the loop trail will have you go up and down with a few waterfalls to scale up. Giant City State Park has a short trail that will have you wind through rock formations that are nearly vertical and with 90 degree turns. Bell Smith Springs has a combination of both short and long trails along with varying levels of ruggedness. Finally, Garden of the Gods is a must see to truly enjoy the fall foliage from a higher vantage point. The looped trail is mostly paved or you are walking on solid rock and the views are simply breathtaking. Kids and adults have a fantastic time scrambling and taking in the various rock formations from each vista. One tip is to definitely plan for a longer trip as there are countless other stops – Pomona Natural Bridge, Cave in Rock, Heron Pond, Burden Falls, One Horse Gap, Rim Rock trail, and even the town of Metropolis (Superman) to name a few. There are also plenty of fishing and hunting opportunities.

Red River Gorge

Red River Gorge is two hours southeast of Louisville, KY and still boasts the best “wilderness” on our list. It is already well known for its world class rock climbing, but there are also over 70 miles of excellent hiking trails with literally over a hundred arches for you to find. Princess Arch and Chimney Top offer great views and have quick, easy and relatively flat trails from the same parking lot. However, for the more amazing hikes and breathtaking views you will have to trek a little further – Hanson Point will give you sweeping views of the gorge from the other side. Indian Staircase is not for the faint of heart and neither is Cloud Splitter. Auxier Ridge Trailhead will lead you to multiple arches with Star Gap as a favorite. For a change of pace try Creation Falls which is a looped trail with the Rock Bridge Arch near the falls. One tip, while various types of accommodations have grown in recent years, backcountry backpacking beckons from every corner of this beautiful wilderness. Something about the towering cliffs, scenic views, and just being in the wild just refreshes the soul. So we recommend you pack your backpacks and get a permit then go on an adventure.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, each of these places offer some beautiful scenery that is especially so in the fall. We hope it inspires you to get out and hit some trails and experience autumn outdoors!

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