HID­DEN TRAILS

When the tem­per­a­ture drops and col­ors change, make like Robert Frost: Leave the crowds for a trail less trav­eled by.

Midwest Living - - Contents - WRITER Ti­mothy Meinch

Through old-growth for­est, our path weaves to a pool filled with reds, oranges and yel­lows. Past the leaf-laden water, we dou­ble back and down a gully to find a trick­ling cas­cade from the pool spilling into Pic­tured Rock Cave. Crowns of golden maples peek over the lime­stone walls. We have the space to our­selves. And for a mo­ment, I’m con­vinced we’re the first hu­mans to discover it.

Wyalus­ing State Park is hardly off the grid—just 10 miles out­side Prairie du Chien in south­west Wis­con­sin. Yet its trails can whisk you into lush land­scapes and sandy caves with no peo­ple in sight. Same goes for many of the Mid­west’s lesser-known parks and pre­serves.

No shame for those who hitch onto the car­a­van of leaf-peep­ers at mar­quee state parks like Starved Rock in Illi­nois or In­di­ana’s Brown County. But there’s a special Zen when you get the bounty of fall all to your­self. In Oc­to­ber, choos­ing the road less trav­eled can make all the dif­fer­ence.

1. ST. CROIX NA­TIONAL SCENIC RIVERWAY WIS­CON­SIN AND MIN­NESOTA

When a bare­foot fly-fisher tells of a dis­creet trail­head be­hind a BP gas sta­tion, lis­ten up. In Osce­ola, Wis­con­sin, Si­men­stad Trail tra­verses wooded cliff tops above the St. Croix River and links to other trails. For­est canopy un­furls for miles on both sides of the snaking state bor­der. These short city trails al­low plenty of time to drive (8 miles) to Min­nesota's or Wis­con­sin's In­ter­state State Park for pop­u­lar bluff vis­tas.

BE­YOND THE TRAIL

Sip and cruise with Tay­lors Falls Scenic Boat Tours on the river.

2. GI­ANT CITY STATE PARK ILLI­NOIS

Gi­ant City Na­ture Trail draws a crowd. But reg­u­lars seek the qui­eter Tril­lium Trail. Where di­verse wild­flow­ers mes­mer­ize in the spring, bril­liant hick­o­ries and maples blaze the 2-mile loop in fall. The trail skirts the base of the park’s iconic sand­stone shelves, then stretches above them. South­ern Illi­nois’s plant di­ver­sity spreads au­tumn color over a full month.

BE­YOND THE TRAIL

Pop into the 1930s stone and tim­ber lodge for fried chicken, beer and wine, or cabin rentals.

3.

TUR­TLE MOUN­TAIN SCENIC BYWAY NORTH DAKOTA

Against the Canada bor­der, Tur­tle Moun­tain rises like “a blue jewel on the prairie,” says Glenda Fauske with the North Dakota For­est Ser­vice. An is­land of wood­land in a sea of vast plains, the area sus­tains elk, moose and bears. Af­ter driv­ing 120-plus miles from the near­est in­ter­state, the full 53-mile byway is a must. Head to Lake Metigoshe State Park for He­m­er­ick Point Trail and other lake­side hikes near Tur­tle Moun­tain State For­est.

BE­YOND THE TRAIL

Strad­dle the U.s.-canada bor­der and take pic­tures of mon­u­ments in the In­ter­na­tional Peace Gar­den.

4. FONTENELLE FOR­EST NE­BRASKA

Min­utes south of Omaha, this refuge trans­ports you from rib­bons of in­ter­state to serene old-growth forests, wet­lands and re­stored prairie. Board­walks from the Na­ture Cen­ter draw most traf­fic to the west side. Park at the Hitch­cock Wet­lands Learn­ing Cen­ter on the op­po­site end of the prop­erty and hike 2.8 miles to Hid­den Lake. The route hits all three ecosys­tems and the Mis­souri River.

BE­YOND THE TRAIL

Sus­pen­sion bridges near the Na­ture Cen­ter send you into the tree canopy, where birds re­hab in shel­ters at the Rap­tor Wood­land Refuge.

5. WYALUS­ING STATE PARK WIS­CON­SIN

Cov­eted tent sites dot the ridge­line. Be­low, the Mighty Mis­sis­sippi and the Wis­con­sin River merge be­tween Iowa and Wis­con­sin. Nu­mer­ous trail­heads in­clude Sand Cave Trail, Bluff Trail and Sugar Maple Na­ture Trail to Pic­tured Rock Cave. On clear nights, the sight­see­ing ex­tends past dark in Lawrence L. Huser As­tron­omy Cen­ter.

BE­YOND THE TRAIL

Onions or not is the only choice at Pete’s Ham­burger Stand. Lines can stretch a block for the famed Prairie du Chien burger that dates back to 1909.

6. FLINT HILLS KANSAS

Fall’s glory isn’t stuck in the woods. Each Oc­to­ber, waves of Kansas tall­grass turn golden across the largest swath of prairie in the U.S. Cool temps make for per­fect hik­ing and bik­ing. Find Konza Prairie Bi­o­log­i­cal Sta­tion near Man­hat­tan or ex­plore Tall­grass Prairie Na­tional Pre­serve one hour south. The hike-bike Flint Hills Na­ture Trail is Kansas’ long­est trail sys­tem.

BE­YOND THE TRAIL

Prairies can be sub­tle. Learn what to look for at the Flint Hills Dis­cov­ery Cen­ter.

Hik­ers ex­plore bluffs above the St. Croix River in Tay­lors Falls, Min­nesota.

Gi­ant City State Park, Illi­nois

Wyalus­ing State Park, Wis­con­sin Con­sider bik­ing around the park, as park­ing is lim­ited at some trail­heads. psst!

Sun­rise near Tur­tle Moun­tain State For­est, North Dakota

Flint Hills, Kansas

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