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Fall is coming, which is one of the best excuses there is for taking a drive, and this year, the feds have given us a little help. Thirty highways have been added to the Department of Transportation's list of roads designated National Scenic Byways--many of them for what they are in autumn.
The additions bring to 10 the number of member roads in Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. (That Michigan has none only means . . . it doesn't matter what it means, actually.)So here's a look at four of the roads on the list--and one in Michigan that's on the list of National Forest Scenic Byways put out by the Department of Agriculture, which is close enough.
ILLINOIS: MEETING OF THE GREAT RIVERS SCENIC ROUTE
Not only is this one of the longest names for one of these, but it's also another one of those easily reached (from Chicago) places that not enough people know about.
The Great Rivers are the Mississippi, Missouri and the Illinois--and before you scoff at the Illinois' inclusion, consider driving one way along that river this trip (and prepare to be dazzled).
This one, though, runs for 57 miles between Alton (near St. Louis) and Kampsville and combines the glories of foliage, limestone cliffs, ferries (optional but fun for a change) and sweet little towns populated by sweet people of every size.
In the heart of it is Pere Marquette State Park, which has everything a state park can have: lodging, campgrounds, hiking trails and horses for hire. A biking/jogging trail runs 25 miles from the park to Alton, and it's a treat--especially in leaf season.
Two established "river roads" are at work here: the Great River Road of the Mississippi and the Illinois River Road of the Illinois. Highlights are everywhere. Elsah is one of those tiny villages that's totally neat and only grudgingly commercial (and not much of that). The whole place is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a living town that doesn't seem real at all.
(And if you can talk your way past the guard and onto the Principia College campus way above town, you'll be rewarded with one of the best views of the river imaginable.)
Nearby, livelier but also a throwback, Grafton is a classic river town that's somehow survived all the floods and deprivations. Today it offers places to stay and dine and have a cold one.
And Alton may have seen better days, but lifted by revenues from a riverboat casino and led by people with vision, its downtown is worth a look (check out the Lincoln-Douglas Debate statues on the actual site) and, for something completely different, find the statue of Robert Wadlow, world's tallest man and an interesting story. You'll find him across from the SIU Dental College, surrounded by gorgeous trees.
But this is about drives, and the drive along the Mississippi here, past those cliffs--especially heading north at sunset--is one of the finest in the state.
And wait till you see those trees.
Begins on Illinois Highway 143 in Alton at Lock and Dam No. 26, then goes north along the river to Illinois 100. Stay on 100 to Illinois 16 at Nutwood and continue on 16 to Eldred, where Illinois 108 takes you west into Kampsville.
Peak color: Mid-October
WISCONSIN: GREAT RIVER ROAD
Nowhere is the Great River Road greater than it is up here--and during color season, it's as good a drive as any, anywhere.
Wisconsin's portion of it begins at Prescott, near St. Paul, where the St. Croix River merges with the Mississippi, and twists and turns 249 miles to the Illinois state line across from Dubuque, Iowa. (And before everybody gets confused: Yes, the Great River Roads in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, etc., are separate roads along the same river, and they're all part of the same scenic system.)
By the time it becomes somebody else's road, it will have passed 33 towns founded by almost as many ethnic groups, many of them still having (and sometimes serving) the flavor of the old country, whatever it was. Towns with names like Genoa and Stockholm and Kieler and Trempealeau.
This is a drive of bluffs--bluffs covered with trees that shed their leaves after one last brilliant expression. The brilliance comes early in Pepin and Diamond Bluff and Fountain City.
From 1,172-foot Granddad Bluff in La Crosse can be seen what almost look like mountains in Minnesota across the river and in Iowa, downstream, with their puffs of orange and red and gold.
In fact, don't forget there's stuff across the river in Minnesota (yes, the Great River Road on that side is a National Scenic Byway too): enchanting Red Wing, and Winona and neat old Wabasha, each just a bridge away. (For what's across the river in Iowa, see accompanying story.)
Along this road's length are Indian mounds, parks, beaches. At Prairie du Chien, there is history. At Wyalusing State Park, 15 minutes south of town--where the Mississippi meets the Wisconsin--there is everything.
And where the road loses the river, which on this side of the Mississippi isn't often, you're in some of Wisconsin's most picturesque farmland--in autumn, with its color and light and that hint of seasonal chill.
This is a drive that will leave you muttering two words, over and over: Thank you.
Begins at Prescott and continues primarily along Wisconsin Highway 35 to Prairie du Chien, where a variety of roads take you to a point near the U.S. Highway 20 bridge into Iowa.
Peak color: Mid-September to early October.
INDIANA: OHIO RIVER SCENIC ROUTE
The Ohio River doesn't get much billing around here. People basically cross over it to get somewhere else and don't give it much thought when they do.
Besides, it starts in Pittsburgh, which over the years has had public relations problems of its own.
Another problem: While the Mississippi continues to be mighty and the Missouri has all that Lewis and Clark panache, the end of the riverboat era pretty much reduced the Ohio River to a nuisance--and, during floods, a raging one.
Towns that depended on river traffic withered. Many died. And without a Mark Twain to give it character or a Jerome Kern to set it to music, there were few regrets.
Well, guess what?
A lot of those isolated red-brick little towns, even (or maybe especially) those in ruins, are time capsules today. A drive along Indiana's 303 miles' worth of the Ohio River Scenic Route yields quiet surprises, a palatable amount of history and--with its trees and bluffs and farmers' fields--a welcome escape from the 21st Century.
Problem: Staying on this route takes some work. You'll need a map; there is no one road that hugs the river all the way, and if you try to stay with the river, you'll do a lot of doubling back (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).
The official byway has been fashioned from six roads (U.S. Highway 50, Interstate Highway 164 and Indiana Highways 56, 62, 66 and 462), and not all of them are close to the actual river. Among the route's stops is the town of Corydon, a neat little burg that became, in 1816, the Indiana state capital. It's 15 miles from the Ohio.
But other small towns and villages are right there. Toward the Illinois border, Newburgh, near Evansville, is a place to linger (and even Evansville, still struggling but now with an upgraded riverfront, is worth a look). Madison, on the eastern part of the route, is an absolute charmer, full of antebellum architecture. Tell City, about halfway, has a Swiss heritage that isn't always evident, but the folks try.
Lincoln and his family lived down here for a few years, and if that's a lure, a quick move north can take you to a reproduction of the family farm.
The main draw, though, is the route that keeps you close to the Ohio. Much of the way, narrow fields will separate you from the river on the south; the other side will be bluffs and hills loaded with hardwood trees that burst with color.
Hardship and isolation have kept the land much as it was when the Lincolns were here, and George Rogers Clark and, later, the riverboats--and the towns are still in scale. That's the draw.
This isn't a drive that will knock your socks off for all 303 miles. But you won't be sorry you drove it.
Begins on U.S. 50 near Greendale and continues west along a variety of roads to the Wabash River, near New Harmony.
Peak color: Last week of October.
MICHIGAN: RIVER ROAD SCENIC BYWAY
The river in question this time is the Au Sable, and this route is relatively short: 22 miles, about 4 1/2 on Michigan Highway 65 and the rest on a county road called--you probably guessed this--River Road.
We're talking Lower Michigan here. The nearest towns are Au Sable and Oscoda on Lake Huron and maybe Hale inland; if you can picture Lower Michigan as a left-handed mitten, this spot would be around the knuckle of your first finger.
The road's shortness, in this case, is made up for by density. It is entirely surrounded by Huron National Forest, which means lots of hardwood trees (notably hemlock, but also maple, oak and birch) and enough white pines for contrast.
There's water, of course: Loud Pond, Five Channels Pond and Cooke Pond (created by dams, but the look is natural), plus the river. Fishing is terrific; for a less thrashing commune with nature's loveliest show, rent a canoe.
Along with all the leaves and trees, this is the road that leads to the locally revered Lumberman's Monument, a 70-year-old statue that stands on a bluff above the river. A visitor center and exhibits help us understand the region and logging in general, but go for the views.
This is also home of Eagles' Nest Overlook. The nest has been on the site for 15 years, which means the eagles have been too. (The eagles come in winter; the nest is there year-round.)
Michigan, of course, has an abundance of great roads for enjoying fall color. If you have the time and inclination (and get an early start--the change happens earlier up there), the Keweenaw Peninsula north of Houghton and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising, both in the Upper Peninsula, make hearts pound.
And you may have a favorite up there that's closer to home.
But try this one.
Begins 3 miles west of Oscoda on River Road, runs west to Michigan Highway 65 and continues north on 65 to Rollway Road.
Peak color: Mid-October
IOWA: GREAT RIVER ROAD
The Great River Road changes personality in subtle ways as it just keeps rolling along toward the Gulf.
In Iowa, the road is a dizzying patchwork of name and number designations; lose the little green "pilot wheel" signs and you could find yourself where you didn't intend to go--which, this being Iowa, won't get you in too much trouble.
The first magical bit on the 326-mile route comes a few miles south of the Minnesota border at Lansing, with fine river views from the city park high above the Mississippi. Effigy Mounds National Monument is a few miles south; these aren't the mall-size mounds of Cahokia but relative bumps, some shaped like animals, some not. The history is interesting, but the setting--along lovely forest trails high above the Mississippi--is incredible in any season, and beyond that when the leaves are in full bloom.
The river rarely looks as majestic, as awesome, as it does from up here.
A few more miles south is Pike's Peak (same Pike, not quite the peak), and the drama eases after that.
What the road offers from here to Keokuk is a gently winding drive that, in fall, is picturesque in a harvest-season sense. The larger towns--Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, Burlington--are just OK on their downtown riverfronts, though not without the occasional riverside park. The treats are the smaller towns.
McGregor's restoration may never be complete, but that incompleteness leaves the town with an honest antique feel. Guttenberg has hints of Germany and benches on the river that invite sitting and watching the barge traffic flow by.
In fact, there's a lot of sitting and watching the barge traffic go by on the Iowa side of the Great River. Where there aren't parks with greenery and trees and benches, there are the Locks and Dams, from No. 9 at Harper's Ferry to No. 19 at Keokuk, all fascinating the first or even the second time (or forever, if you're a native)--and the vantage points are over here.
This is just a nice, pleasant fall drive to enjoy over a day or two, with a few spots that will burn up lots of film.
Begins as Iowa Highway 26 at the Minnesota border and continues along 13 other numbered roads and a bunch of un-numbered ones to Keokuk, on U.S. Highway 61.
Peak color: Early to mid-October
NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAYS
The following is a list of roads in Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois that have been designated National Scenic Byways by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are new this year.
Great River Road*: Various roads along the Illinois side of the Mississippi.
Lincoln Highway*: Primarily U.S. Highway 30 from south of Chicago to the Mississippi.
Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway*: See story.
The National Road*: Primarily U.S. Highway 40 from the Wabash River to the Mississippi.
Ohio River Scenic Route: Various roads along the Ohio.
The National Road: Primarily U.S. 40 from east of Richmond to the Wabash River.
Ohio River Scenic Route: See story.
Great River Road*: See story.
Loess Hills Scenic Byway*: Various roads in the Missouri River Valley from north of Sioux City to the Missouri border.
Great River Road *: See story.
FALL COLOR HOTLINES
WHERE TO CALL
These are the numbers to call for general travel information and materials for the listed states, plus (starting in mid- to late-September or October) fall color telephone hotlines. Some Web sites will provide reports on color levels as well, typically updated weekly.
Illinois: 800-226-6632; same number for color updates. Web site: www.enjoyillinois.com (for general information), dnr.state.il.us (for color information).
Indiana: 800-289-6646; color hotline: 317-232-4002. Web: www.enjoyindiana.com.
Iowa: 800-345-4692; color hotline: 515-233-4110. Web: www.traveliowa.com.
Michigan: 888-784-7328; color hotline: 800-644-3255. Web site: www.michigan.org.
Wisconsin: 800-432-8747; color hotine: 800-432-8747. Web: www.travelwisconsin.com.