by Rob Bignell
Author, “Wisconsin’s Best Autumn Hikes”
There’s no better way to experience autumn colors in the Sheboygan area than a hike.
The brilliant yellows, oranges and red of maples to the scarlet and russets of oaks…the crisp, fresh autumn air and the last warm rays of sunlight before winter arrives…the crunch of fallen leaves and acorns beneath your boots…stopping to enjoy a warm mug of apple cider or a caramel apple pulled from your backpack – it all calls for an afternoon on the trail.
Fortunately, there are plenty of great autumn trails around Plymouth to hike. Some are right out your back door, while some are a day trip that you can do in an afternoon.
Kettle Moraine Red Oaks State Natural Area (Plymouth).
Hikers can head through a 130-year-old forest at the Kettle Moraine Red Oaks State Natural Area. The remains of a half-mile pack trail (1-mile round trip) runs through the northern section of the forest, where more than 100 trees, shrubs and herbs can be found. In autumn, the red oak-dominated forest is colorful as basswood, sugar maple, white ash, big-tooth aspen, white oak, black cherry, and shagbark hickory offer a variety of harvest hues. From Plymouth, take Wis. Hwy. 23 west. Turn left/southwest onto Plank road and then left/southeast onto Cemetery Lane. Park at the end of the lane, which marks the state natural area’s border.
Parnell Observation Tower (Plymouth).
Day hikers can head to an observation tower on the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s highest point via a short trail. In autumn, the walk through the surrounding forest and the view of it from the tower is a fantastic sight. The 0.7-mile out and back Parnell Tower Trail heads to the 60-foot wooden Parnell Observation Tower. The hike can be lengthened, though, by adding a loop, known as the Parnell Tower Trail Loop, which runs 2.9 miles. The hike to the tower heads beneath a canopy of maple trees while northern red oak, basswood, sugar maple and white ash dominate another part of the hill. From Plymouth take Wis. Hwy. 67 west. Turn left/south onto County Road A (aka Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive). County Road U joins County A from the east; in just under 2 miles when County Road U goes right/west, turn onto it. In about 0.15 miles, turn right/north into the parking lot for the trail. A gravel trail – the short stem leading to the loop – heads north from the lot’s northern side.
High Cliff State Park (Sherwood).
Day hikers can enjoy great views of Lake Winnebago atop a ridge on the Red Bird Trail at High Cliff State Park. The mostly level 3.4-mile trail runs along the ancient Niagara Escarpment’s western edge. Autumn offers the opportunity to see the lake through a northern wet-mesic forest, which offers the evergreen of northern white-cedar, Balsam fir and spruce, the yellows of black ash, the light orange of speckled alder, and the reds of mountain maple. A bonus is an observation tower you can climb to see the canopy and lake from above. From the park’s entrance road (State Park Road) turn left/southeast onto Lower Cliff Road. Next, go left/northeast on High Cliff Road. Park in the observation tower lot.
Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve (Two Rivers).
Hikers can walk upon what 5000 years ago was a Lake Michigan beach ridge. Entirely wooded now, it makes for a great autumn hike. The 0.5-mile Conifer Trail at Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve sits near the great lake between Manitowoc and Two Rivers. Signs along the trail point out the different types of trees, which make a splendid autumn display – the bronze of American beech, the yellows, oranges and reds of sugar maple, the brown of red oak and the scarlet of white oak, all mixed with the olive leaves of basswood and evergreen needles of the conifers. From Manitowoc, take Wis. Hwy. 42 north or from Two Rivers follow the highway south. Go north onto Columbus Street and left/west onto Wis. Hwy. 310. Immediately after Columbus Street, turn right/north into the preserve’s nature center and park there. To reach the trailhead, head south alongside Columbus Street; a sign identifies the trailhead, about two blocks from the nature center, on the road’s west side.
Ice Age National Scenic Trail – Walla Hi segment (Kiel).
A walk through an oak forest up an ancient kame awaits day hikers on a section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. The 2.3 miles (one-way) Walla Hi segment winds to the top of a 975-foot high kame then back down to a plain. Tan and russett oak leaves, accented by the yellow of various birches and the dark green of pines, line the route between Walla Hi County Park and Lax Chapel Road. From Kiel, take Wis. Hwy. 32 east/south. Turn left/north onto County Road MC/South Cedar Lake Road then left/west into Mueller Road. Park in the lot at the end of Mueller Road. Head south/west on the trail.
Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve (Port Washington).
Migrating raptors and fall colors set against the backfrop of beautiful Lake Michigan await at Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve. After passing a wetlands popular with waterfowl, the 2-mile round trip Lion’s Den Trail enters a deep, verdant gorge. Aspen stands and mature white birch with their fluttering yellow leaves abound. The trail then delivers you to a long, secluded beach. From Port Washington, drive south on County Road C/Lake Shore Road. Turn left/east onto High Bluff Drive, which enters the park. When the road becomes a roundabout, park in the first/southern lot.
Kettle Moraine State Forest-Pike Lake Unit (Hartford).
Hikers can head to an observation tower atop one of southeastern Wisconsin’s highest points, which offers a beautiful view of fall colors. The Orange Trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Pike Lake Unit loops along high ground past the spring-fed lake and includes a side trail heading to Powder Hill Tower for a 3.26-mile hike. Powder Hill is a glacial kame rising to 1,350 feet elevation, a full 35 stories above the lake. Sugar maple, basswood, and black, red and white oak dominate this area of the state forest. From Hartford, go east on Wis. Hwy. 60. Turn right/south onto Powder Hill road then take the first left/east to the Ice Age Trail parking lot.
Ice Age National Scenic Trail – Holy Hill segment (Hartford).
Day hikers can enjoy the rich and varied autumn colors of sugar maple leaves on the Holy Hill segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. The out-and-back trail runs 2.6-miles round trip in southeastern Wisconsin. It sits beneath the majestic Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary. The first stretch of the trail is fairly level as heading through a woods dominated by sugar maples. Aspen with its golden leaves and the evergreens white pine and white spruce dot the forest, making a perfect accent to the sugar maples’ yellow, orange and red crowns. From Hartford, take Wis. Hwy. 83 south. Turn left/east onto Wis. Hwy. 167 (aka Holy Hill Road). In about 2.5 miles, go right/south on Stationway Road. After about 0.1 miles, look for the parking lot along the road’s left/east side. There’s a small clearing with picnic tables there, and the trail runs southeast from the lot.
Mauthe Lake (Campbellsport).
Golden tamaracks circle the shores of Mauthe Lake in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Northern Unit every October and November. The 2-mile Tamarack Nature Trail hugs the lake’s northweastern shore and then rambles over the nearby ice age-shaped terrain. Though tamaracks look like pine trees, their needles turn color and fall off like leaves on deciduous trees. From Campbellsport, take Wis. Hwy. 67 east. Turn right south on County Road SS then right/south on County Road GGG. Take the first right/west into the Mauthe Lake Recreation Area. The trail begins near the Mauthe Lake Beach and loops around the waterbody via the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and the Lake to Lake Bike Trail.
Rob Bignell is the author of Wisconsin’s Best Autumn Hikes and 12 other hiking books about the Badger State.
A former newspaper and magazine editor, his journalism work has won several awards, from editorial writing to sports reporting. He resides in Menomonie.