There’s nothing better than a hiking trip in the fall. Roam natural terrain, peep autumn colors, get the blood pumping and watch curiosity come alive. Here are four family vacation ideas to explore the outdoors of the Midwest and beyond.
Devil’s Lake State Park
Wisconsin’s most popular state park, Devil’s Lake draws in nearly 3 million visitors each year. Towering, ancient bluffs encircle the turquoise lake providing gorgeous views unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the Midwest.
Choose from 29 miles of trails, ranging from challenging climbs to peaceful walks. Two sandy beaches are perfect for skipping stones. Pack a lunch and relax in the picnic areas. You can rent kayaks or canoes and even rock climb.
The East Bluff Trail undulates up and down through the bluffs to amazing overlooks and rock formations like Devil’s Doorway. Sections of the National Ice Age Trail pass through Devil’s Lake State Park. Some hikes include steep climbs and stairways, so choose which route works best for you and keep a close watch on young children.
Arrive early, as lines can start forming at 10 a.m. to enter the park and buy vehicle admission stickers. Wi-Fi and cellular service is spotty due to the hilly nature of the park so plan ahead where to meet friends and family members.
Where to eat near Devil’s Lake State Park
Pierce’s Express Market is a great place to stop for picnic items before hitting the park. Enjoy riverfront dining at Driftless Glen Distillery.
Where to stay near Devil’s Lake State Park
Wisconsin Dells is a short 30-minute drive from Devil’s Lake State Park. I don’t know about your kids, but my daughter can be tougher to convince to go on a hiking trip (likely because of our many pandemic-era hikes). But a trip to Wisconsin Dells is easy to sell her on, so throw in some water park adventures, and hear the kids cheer!
Stay at the Nord Haus, an adorable A-frame perched on the cliffs above Dell Creek surrounded by the fresh smell of pine trees. It’s close to the Dells attractions, but allows some quiet family time, plus you can bring your dog.
Other fun activities near Devil’s Lake State Park
Take a scenic train ride on the Riverside and Great Northern Railroad. On Saturdays and Sundays in October, kids ages and 12 under receive a free pumpkin or gourd. Tweens and teens might want to scare up a good time on a Ghost Boat Tour. Friday and Saturday nights after dark, take a ride into the haunted canyon, if you dare. Zipline amongst the colorful foliage with Bigfoot Zipline Tours.
Turkey Run State Park
Near the covered bridges of Parke County, Indiana, you’ll find the splendid Turkey Run State Park. Traverse across a suspension bridge, through sandstone gorges, up wooden ladders and into mossy ravines. Marvel at Mother Nature and the many geological wonders you’ll find on trails voted the best in Indiana and best in the Midwest. There are 11 trails to explore, but Trail 3 tends to win a lot of hearts because it traces waterfalls and takes you into cave systems. It can be rugged and you’ll likely get wet, so choose an easier trail if you have young children.
You’ll also find horseback riding, a planetarium, tennis and fishing at Turkey Run State Park. Kids enjoy visiting the nature center and kayaking Sugar Creek. Nearby Shades State Park is a quieter, more primitive park with a fun playground. Parke County Covered Bridge Festival runs through Oct. 22, 2023.
Where to eat near Turkey Run State Park
Turkey Run Inn serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m., you’ll find Indiana favorites like fried biscuits with apple butter to a Hoosier pork sandwich. A short drive from the park, dine on smoked meats at 36 Saloon.
Where to stay near Turkey Run State Park
Steps away from the trails at Turkey Run Inn, you can sleep in a cozy cabin or at the lodge overlooking a ravine. Book early because accommodations in the park tend to fill up fast. There’s a heated indoor pool, game room, outdoor playground and restaurant. If camping is your jam, Raccoon Lake State Recreation Area campground has more than 300 electric and non-electric camping spots with modern restroom facilities.
Other fun activities near Turkey Run State Park
Kayak or canoe Sugar Creek with Clements Canoes. Parke County Covered Bridge Festival is a perennial favorite and the largest festival in Indiana. Ten festival locations are sprinkled around the county’s 31 historic covered bridges. Taste the famous buried beef, shop for handmade crafts, eat ice cream and apple butter while soaking up the small-town vibes amongst the fall foliage.
Acadia National Park
Bar Harbor, Maine
The only national park in the northeast, Acadia National Park is mountainous and rugged, rising up from the Atlantic coastline. There you’ll find Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in the eastern seaboard, a spectacular spot to view a sunrise or sunset. Hiking trails range from serene strolls near the peaceful Jordan Pond to forest climbs to see the famed Bubble Rock. Wild ocean waves crash onto cliffs and produce a mesmerizing splash at Thunder Hole.
Drive the 27-mile Park Loop Road and stop for stunning pictures near aquamarine lakes, verdant forest and rocky coastlines. Horse-drawn carriages or rented bicycles can carry you over Rockefeller’s carriage roads, which cars are not allowed on.
Where to eat near Acadia National Park
Bar Harbor (or “Bah Hah-bah” as pronounced by the locals) is an adorable coastal town dotted with shops and restaurants. Start your day at Choco-latte for coffee and 2 Cats Restaurant for yummy breakfasts. Lobster is on the menu everywhere you go. I tried to eat as much seafood as possible, from fried clams and The Lobster Boat Salad at Stewman’s Lobster Pound to crab cakes at Gayln’s.
The lobster roll at Beacon Bar and Grill was warm and buttery on a soft roll and reasonably priced. Located in Trenton, this restaurant was on the way to the lumberjack show. Side Street Café, Geddy’s and McKay’s Public House receive rave reviews. Jordan Pond House is located in Acadia National Park and is famous for its popovers and afternoon tea.
Where to stay near Acadia National Park
Glamping is a glorious way to experience Maine in the fall. Smell the sweet autumnal breeze and soak in the rusty burgundies and golden yellow hues on the surrounding trees. Terramor Outdoor Resort gets the ecstatic-to-be-outdoors vibe just right. The tents are more like private hotel rooms, with comfy beds, warm showers, porches for sipping pour-over coffee and firepits for telling stories of the day. Our tent even included a private outdoor shower! There’s a heated outdoor pool and events like yoga, live music, nature talks and beekeeping classes. The lodge is buzzing with activity, from happy families filling their bellies with pancakes in the morning to friends toasting amazing hikes in the evening.
We flew into Bangor, Maine, and were very happy to stay at the Bangor Aviator Hotel, connected to the airport, at the end of a long day. That way, we woke up fresh and ready to drive the 1.5 hours to Bar Harbor and Acadia. On the way, stop at Momo’s Cheesecake in Ellsworth. A Maine friend shared this insider tip with us and it’s awesome. Sold completely on the honor system, there’s just about every flavor of cheesecake you can imagine and more, from lemon curd to cotton candy and strawberry rhubarb. My kid got a huge kick out of the fact that we were trusted to put the correct amount of money in the box. We enjoyed our treats at a picnic table out back.
Other fun activities near Acadia National Park
Bar Harbor is famous for lobstering and Lulu Lobster Ride was our favorite activity. We boarded the boat and learned all about lobsters and lobster fishing. It was fun to band various types of lobsters, hold them and eventually release the crustaceans back into the harbor. Timber Tina’s Great Maine Lumberjack Show includes axe throwing, log rolling and pole climbing competitions. The best part of the show is the enthusiastic, incredibly knowledgeable host, Tina Scheer, originally from Hayward, Wisconsin.
Salt Lake City & Snowbird, Utah
One of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. is also surrounded by mountains and canyons, making Salt Lake City an outdoor adventure lover’s paradise. You can hike countless trails by day, then stay in a modern hotel and dine on delicious meals. The Living Room is a short yet steep hike that leads to a set of rock formations that remind folks of living room couches and chairs, which you can relax on while you look over the city below. This route also crosses the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which goes on for more than 200 miles, weaving in and out of canyons.
A 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City sits the breathtaking Snowbird Mountain Resort. Everywhere you turn, you can drink in incredible views of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The air feels fresh and motivating and everyone is stoked to be in this beautiful setting.
Take the scenic tram to the top, then find several hiking trails to choose from. One of the largest festivals in Utah, Snowbird’s Oktoberfest runs mid-August through mid-October. Live music, pretzels, beer mugs and Bavarian souvenirs make spirits soar. Soon snow will take over the resort to provide challenging skiing. Summer at The Bird is all about the alpine slide and thrilling rides. Twist and turn on the mountain coaster. See if you’re brave enough to take the leap off The Vertical Drop. All-Day Activity Passes give you the opportunity to try tons of outdoor activities including ropes courses, climbing walls and bungee trampolines.
Where to eat in Salt Lake City
The breakfast buffet at the Salt Republic in the Hyatt Regency is hard to resist, with made-to-order omelets, local cheeses, fresh baked goods and more. There’s also a market in the lobby with coffee and local treats. Eva’s Bakery is an excellent choice for brunch. While we were walking in, another customer told us that the Kouign-amman was the most incredible pastry she’s ever had. So, of course, we had to try it. Describing it like a sugared croissant helps you get the idea, but doesn’t do the rich, flaky layers and caramelized edges justice. Truthfully, I tend to lean more savory than sweet, but this heavenly pastry definitely won my heart, as did the beet avocado toast at this lovely bakeshop.
We ate lunch at Pizza Nono in the trendy 9th and 9th neighborhood. The Margherita pizza is perfect from the wood-fired oven. Check out Rollie Studio Canvas & Cloth around the corner while you’re waiting for your pizza. It’s a super cool art and fashion store by a gracious, philanthropic, artistic pediatrician. Down the street, my son enjoyed two flavors of Dolcetti Gelato. Their eclectic décor with a globe and chandelier-filled ceiling is something I’ve never experienced before. Even the tables had collectibles underneath the glass.
Hands down, our favorite meal was at Mar | Muntanya at Hyatt Regency Salt Lake, and I have to admit, I was worried that wouldn’t be the case because it’s Spanish tapas and my son’s, well, picky. But our server was probably the sweetest human alive and my boy loved the Funeral Croquettas. Inspired by a dish members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints serve, the cheesy hash brown casserole is topped with crunchy cornflake crumbs, breaded and fried in bite-sized morsels.
Where to stay in Salt Lake City
The Hyatt Regency Salt Lake is a 1-year-old gem in Utah’s capital city, the largest hotel development in Salt Lake City in the last 20 years. The floor-to-ceiling windows are stunning with views of the skyline and surrounding mountains. The heated rooftop pool (open year-round) is a spot to see with cabanas and crackling firepits. Don’t miss the golden hour when the sun starts tucking into the clouds creating ribbons of blue, green and yellow.
Other fun activities in Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City has a pretty epic farmers market at Pioneer Park June 3-Oct. 21, 2023. You can buy farm fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, eggs, honey, breads, jam and nuts. They’re pretty choosy about who can participate, so you know it’s top-notch. We also found fun art, clothing and cooking items and even interacted with an owl. Mid-November through mid-April, the farmer market moves to The Gateway at 110 S. Rio Grande St.
Visiting Red Butte Garden & Arboretum is all about taking a stroll through the vibrant gardens and breathing in the fragrant air. Savor the views over Salt Lake City on one side and the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range on another side. The Natural History Museum of Utah is next door to Red Butte. The huge dinosaur skeletons and interactive exhibits make it fun for families to learn together.
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