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Autumn In The American Midwest

New England may be the iconic destination, but opportunities abound for fall color photography in the heartland

Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park near Lake Superior, Michigan.

I remember the first time I saw it. It was being slowly revealed by a layer of fog like a twist in a movie you never see coming. I was used to the majestic aspens and maples of my homes in Utah and Colorado. This was different. On my first autumn photo trip to the East, I passed through the Midwest and was catching my first glimpse of peaking maples in resplendent yellow and red. The entire landscape was doing its best to look like a spilled box of Trix cereal.

I’ve been back many times since, but over the years, I find myself picking states and areas that are not normally as synonymous with autumn color as New England. These places, in the middle of our country, offer distinct advantages to the traveling photographer. On a good year, their leaf displays may rival the more traditional spots in New Hampshire and Vermont, while offering locations that are vastly less crowded.

At these spots, there are usually no traffic jams, buses disgorging hundreds of people from all over the globe, hotels and campgrounds without vacancies, and best of all, few other photographers to walk into your shots. I once drove all the way to Boston to find a campsite when every last room in New England seemed to be taken, and I also remember a traffic jam in the Catskills that put me five miles from the trailhead—I slept in my rental car that night.

Another great advantage of the Midwest is that the people of these areas are innately friendly and helpful, and not overburdened by hordes of strangers invading their homeland.

Autumn at Blue Hen Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Cuyahoga River Valley, Ohio.

There is something about the changing fall colors I find to be peaceful to the soul. Even though the leaves are dying and falling, everything smells wonderful, and the crisp weather is perfect for hiking. In the Midwest, especially outside the cities, everything feels relaxed and calm—the perfect mindset for working in the outdoors.

The timing of autumn displays in the Midwest is changeable like everywhere else. In Colorado, for example, the fall color peak seems to me to be moving later, perhaps due to warmer overall temperatures, and although each year is different, that may be the case. You will find many websites that give fall color updates. Some of these are not always highly accurate, and I find that hitting the peak time is sometimes a matter of arriving, scouting and waiting for the color to catch up, or returning later. If you’re arriving a little tardy, always remember that leaves can be photographed even after they have fallen in compositions that can be highly effective.

Don’t forget the skies. Oftentimes they are leaden and useless in the Midwest, but other times, they can become important and colorful parts of your overall scene. Use clouds, and sunrise and sunset sky tableaus to add even more chromatic variety to your scene, and remember that cloudy days are good times to shoot flowing water and glowing leaves. A polarizing filter is your friend, removing color-degrading sheen from the amazing wet leaves you find.

My hero David Muench talks about waiting weeks for the fall color to reach peak, and it still takes that kind of dedication to get the best leaf images wherever you are. He also talks about his passion for shooting during these periods—even taking a break for lunch is too much of a waste of valuable time for him when the trees are going off. It’s this kind of obsessive zeal that makes him the greatest, and exemplifies the dedication needed to get great images even if the subjects you’re after are among nature’s most amazing gestures.

Autumn Colors at Hawksbill Crag, Upper Buffalo Wilderness, Ozark National Forest, Arkansas

Unlike the West, private land limits the number of places you can visit and shoot trees in the Midwest and the quantity of areas that are still in a natural state. I find checking with the owners almost always allows access to the site, and probably a friendly chat. Most of the locations open to us include lots of great state parks, state forests, and land trust sites to explore. Here are some of the best:

Iowa  In Iowa, the fall color is prime along the Mississippi River corridor in the East. On the prairie of Western Iowa where I was raised, there is virtually no fall color—maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to it now. The Pikes Peak State Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument should be high on your list, along with the river road all along this iconic American waterway. I was warmly welcomed there recently with my R-Pod camper, which caused quite a stir in the campground.

Indiana Southern Indiana has tremendous fall color opportunities if conditions are right, culminating in McCormick’s Creek State Park, with its waterfalls and maple-covered hills. Speaking of waterfalls, Clifty Falls State Park roars to life after fall rains with several tiers of cascades.

Kansas Kansas has some fall color in the southeastern corner where a piece of the Ozarks sneaks into the state. Schermerhorn County Park near Galena is one such island in the farmland with good trees, as is the Dingus Natural Area.

Illinois Starved Rock State Park is a true wonder of the Midwest and shouldn’t be missed when the waterfalls are cranking, whether in fall or any other season. Another kind of fall color can be found in Southern Illinois at Horseshoe Lake State Park along the Mississippi. Here, bald cypress needles turn bright red in the swampy backwaters.

Bald Cypress in Autumn, Horseshoe Lake State Conservation Area, Illinois

Ohio If I had to pick one Midwest state to visit for the best fall color it might be Ohio. One of the region’s few national parks, Cuyahoga Valley, is here, with waterfalls and great maple leaves. Some of these cataracts need a shot of rainwater to be strong, but since fall is a time of frequent rains, you may get lucky, as I did. Another interesting idea for Ohio is try to shoot the fall color at the Serpent Mound State Memorial. You would need to hire an airplane, which I found easily, or use a drone, which would also be easy. Shot late in the day with radiant trees, this magical ancient construction makes a great image and is perhaps the most photogenic archeological site in the eastern U.S. One of my sales of this image was to LIFE Magazine, a lifelong dream of mine. In southern Ohio, Hocking Hills State Park, with several units, is an eden of waterfalls, deep canyons, caves and spectacular color. Almost a part of the South, fall color comes later here, long after New England and the Rockies have finished their displays.

Missouri The Ozarks are an American treasure. Gigantic waterfalls, natural arches, old mills, and wild rivers are just a few of the attractions for photographers. Stretching into Missouri from northern Arkansas, Buffalo National River and associated wilderness areas could hold up to a lifetime of photography and exploration. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways combine rolling terrain with spring-fed rivers and old mills like the bright red Alley Spring Mill. State parks of note in Missouri include Roaring River and Big Oak Tree.

Big Oak Tree State Park, Missouri

Minnesota and Michigan Some of the Midwest’s finest fall color can be found along the Canadian border near Lake Superior’s shore. This color peaks early, so it’s possible to shoot in Minnesota and Upper Michigan and still make it out to the west for aspens and mountain peaks. In Minnesota, by mid-September, Voyageurs National Park will most likely be free of the amazingly voracious and aggressive mosquitos that torment all life forms throughout the summer, and maples and sumac in multiple color schemes will be on fire. At Voyageurs, Rainy and Kabetogama Lakes are hot spots. In Michigan, Porcupine Mountain combines a magnificent landscape with fall color—something hard to find in the Midwest. Lake of Clouds is a classic. Its deep blues combine with the warmth of the forest landscape for a complete palette of color.

Rainy Lake, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Fall is not usually a time of big, dangerous thunderstorms in the Midwest, but with strange atmospheric conditions occurring everywhere, it pays to keep an eye on the weather, as all photographers should. The main danger outdoors is ticks. Lyme disease is spreading, and even though nights might be freezing, ticks can still be active. Also, a new tick-borne disease was found recently in Missouri and is very dangerous. Check yourself carefully after outings, dress to prevent bites, and use repellant.

Munising Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

I find working in the Midwest to be a constant odyssey of discovery. Beautiful subjects have been overlooked, dismissed, or simply forgotten. Fewer people have taken the extra time to explore these rivers, woodlands, and mountains compared to the huge visitation we have in the West or on the East Coast. The payoff is that in visiting some of these places this fall, you will get great fall images with less crowding and fewer headaches.

Tom Till has been photographing worldwide landscape, nature and travel images for over 40 years. His latest book, Photographing the World, was recently published, and he continues an active shooting schedule in the field from his home in Moab, Utah. He’s a frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer.