At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, plenty of students spend their fall weekdays toiling away at upcoming assignments and their weekends watching football. Yet, beyond the city of Madison lies a wonderland of changing fall colors.
If you want to clear your mind, get active and enjoy the Midwest’s natural autumn beauty, escape the city to one of these five Madison-area state parks.
Blue Mound State Park
4350 Mounds Park Road, Blue Mounds
Blue Mound State Park offers sweeping views for anyone willing to make the 35-minute drive. On a clear day, visitors can see Iowa from one of two observation towers atop the highest point in southern Wisconsin.
For those who prefer to stay on the ground, Blue Mound offers hiking and mountain biking trails that take you through beautiful autumn forests and geological formations. You can even get there on bike — the 22-mile Military Ridge State Trail connects the park to Madison.
Wisconsin Brewing Company, 1079 American Way in Verona, is a perfect spot for a post-hike beer. As an alternative, check out Cress Spring Bakery at 4035 Ryan Road in Blue Mounds for some tasty pizza with locally-sourced ingredients.
Governor Dodge State Park
4175 STH-23, Dodgeville
Take a 45-minute road trip to one of Wisconsin’s largest parks, Governor Dodge State Park. With over 5,000 acres of steep hills, bluffs, deep valleys, two lakes and a waterfall, Governor Dodge is a great location for a scenic afternoon picnic among the fall colors.
The park also features over 300 campsites, including an equestrian campground with horseback riding and secluded backpacking sites.
Avid and amateur hikers alike can explore the park for as little or as long as they want, with over 40 miles of trails available. For those seeking a picturesque waterfall view, take the Lost Canyon Trail to see Stephens Falls from above or below.
Lake Kegonsa State Park
2405 Door Creek Road, Stoughton
Lake Kegonsa State Park has a variety of recreational activities set along a 3,200-acre lake. With just a 25-minute drive southeast of Madison, you can enjoy a beach, picnic areas with reservable shelters and a boat launch within one mile of a campground. Pets are welcome in the park.
Lake Kegonsa is the perfect place to appreciate Wisconsin's fall season for those looking to fish on the lake or hike in the surrounding forest. The lakeside beach is a must for anyone looking to take fresh Instagram pictures.
After your hike and photo shoot, take a four-minute drive to get dinner at Stingers, a former grocery and general store in the 1900s now converted to a supper club.
If you happen to visit Lake Kegonsa from Sept. 22-25, stop by New Glarus Oktoberfest post-hike for live music, wagon rides, food stands and a ceremonial keg-tapping. If you go on Sunday, make sure to check out the fondue demonstration and tasting event.
Mirror Lake State Park
E10320 Fern Dell Road, Baraboo
Mirror Lake State Park covers over 2,000 acres and is three miles from Wisconsin Dells. Less than an hour drive from UW-Madison, the park is named for its centerpiece lake that appears so calm, it resembles glass. Colors are mirrored on the water, making it a perfect spot to appreciate the fall leaves with a kayaking or paddle boarding trip.
Mirror Lake offers plenty beyond the water, including sandstone bluffs, wooded campsites, and plenty of hiking trails and nine miles of mountain bike trails that make this state park perfect for all seasons.
Head up to Lake Delton for dinner and enjoy a classic Wisconsin supper club experience at Ishnala, S2011 Ishnala Road, a restaurant that overlooks the lake. For a more relaxed vibe, entertain your inner child at wild-west-themed Buffalo Phil’s Pizza and Grille, 150 Gasser Road in Wisconsin Dells, where food is delivered on a toy train.
Natural Bridge State Park
E7792 CTH-PF, North Freedom
Just over 45 minutes from Madison, Natural Bridge State Park has a natural sandstone arch with a bridge that opens 25 feet high by 35 feet wide. It’s the largest natural bridge known in Wisconsin, created by wind erosion and sandstone weathering.
In fact, Natural Bridge is the oldest-known site of human habitation in the upper Midwest. Artifacts found in the cave-like rock shelter below its iconic arch date back to over 10,000 years ago, when the Wisconsin Glacier was still melting at Devil's Lake and throughout the Driftless Area of Southwest Wisconsin. The rock shelter was used by native people when the glacier was melting 11,000 years ago.
Enjoy the breathtaking natural bridge in tandem with the changing leaves — it is sure to offer Instagram-worthy picture opportunities.
If you’re looking for a meal on the way home, visit Madison’s Vintage Brewing location on the Wisconsin River at 600 Water Street or stop by the first-ever Culver’s restaurant at 716 Phillips Boulevard in nearby Sauk City.
Bonus recommendation: Treinen Farm Corn Maze
W12420 STH-60, Lodi
If you’re looking for more fun fall activities, take a 25-minute drive from Natural Bridge State Park or a 35-minute drive from Blue Mound State Park to Treinen Farm Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch.
Located just west of Lodi, Treinen Farm boasts a massive, artistic corn maze designed around an overarching theme that changes each year The maze offers multiple challenge levels for visitors of varying skill levels and is the fifth-best corn maze in the United States, according to a 2021 USA Today ranking.
Tickets are available online starting at $12.95, with additional fees applied for October weekends and on-site purchases.