WILLMAR -- This is the time of year when residents in west central Minnesota make their annual pilgrimage to Mount Tom in Sibley State Park to enjoy one of the state's most spectacular panoramas of fall colors.
Don't stop there.
We asked for suggestions on other, perhaps lesser known but equally inspiring locations in the region for fall color viewing. In return, we received suggestions for trips in our readership area offering views rated as everything from "startling'' to ''gorgeous.''
Points North, East
If you're starting at Mount Tom, make the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center just a short jaunt away your next stop. Lots of fall color enthusiasts recommended its scenery, and not just for the maples, oaks and basswoods that color its hills.
Avid pheasant hunter Jim Tetzloff of Willmar is partial to the tall grasses there that harbor his favorite bird. "A spring burn has rejuvenated the big bluestem on the east prairies of the campus and it's a sea of purple right now,'' he advises.
PWELC Director Dave Pederson said the best view of it all can be had at the Westby Observatory building, "I love watching the wind create waves in the six-foot tall big bluestem grass and all of the subtle but beautiful colors of the prairie.''
Keep to the roads of northern Kandiyohi County, and you can't go wrong. Other prime viewing suggestions include rides to the Timber Lake area, the area north of Green Lake, County Road 40 and the Lost Lake Road. The Glacial Ridge Trail -- especially its run through northern Colfax and Norway Lake townships -- offers an abundance of wooded areas with rolling hills, small wetlands and lakes dotting the landscape, as pointed out by outdoor writer Tom Watson of Appleton.
To get up close and personal with the scenery, replace the motor vehicle with a bicycle and ride the Glacial Lakes Trail from Willmar to New London and onward. The sumacs have been burning a bright fire-red for a week or more, and yes, the colors are spreading like wildfire all along the route.
The newly-developed trail along Lake Koronis and the walking trail along the Crow River in Paynesville offer equally stunning shows of color.
If red is your favorite fall color, follow Highway 104 to the Ordway Prairie, or continue on to Terrace and southern Pope County. Glacial Lakes State Park south of Starbuck offers spectacular prairie vistas, and as one contributor astutely observed: Fishing on Mountain Lake is also an option.
If you're looking for a color palette that showcases the best mix Minnesota can offer -- from sparkling, blue waters to golden leaves shimmering in the wind -- make the Greenleaf Recreational Area east of Litchfield your destination.
Perhaps the best advice of all comes from LeRoy Dahlke, wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Asked for his thoughts on where to head, Dahlke has his favorite roads in the northern portion of Kandiyohi County, but observed: "(You) can't go wrong by just taking a drive through the area.''
Points South, West
As popular as is Mount Tom and Sibley State Park, there were equal numbers of suggestions from readers for trips to Lac qui Parle State Park and the wildlife management areas along the lake and in the Milan area. Monson Lake Park near Sunburg is an equally deserving destination.
And yet, some of the very best can be found in locations still waiting to be discovered. Lucy Tokheim of Dawson has an artist's eye to appreciate what many of us might miss, and she shares these examples: After a ride along Lac qui Parle Lake and the mission area near the Churchill Dam, take Lac qui Parle County Road 20 and enjoy the subtle colors of a restored prairie near Lac qui Parle Village. Then, head towards the twin bridges near Appleton, where natural prairie on a hillside farm overlooks the lake. "Very beautiful,'' is her simple description.
Plenty of other surprises are waiting. The winding roads leading to Swift Falls in Swift County offer the kinds of scenes that deservedly put them recently on the pages of the Minnesota Magazine, pointed out Jennifer Gruis, director of the Swift County RDA. She also offers a tip on how to double the fun of discovering autumn scenery: Try a game of golf. The trees scattered about the Benson Municipal Golf Course are alive with color. "And if you are a poor golfer like I am, you tend to get up close and personal with some really beautiful colors,'' she quipped.
Hands down, the Minnesota River Valley is a favorite destination for those in search of awe-inspiring scenes. But where are the best places to start?
Try Renville County's Vicksburg Park, especially if a short hike is to your liking. Barry Huisman, caretaker for the county parks, said this year's wet conditions have made this one of the most colorful years ever in the parks. He recommends a hike up the granite outcrop often referred to as the Strawberry Rock. Cactus and bright green moss line the path leading to what can be described an exhilarating vista of the valley.
Or, take a short ride upstream to Skalkbakken Park and drive to the upper picnic shelter, where the scenery is matched and there is a good chance of spotting large raptors riding the currents.
The Upper Sioux Agency State Park is probably the most popular of viewing points for the Minnesota River Valley, but park manager Terri Dinesen knows that one of the most spectacular of all vistas is missed by way too many. The bluff on the west end of the park offers a gorgeous view of the Yellow Medicine River. "I have been there when eagles have flown by at my level,'' Dinesen offered.
As is so often the case, many times the journey itself is the reward. Mark Wegner, president of the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, is an enthusiast for the back roads of the western Minnesota counties the rail line serves. All in the name of duty, Wegner gets to explore many of them, and finds none as colorful as those along the river in Renville and Redwood counties. Follow County Road 15 north from Morton or to head south, follow Highway 19 to County Roads 51 and 5 to view the best.
We hope here only to offer an introduction to the some of the best in the region. Readers are invited to check out the on-line edition of the West Central Tribune at http://www.wctrib.com/ and offer your suggestions in Area Voices.