Late fall brings bald eagles to the banks of the Mississippi River in Wabasha, Minnesota, a five-hour drive from Chicago. “Not only do the river bluffs erupt into a sea of spectacular oranges, reds, and yellows, but viewing hits the next level as the leaves fall and eagles become clearly visible in the canopy,” says Ed Hahn, a marketing manager and educator at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha.

Located on the natural migration route of the Mississippi Flyway, the newly renovated center (admission $12) features refreshed exhibits, live eagle encounters, and private habitat tours ($500 for up to five people) for primo viewing. Go in November for an added avian experience: a monthlong visit by tundra swans migrating from Canada to the Chesapeake Bay. In December, the eagles show up in full force, migrating from upper Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada in search of unfrozen water. As for where you should nest in Wabasha: Turning Waters Bed & Breakfast (from $209 a night) is steps from the National Eagle Center and has an onsite brewery. 

Three expert tips for spotting eagles

Watch for open water. “Eagles love to fish the churning waters near dams and locks, which you’ll see in Wabasha and as you drive alongside the Great River Road National Scenic Byway,” says Hahn.

Be an early bird. The old adage is true, says Hahn: “You’re more likely to spot eagles in the morning or midday — activity quiets down by around 3 p.m.” 

Look for legs. “The cue that they’re about to dive for a fish is to see their legs down with talons positioned for the kill,” Hahn explains. There’s nothing quite as thrilling.