fall foliageWhen Midwesterners move south and say they miss the changing of the seasons, they are referring to the soul-soothing beauty of a Midwest autumn ablaze in yellows, reds and oranges–not the winter’s below-zero wind chill temperatures. 

Planning a family vacation pilgrimage to catch these seasonal wonders at their peak is always a dicey proposition. Tree experts are reticent to predict exactly when fall colors will hit their peak. It depends on temperatures and rainfall into September. Too much or too little of one or the other and the leaves will go straight from green to brown and crunchy or fall off the trees while still green.

Fortunately, those are rare events. Most years, the season arrives predictably as the days slowly grow shorter, limiting the light needed for photosynthesis (remember photosynthesis from your high school science class?), which leads the green to fade from the leaves and allows the vibrant fall colors to shine through.

In general, the season starts in Wisconsin in late September, arrives in northern Illinois the first or second week of October, and continues rolling south until it peaks in Kentucky in late October or early November.


The beauty of that, said Doris Taylor, plant clinic manager at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, is that “If you missed it in the north, you can just head south.”

Some of the best places to see fall color in and around Illinois are:

fall colors1. Galena and the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa

The gently rolling hills of Jo Daviess County, which lies alongside the Mississippi River in the northwest corner of Illinois, is one of the prettiest parts of the state.  The Great River Road National Scenic Byway runs along both sides of the river from its headwaters down to the Gulf of Mexico. But the 125 miles from Galena, Ill., south to Muscatine, Iowa, on the bluffs above the Mississippi offer some of the best glimpses of the river and the trees that border it. Take Route 20 south of Galena to Fulton, pick up Route 84 to the Quad Cities, then take Route 92 into Muscatine. Consider a stop in Davenport or Moline to rent a bike and peddle the paths along the river. Or, for a more laid-back experiences, hop on the Celebration Belle.  The non-gaming riverboat offers Fall Foliage specialty cruises.  Call (800) 297-0034 for more information.

2. Cook County Forest Preserves

llinois’ most populous county is home to 68,000 acres of forest land, thanks to the vision of city leaders who, in 1914, formed the Forest Preserve District Board and started acquiring land. In the fall, the urban forests are a beacon for city dwellers who crave the same soul-soothing exposure to nature’s fall palate that their rural counterparts get by simply looking out the window. The preserves are great for biking, hiking or picnicking.

3. Morton Arboretum

If you prefer a more structured approach to fall, head to this tree museum in west suburban Lisle. The Arboretum celebrates the fall foliage season with AutmnFest on weekends in October. There are food and craft vendors and blown glass artists demonstrating their skills and selling their wares. If you like the horror of Halloween as much as the colors of autumn, take in a production of “Night of the Living Dead.” It will be presented each weekend in October as part of the Arboretum’s “Theater Hike” series. The audience as well as the actors change outdoor locations with each scene. So if the play gets a little too scary, just remember the soul-soothing power of the fall colors.

Botanic Garden Model RR4. Chicago Botanic Garden

This north suburban spot has plenty of colorful trees, but is worth a visit just for its charming 7,500-square-foot Model Railroad Garden. It features 17 trains wending their way along 1,600 feet of track past nearly 50 miniature American landmarks, such as the White House. The “garden-scale” trains are 1/29th the size of real trains. The exhibit runs through Oct. 30.

5. Starved Rock State Park

Located along the south side of the Illinois River, one mile south of Utica, this state park has 13 miles of hiking trails and 18 canyons to explore.  On Oct. 15 and 16, the park hosts a “Fall Colors Weekend” with guided hikes through the brilliantly colored forest. Tours leave from the visitors’ center at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

6. Park County, Indiana

Home of the famous Covered Bridge Festival, Parke County is about 2.5 hours east of Springfield on U.S. 36. The world famous festival starts each year on the second Friday in October and runs for two weeks.  The festival honors the 31 covered bridges scattered throughout the heavily wooded county. Five driving routes (color-coded black, brown, red, blue and yellow) include routes that allow you to drive over some of the historic bridges.

8. Shawnee National Forest

This forest at the southern tip of the state is the place to head if you missed all of the colors further north. In the park, head for LaRue-Pine Hills. The 150-foot limestone bluffs, formed over millions of years, run for roughly five miles along Highway 3. Or look for Garden of the Gods, the last stop on a day-long scenic byway drive along the Ohio River. That Ohio River Scenic Byway drive starts near Cairo and includes a stop at Metropolis, home to a 15-foot Superman statue and a Superman museum.