Visitors to the River Trail Nature Center can take in fall's rich colors along the trails. Photo provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Visitors to the River Trail Nature Center can take in fall’s rich colors along the trails. Photo provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Chicago is known for its towering skyscrapers and while it does have trees, to really enjoy fall’s foliage, step outside the city’s boundaries and into the beautiful forest preserves. These next two weeks are prime time to enjoy fall’s rich hues. One of the most dramatic places to see the leaves change and is very family-friendly is at River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook.

“The fall season is a wonderful time to enjoy the crayon box of colors in the 69,000 acres of Cook County forest preserves,” admits River Trail Nature Center Director Sue Holt.

Maples are best known for their bright fall colors, but you can find color everywhere in nature this time of year. Hickories turn a deep mustard yellow and oaks turn deep reds, oranges and browns. Be sure to look down, too. Out in the prairie and in the woods, the grasses and forbs turn to gold, wine-red and chocolate brown. And there are still fall wildflowers in bloom, including gorgeous asters, goldenrods and gentians. Along the Des Plaines River, the trails wind through stands of sugar maples that turn bright golds, oranges and reds every fall.


Don’t be surprised if you see wildlife on your trip, including owls, eagles and plenty of deer.

Make Time For The Center

Adults and kids can learn some fascinating history about the area at the River Trail Nature Center.

The Center tells the story of native plants and animals that remain in the urban environment after 10,000 years since the last glaciers melted away and the Des Plaines River Valley has become home and highway for plants, animals and people. Just a few hundred years ago, American Indians paddled their canoes along the river and hunted bear, deer and elk along its banks. The Center and forest preserve grounds allows visitors to walk through sugar maple woods along the river on self-guiding trails, learn of the past and present in the exhibit building and visit a few of our native animals.

Younger children can climb in an eagle nest, crawl in a fox den and more in the River Trail’s nature discovery area.

Special events are held throughout the year at the Center and naturalists are on-hand to answer questions. For example, the Center hosts “What’s on the Menu” every Saturday afternoon from 3-4 pm. During that time kids can learn more about the display animals and their unique habits.

Trail maps and interpretive publications are available at the front desk for easy reference.

It’s important to note that open food and drinks are not permitted.

Nearby Dining Option: Barnaby’s of Northbrook

Northbrook is a pretty busy northern Chicago suburb and there are plenty of places to dine nearby the Center. If 15 minutes isn’t too far of a drive and the natives aren’t restless, Barnaby’s of Northbrook is nine miles away and serves some delicious pizza. It’s a self-serve restaurant so walk in, check out the menus on the table and place your order at the cashier. The restaurant has been a staple in the community for 40 years and has loads of character.

Other Places to Enjoy Fall’s Scenery

If you’re plans call for farther travel, check out Cindy Richard’s 4 Midwestern Fall Foliage Road Trips. Her suggestions take you to neighboring cities and states including one of my family’s favorites places to hike: Starved Rock State Park. And, if you happen to be heading to a Midwest State Park and need overnight stay recommendations, Andrea Guthmann has you covered with her piece on Midwest State Park Lodges.