Fleeting fall: Catch nature’s season finale while it lasts

Fall colors at Matthiessen State Park in LaSalle County. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Tourism).

Crisp days, golden sunsets and the colorful, yet fleeting canvas of fall is about to arrive in Illinois.

The early cues are already here — rustling brown cornstalks awaiting harvest, the early changeover of a handful of maple leaves to brilliant oranges and reds, and the persistent beauty of fields of goldenrod, even as other prairie plants have faded.

Fall in Illinois is arguably the loveliest time of the year, but the views won’t last for long.

So now is the time to catch the best of the season thanks, in part, to these tips from the Illinois Department of Tourism and color updates from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Northern Illinois: Galena Area

Peak: Second week of October

Cruise along the Mississippi River on the Great River Road to experience fall colors. The road, which starts in northwest Illinois, runs all the way to southern Illinois. An adventure begins in Galena, the idyllic river town surrounded by tree-lined hilltops and beloved destination for fall foliage seekers. Known as one of America’s most beautiful main streets, downtown Galena is full of quaint shops and tasty treats. From Galena Canning Company and Great American Popcorn Company to Pinder Pottery and Galena Cellars Vineyard, there is so much to discover. Also pay a visit to Horseshoe Mound Preserve and take in the incredible river scenery just 30 minutes south of town at Mississippi Palisades State Park.

Northern Illinois: Chicago and beyond

Peak: Second week of October

Chicago’s skyline makes for a dazzling display of its own, but look around and you’ll see plenty of fall foliage popping up in places like Millennium Park, Lincoln Park and Jackson Park. Outside the city, you can’t go wrong exploring the stunning scenery of county forest preserves or visits to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle or Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Continue north to the beautiful retreat at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. This beach is Illinois’ only remaining stretch of beach ridge shoreline. Spanning 6.5 miles along the lake, it offers gorgeous views amid 700 species of plants. Take a run to Rockford to visit the legendary Anderson Japanese Gardens, a meticulously landscaped, colorful environment featuring some of the most scenic foliage in Illinois, like the alluring Japanese maples with their crimson-colored leaves.

Starved Rock/Illinois River region

Peak: Second week of October

Visit Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby to see waterfalls, spectacular canyons and colorful, tree-covered bluffs along its 15 miles of hiking trails. Oaks, hickories and other native trees line the bluffs creating a striking palette that complements the views of the namesake rock formation. Immerse yourself in the seasonal splendor with a stay at The Cabins at Starved Rock Lodge. Located a few miles from Starved Rock, Matthiessen State Park offers fall color views just as amazing as its neighbor. The park is home to black and white oak and red cedar trees that coat the rugged terrain in rusty reds and oranges. The Vermilion River and its magnificent bluffs running along the edge add another dimension of picturesque vistas.

Central Illinois

Peak: Late October

Take an old-fashioned paddleboat ride on the Spirit of Peoria on the Illinois River in Peoria where you can view some of the best fall colors on their weekend fall foliage tour. Declared the “world’s most beautiful drive” by President Theodore Roosevelt, nearby Grandview Drive is a 2.5-mile trail and park that autumn lovers can walk, bike or drive. Don’t miss Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe, a 400-acre private park located on the Illinois River. After that, make your way to Wildlife Prairie Park, an 1,800-acre zoological park filled with more than 50 different species of animals native to Illinois. Take a swing east to Champaign-Urbana and picturesque farms and orchards, such as Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery and The Great Pumpkin Patch. Explore the town of Monticello, home to the 1,517-acre Allerton Park, and see the natural splendor around beautiful Lake Decatur, including the Rock Springs Nature Center.

Wide shot of the Great River Road and the Mississippi River with fall colors. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Tourism).

Southwest Illinois

Peak: Last week of October

The drive from Alton to Grafton along the Great River Road during peak fall color season is breathtaking. Stop at Pere Marquette State Park at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers and, if you’re brave, try Grafton Zipline Adventures for a stunning view from hundreds of feet in the air.

Southern Illinois

Peak: Last week of October

See the leaves turn to fire amid the canopies of Shawnee National Forest — with a great overhead view from Garden of the Gods. Visit early in the morning or after a light rain to see the mist roll over the horizon and add a moody, autumnal filter to the pristine wilderness.

You’ll find more outdoor trails at Giant City State Park, and it’s the perfect time to hike near Carbondale or explore the Shawnee Wine Trail.