The best in fall colors: There’s plenty of splendor everywhere

By Jack McCarthy Chronicle Media


The Shawnee National Forest in far southern Illinois offers spectacular colors, slightly warmer temperatures and a longer season to enjoy the great outdoors. ( photo)

Central Illinois may be arguably the place to visit this week to view the very best in fall colors, but bright leaves also linger in northern and northwest parts of the state.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, this is the peak week to view nature’s splendor from the Illinois River Valley south through the Springfield area and also into east-central areas of the state.

While technically past peak, it is still possible to get good color viewing throughout northern Illinois, including such noteworthy locations as the Morton Arboretum, Starved Rock State Park and even the numerous county forest preserves from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

Peak color may actually be in the eye of the beholder with vibrant fall hues spread throughout the season and varying by species and location.

“The best thing to do is look at the trees in your own neighborhood and observe those changes yourself,” said Christy Rollinson, a Morton Arboretum Forest Ecologist. “The peak, when leaves turn their most vibrant shades of yellow and red, is more difficult to predict than the onset, so it’s best to keep looking around.”

Rollinson said fall colors are typically best in mid- to late October and early November in the Chicago area.

The time when leaves change color depends on weather patterns, and ultimately, how much stress trees experience from myriad environmental factors.

According to Rollinson, because the Chicago region experienced a late spring of heavy rain followed by a drought-ridden summer, some fall color change began early. But other trees may change more gradually and over a prolonged period. During that time, conditions can change day-to-day.

Here are projected color highlights this week as provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources:


Spectacular colors in Land of Lincoln

Cities such as the capital, Springfield, and the Illinois River Valley comes alive with the orange and yellow of maples and oaks, the purple hues of dogwoods and hazelnuts, and the red and orange clusters of rose hips on wild roses.

Among top places to visit are farms and orchards like Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery near Champaign-Urbana and Arthur’s The Great Pumpkin Patch located in Amish country. Other places to visit include the town of Monticello, home to the 1,517-acre Allerton Park, and the area surrounding Lake Decatur, including Rock Springs Nature Center.


Chicago and suburbs, Starved Rock, Rockford

Starved Rock State Park is a storied natural area located less than 100 miles southwest of Chicago. Stay in the Starved Rock Lodge for amazing views overlooking the trees.

Visit the lush woods that make up more than 10,000 acres of protected land at the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County. In Rockford, be sure to visit Anderson Japanese Gardens, which is offering advance registration for visits. 

In Chicago, the fall trees are a great excuse to visit sites such as Millennium Park with its iconic Cloud Gate. See Chicago’s grand parks such as lakefront destinations as Lincoln and Grant parks. Cook County’s Forest Preserves in the city and suburbs are also worthy and colorful destinations.

Located in west suburban Lisle, the Morton Arboretum celebrates with fall-themed events among 1,700 acres of seasonal splendor. Pre-registration is required.  In north suburban Glencoe, the Chicago Botanic Garden is also open for color viewing and shopping, but pre-registration for timed entry is also a must.


Galena to St. Louis to Cairo

Throughout northwest Illinois, roadsides are showing more maroon (dogwood and sumac shrubs) and scarlet (sumac) while forest trees are showing more yellowish green. Those trees which were turning yellow (walnut, birch) three weeks ago are losing leaves.

Best places for viewing colors include: Galena, the idyllic river town surrounded by tree-lined hilltops; Pere Marquette State Park, located at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers; plus drives from Alton to Grafton along the Great River Road.


Shawnee National Forest and much more

Color changes have started in the state’s far southern reaches as cooler weather and persistent dry conditions have caused colors on the forest edges to advance more quickly.

Leading destinations include the canopies of Shawnee National Forest — with a great overhead view from Garden of the Gods, outdoor trails (including horseback riding) at Giant City State Park plus many wine trails