The fleeting brilliance of autumn is upon us. The greens of summer are making way for soft yellows that, by the height of the season, will blaze into burnt oranges, rusts and fierce reds. They will then be lifted away by a passing breeze and layer pathways through woods and wildernesses and crunch beneath our feet as we pass by.
Fortunately, you don’t need to go far to take in the beauty of the season because here in the western suburbs we are blessed with a surprisingly wide range of magnificent natural areas.
To help you immerse yourself in the full splendor of fall beauty, we asked local experts at four area forest preserves as well as the Morton Arboretum to give their recommendations for the best spots to see the most vibrant colors.
DUPAGE FOREST PRESERVES
Waterfall Glen: One of the best ways to view an abundance of fall colors is from higher ground. At Waterfall Glen in Darien, make your way to the Sawmill Creek Bluff Overlook, which is a short walk from the waterfall parking lot on Bluff Road. From this overlook you’ll get a breathtaking look at the fall color bursting over the Rocky Glen waterfall. Walk about two miles south and you’ll reach the Des Plaines River Overlook with views of the treetops along the river.
Fullersburg Woods: Another impressive overlook is at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook. On the north end of the Night Heron Trail at the top of a glacial moraine you’ll find the Salt Creek Overlook. Look to the east for oaks, maples, hickories, and sycamores, some entwined with the vivid red leaves of Virginia creeper vines. Several rustic bridges throughout the preserve also provide nice views up and down Salt Creek.
Mount Hoy at Blackwell and Meacham Grove in Bloomingdale: Blackwell in Warrenville and Meacham Grove in Bloomingdale have their own elevated leaf-peeping spots. People may know Mount Hoy at Blackwell as a popular snow-tubing hill, but visitors hike to the top this time of year for a look at colors in the forest preserve and beyond. The hill at Meacham Grove requires less of a hike up but still promises wonderful vistas.
Maple Grove: If you prefer to stay under the canopy, check out Maple Grove in Downers Grove. It contains one of the largest remnant maple forests in DuPage and is aglow with yellows and oranges bright enough to light up the preserve even on the cloudiest days. Along the oak-lined trails at Greene Valley in Naperville, you’ll see deeper but equally beautiful amber and rusty red hues.
Herrick Lake: Of course at any wooded area abutting a lake, Herrick Lake in Wheaton for example, you’ll magnify the show with colors mirrored on the surface of the water.
St. James Farm: For a more landscaped look, make St. James Farm in Warrenville your destination. Over the years the property’s previous owners, the McCormicks, planted several “allées” — parklike alleyways bordered by trees. Each allée at St. James Farm is made entirely of a single species, such as red maple, river birch, or black walnut.
Danada: One last must-see fall vista is the view of Rice Lake from the end of the 6.5-mile Herrick Lake Regional Trail at Danada Forest Preserve in Wheaton. The landscape at sunset never looks the same twice. You can literally hear fall take hold as Canada geese and other waterfowl chatter as they fly south.
Fischer Woods: Those more adventurous and unopposed to following footpaths may want to plan an outing to Fischer Woods Forest Preserve in Bensenville. The site has neither developed trails nor a parking lot, but its northwest corner is home to a 100-year-old wet upland forest, one of a few left in the county. This quiet woodland, with calm ponded areas and chance sightings of elusive wildlife like deer, coyotes, and mink, displays an abundance of fall colors courtesy of its mature maples, elms, ash, red and white oaks, and basswoods.
Pratt’s Wayne Woods: There’s a stretch along the Illinois Prairie Path at Pratt’s Wayne Woods Forest Preserve in Wayne that will make you feel like you’re walking on top of Brewster Creek Marsh. About a mile northwest of the trail’s intersection with Powis Road, the marsh levels with the trail on both sides and immerses you in golden grasses, rushes, reeds and sedges. On a calm day, a mirror image of the sky floats on the still water.
Winfield Mounds: According to one District naturalist, the hickory grove that overlooks the West Branch DuPage River at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve in Winfield is unbeatable on a warm October afternoon. It may take a little doing to reach it, but the sense of seclusion it offers makes it worth the effort. Starting at County Farm and Geneva roads, follow the Illinois Prairie Path west and then south for about half a mile. You’ll pass a hand well and cross over the river. Just past the river, a narrow, winding woodchip footpath heads south through the hickory grove and toward the forest preserve’s namesake prehistoric Native American burial mounds. Make sure to take time to appreciate the gorgeous view of the river from the grove.
Morton Arboretum: Because of the Arboretum’s incredible tree diversity, there’s almost always a great spot to find color any time in the fall. Here are some of the best spots based on tree type and location:
• Maple Collection - Maple trees (orange, red, yellow)
• Oak Collection - Oaks (red)
• East Woods - Sugar maples (yellow)
• Ginkgo trees in the Japan Collection - The Ginkgo trees located along the main road on the East Side, are a fun one to keep an eye on because they have bright yellow leaves that will all drop in a single day. If you get the timing right, it’s fun to watch and photograph the yellow leaves raining down
• Meadow Lake Trail
• Sterling Pond
• Schulenberg Prairie
• Frost Hill - The hilltop view overlooking Meadow Lake is stunning.
KANE COUNTY FOREST PRESERVES
Bliss Woods Forest Preserve: This Sugar Grove preserve in the south part of Kane County is a longtime favorite. Its outstanding ecological and geological features have led to Illinois State Nature Preserve status in portions of the forest preserve. Here you will find sugar maple trees that turn bright yellow in the fall.
Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve: Located in Elburn, Johnson’s Mound is a heavily wooded, classic example of a stratified gravel hill, known as a “kame.” Much of the woods here is of nature-preserve quality and there’s a serenity in the deep woods that offers a special “get away from it all” feeling for those wanting a quiet walk in the woods. This preserve also has a large number of sugar maples resulting in a rich display of yellow foliage.
Fabyan Forest Preserve: Fabyan is a heavily used preserve, owing to its location in Geneva on the Fox River and its numerous natural and historic features. Thousands of visitors spend hours fishing along its river shores and thousands more jog and bike along the trails and across the river bridge. Other explore the historic elements remaining in the preserve, especially the Fabyan Villa Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the Fabyan Windmill. There are many oak trees that turn yellow/orange/red, depending on the species at this preserve.
Camp Tomo Chi-Chi Knolls: Adjacent to Freeman-Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts is Camp Tomo Chi-Chi Knolls, a 260-acre area devoted to youth group camping and recreation. It’s set on rolling hills of oak-hickory woodlands, which provide fall colors of yellow/orange/red, depending on the species at this preserve.
There is also great value in autumn colors on the prairie. The tallgrasses, big bluestem and Indian grass, exhibit striking fall foliage making the prairies all sorts of russet, green, blue, and yellow. For good immersive trail loops through big prairies, we recommend Dick Young Forest Preserve in Batavia and Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Hampshire.
WILL COUNTY FOREST PRESERVES
Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve in Crete Township: The sled hill provides a good vantage point to view the large edge of the woods from up high. At Snapper Pond you can see the leaves reflected in the water and there is a good mix of trees. The Plum Creek Greenway Trail has several good locations including the big bridge and the trail portion south of Meadowlark Shelter, which features a field at the forest’s edge.
Hammel Woods in Shorewood: Black Road Access is home to many sugar maples that will provide bright orange, yellow and red colors. The natural surface trail to the north of Hidden Shelter also makes for a colorful fall trip through the bluffs.
Hickory Creek Nature Preserve in New Lenox: This preserve is stunning because of the rolling landscape of prairie in front of towering oaks. Behind the pavilion at Hickory Creek Junction, an open prairie provides a good sightline to the woodland edge, which displays vibrant color all the way along the bikeway to the creek.
McKinley Woods: The oaks in this Channahon preserve turn a dark maroon-brown color. There also are a few cottonwood and hickory trees that turn yellow. A good place to view the trees at this location is the Heritage Trail loop that is located next to Frederick’s Grove Shelter in the lower parking lot.
Messenger Woods Nature Preserve in Homer Glen: The oldest preserve in the District, Messenger Woods features many mature trees that put on an impressive fall color display.
Monee Reservoir in Monee Township: The silver maples, oaks and hickories that line the lake provide a good autumn show.
Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve in Monee Township: A large number of maple trees are mixed into the forest along the road and on the edge of the preserve, which provides a brilliant fall feast for the eyes. The oaks and hickories in the interior add to the colorful mix.
COOK COUNTY FOREST PRESERVES
Bemis Woods: Park at Bemis Woods-North for easy access to the paved Red Trail.
Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve: Park at Bemis Woods-North and walk east along the Red Trail, then north along the unpaved Yellow Trail.
Busse Forest Elk Pasture: Head north along the Red Trail to see colorful maple trees.
Deer Grove Trails: Park at the Camp Alphonse entrance to access a network of unpaved trails.
Harms Woods: Park at Harms Woods Central to access the unpaved Yellow Trail or the paved Red Trail.
North Branch Trail: Park at Miami Woods, north of Oakton. Cyclists can enjoy a ride through a tunnel of maples.
McClaughrey Springs Woods: The unpaved Yellow Trail connects to multiple trails in the Palos Preserves.
Spears Woods: Take the unpaved Black Trail to the unpaved Yellow Trail.
Jurgensen Woods: Access the unpaved Yellow Trail and hike through Jurgensen Woods Nature Preserve.
Sauk Trail Woods: Park at Sauk Trail Woods Central for bike rentals and explore the 3.5-mile paved loop trail around Sauk Trail Lake.