The fleeting brilliance of autumn in America’s Midwest 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.
While there are wonderful places to view fall’s glories in and around the west suburbs, truly resplendent colors are best captured further afield. This fall, make time for a day trip to scenic destinations as close as Galena, Starved Rock or Lake Geneva. To give the season its full due, however, it might be worth considering a getaway south into Indiana, over to the west shore of Lake Michigan, or further north to Kettle Moraine or Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. Each destination has its own attractions, whether it’s a fall festival, apple orchards and vineyards, glacial bluffs, miles of sand dunes, or stunning waterfalls. They will all reward you with miraculous color vistas and a chance to capture the essence of autumn.
Illinois — The Golds and the Blues
Just an hour or so from the western suburbs is a world of cascading waterfalls, rugged canyons and sandstone bluffs, made all the more glorious when decked in the resplendent yellows, golds, russets and caramel browns of fall. At Starved Rock State Park, hiking trails meander through towering trees and along the scenic overlooks of the Illinois River. Canoeing, paddle boat cruises, trolley rides, fishing and picnicking are among the many ways to take in the colors. An overnight stay at Starved Rock Lodge in the town of Oglesby gives you the option of a rustic hotel room or a cabin in the woods.
What better way to view the reds, browns and golds of summer’s end than against the cool blue backdrop of Ol’ Man River? A two-hour drive west to Galena will present you with crimsons, oranges, yellows and greens on trails that enjoy the dramatic backdrop of the Mississippi River. For panoramic views, take a ski lift to the top of Chestnut Mountain Resort. Better yet, Galena on the Fly offers hot air balloon rides from sunrise to sunset, with 360-degree views over three states. Back on the ground, one of the oldest vineyards in Illinois, Galena Cellars, is open for tours and tastings.
The colors only improve as you drive south on Route 61, heading to the Quad Cities area. At Molene, you can bike through gorgeous trees and view riverfront communities along the scenic Great River Trail, with more stunning views of the river. If time is on your side, keep heading south to Pere Marquette State Park. From there, Big Muddy Adventures will take you on a full-day or half-day canoe trip into the historic town of Alton, situated at the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi rivers and famous for its limestone bluffs. Drive even further south along color-drenched roads toward Makanda. Here, the Shawnee Bluffs
Canopy Tour will give you a birds-eye view of autumn colors as you zipline through the glorious Shawnee National Forest. The same area offers horseback riding through Giant City State Park, as experienced wranglers lead riders on a 3.2 mile private trail through the natural sandstone structures. Later, explore the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail with visits to family-owned wineries, Alto Vineyards and Blue Sky Vineyard. If you’d prefer not to go quite so far south, I-55 will take you to Grafton, where Aerie’s Resort offers an nforgettable two-hour canopy tour along the Mississippi.
Wisconsin, Close to Home
— Geneva Lake
Bursts of burnt orange and fiery dashes of red await the fall visitor to the Lake Geneva area, where autumn foliage can last well into November. Golden leaves dappled on blue waters are just one of the pleasures of the 21-mile Geneva Lake Shore Path, as perfect for a short stroll as it is for a sunrise-to-sunset hike.
Along the well-trod pathways that ring the lake, you’ll get close-up views of multi-million dollar estates that have graced these shores since the 19th century. Alternatively take in a birds-eye-view with Lake Geneva Balloon Company or a leisurely on-the-water tour aboard Lake Geneva Cruiselines. While in the area, don’t miss out on a dazzling drive along Snake Road (Rustic Rd. 29), a serpentine scenic cruise through the wooded enclaves of grand homes that stretch down to the lakefront.
For a serene, rustic trail, visit the nearby Duck Lake Nature Area along the southern side of Lake Como. Once a rail bed, the area is restricted to hikers and is a peaceful refuge for birds hidden among a kaleidoscope of tree-top colors.
A little further west, in Walworth County, lies Delavan Lake, a favorite among fishing enthusiasts. Majestic Oaks Golf Course overlooks the lake — as scenic a distraction from play as are the resplendent mature trees at most holes. This is one of the many championship courses in the area. Nearby Paul Lange Arboretum is a lovely 20-plus acre nature spot, with a short nature trail though mature trees, a gazebo, and canoe or kayak access onto Lake Comus. Harvest time in the Delavan area brings bumper crops of apples and pumpkins for the picking at Apple Barn Orchard and Winery in Elkhorn.
For family entertainment, the Geneva Lakes area offers everything from Lake Geneva Oktoberfest (Oct. 6 – 7) to Lake Lawn Resort’s Fall Family Festival (Oct. 5 – 8) to Delavan’s Boos & Brews Bash (Oct 26. — 27) to Lake Geneva Canopy Tours Pumpkin Drop (Oct. 27 – 28), where participants zoom down a 1,200-ft racing zipline through woods, pumpkin in hand, to aim at a bulls-eye target below.
Wisconsin, Further Afield — Kettle Moraine, Devil’s Lake and the Upper Mississippi River Valley
Less than an hour north of Milwaukee, The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is a 115-mile ramble through a riot of oak, maple and aspen woods in the 50,000 acres of Kettle Moraine State Forest. The scenic fall drive traverses six Wisconsin counties; from Whitewater Lake in Walworth County north to Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County. The forests include much of the terminal moraine (where the last great glacier stopped 12,000 years ago) in south-central Wisconsin. There are countless places to picnic, hike, camp, bike, and fish, as you contemplate the waves of bronze, amber, red and green that revive each fall along trails and rock formations carved during the ice age.
Head out due west from the Kettle Moraine area, a leisurely drive through colorful Wisconsin woodlands, stopping only to check out the small towns and lakes that lead you to Lodi. This is the starting point for a magnificent fall tour. Drive west along Highway 113 for five miles to Gibraltar Rock County Park (watch for the signs). The climb to the top is steep and not for the faint-of-heart, but the autumn views are spectacular. Two miles further on Highway 113 you’ll cross the Wisconsin River aboard the ColSac III Merrimac car ferry — it’s free. The road then turns north and bisects Devil’s Lake State Park, one of Wisconsin’s natural treasures with terrific views from the bluffs above the deep blue lake. Trails lead from the lake’s beach steeply upwards to huge boulders perched atop wooded cliffs. A tranquil haven for hiking, rock-climbing, kayaking and fishing, Devils Lake does not permit powerboats or jet-skis.
Minutes north along Highway 12, you’ll come to the heart of the Wisconsin Dells. Among its many amusements, are autumn boat tours through the carved sandstone bluffs of the Wisconsin River. If distance is not a factor, head further west toward the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Here, a broad ribbon of water is shouldered by sandstone bluffs daubed in amber and rust. From the town of Potosi, go as far as you please along Great River Road that stretches 250 miles north to Prescott. Along the way are charming river towns, historic hotels, antique shops, great cafés, and stunning bluff-top views.
Indiana — A Getaway to the South
When it comes to fall colors, counties to the west and south of Indianapolis are among the most idyllic — and most stunning — autumn destinations in the Midwest. Rockville, for instance, is the site of Indiana’s largest festival, the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival, held Oct. 12 – 21 this year. Festivities are spread throughout the county, concentrated in hamlets that house some of the area’s 31 covered bridges. Turning trees and fallen leaves accentuate the bright barnwood reds of the bridges, some of them mirrored in the rivers they straddle.
Driving further south along scenic byways, nature’s palette is on full display at Cataract Falls, a two-tiered waterfall that is the largest in the state. The colors are breathtaking and the surrounding park is rich in choices for hiking. You may visit one more covered bridge at the falls, spanning Mill Creek. It has stunning views over the water and a backdrop of trees at their peak.
Still further south, Brown County is known for is vibrant fall foliage. Oak, chestnut, hickory, maple and the rarer yellowwood are on view at Brown County State Park, where deep, rich colors stretch mile upon mile. The park offers hiking (of course), biking, iplining, canoeing and kayaking, as well as ATV and buggy tours as some of the many ways to soak in the season.
Southwest Michigan — A Paradise of Sand Dunes and Towering Trees
During fall, southwest Michigan undergoes a beautiful transition from deep green leaves to brilliant yellows, oranges, reds and browns, accompanied by gorgeous autumn sunsets along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. Within two hours from most western suburbs, you’ll reach a stretch of road — the Blue Star Memorial Highway — that hugs the lake. It features dune-lined beaches and delightful resort towns, perfect stopping--off points antiquing, dining or hiking.
The town of St. Joseph, at the mouth of the St. Joseph River, for instance, teems with shops, restaurants, wineries and galleries, as well as one of Michigan’s most picturesque lighthouses. On the road further north, through breaks in trees, there are vistas of blue waters and golden beaches as you approach South Haven. This quaint port town offers a century-old lighthouse, and large expanses of public beaches. A fall delight, the Lindy Lou Black River Cruise sets out from South Haven. View the display of fall colors from the deck of this electric-powered river launch as it plies the Black River waters.
Nearby, Sarrett Nature Center in Benton Harbor is a gorgeous, 1,000-acre preserve along the Paw Paw River valley. Its eight trails are excellent for spying migrating birds and autumn wildflowers. A treetop trail takes you up to the canopy for an eye-to-eye view of beautiful leaves. If you can bear to part ways with lake views, take time out for a picnic lunch at Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm in Eau Claire. This 400-acre orchards offer ready-picked and pick-your-own fruits and a country store filled with fresh produce. If fermented fruit is more to your taste, Lemon Creek Farm & Winery is just minutes away in Berrien Springs.
Further up the lake’s coast are the towns of Saugatuck and Douglas. Here, the combination of waterways, sand beaches and towering trees bursting with robust reds, rusts and yellow can be stunning. The bird and wildlife sanctuary at Saugatuck Dunes State Park, a river cruise on the Star of Saugatuck or a simple sunset picnic on sandy beaches are equally rewarding ways to enjoy the colors.
Still further north, about two hours from Saugatuck, Ludington State Park has a fantastic array of sand dunes, marshlands and forests. There are three modern campgrounds if you want to stay overnight. There are a multitude of trails through tall stands of trees in vivid oranges, yellows and reds and along the vista-rich lakeshore. One of the most scenic is the Lighthouse Trail, leading to Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Three miles long, it winds over open and wooded sand dunes. There are lighthouse tours through the end of October — with stand-out views from the top of a tower of steps.