Fall is the time of year most Chicagoans pine for-the relief after summer's brutal heat and the last stop before winter's brutal cold.
It's not just the crisp days and cool nights. It's the joy of little feet crunching through a pile of brown, brittle leaves (and scattering that pile you just raked back across the lawn) and the soul-soothing beauty of a Midwest forest ablaze in yellows, reds and oranges.
We know those brilliant colors will show up every year. But predicting exactly when peak fall foliage season will hit is a dicey business. Tree experts say it depends on the weather and varies year to year. Generally, though, the second week of October is peak color season around Chicago.
A great spot to immerse yourself in some nearby fall color is the Cook County Forest Preserves that ring Chicago.
Before you go, stop by the library and check out a book about trees or download a free app called Leafsnap to your iPhone or iPad. Then when you arrive, ask the kids to gather as many different colors of leaves as they can. Once they've got a pile of leaves, help them sort the leaves into similar colors and shapes. Finally, try to match the shapes with the tree leaves depicted in the book or on the app to figure out which tree produced the red leaves, versus the yellow or orange leaves. It's a great way to help our nature-starved children identify the different varieties of trees.
If you prefer a more organized approach to learning about trees, head to the Morton Arboretum, the tree museum in west suburban Lisle. The Arboretum celebrates the fall foliage season with AutumnFest, which includes several events for kids. The fest, on weekends in October and Columbus Day, includes demonstrations by glass-blowing artists and a Taffy Apple Bar where kids can design their own taffy apple with nuts and candy toppings.
Work off that sugar buzz with a stroll around Meadow Lake to see scarecrows created by local Girl Scouts. Or head to the Children's Garden for "Trick or Trees," a series of pumpkin- and bat-themed crafts, games and prizes. If your kids can't wait until Halloween to wear their cool costumes (and what kid can?), this is the place to be. Kids are welcome to show up at the Children's Garden any weekend in October sporting their favorite Halloween costume.
If you'd like to get out of the neighborhood for a bigger palate of fall colors, there are many spots in Illinois well worth a day trip, but two near Chicago are among my favorites: Starved Rock State Park in Utica and Wildlife Prairie State Park, 10 miles west of Peoria.
Starved Rock State Park, located along the south side of the Illinois River, one mile south of Utica, has 13 miles of hiking trails and 18 canyons to keep kids happy. On Oct. 15 and 16, the park hosts a "Fall Colors Weekend" with guided hikes through the brilliantly colored forest. Tours leave from the visitors' center at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. The park is open from dawn to dusk daily. Admission to the park is free. It's an easy day trip, but if you want to make a weekend of it, there's a campground, lodge and cabins for rent in the park. There's also the nearby Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Resort indoor water park.
Wildlife Prairie State Park is a little farther, but a great place for kids. The 2,000-acre zoological park is home to wolves, bison, waterfowl, black bears, elk, cougars, otters and more. On the last two weekends in October, the park hosts a Halloween celebration that includes trick-or-treating in the woods, magic shows, face painting and hayrides. The Merry Not-So-Scary Halloween event runs from 5-9 p.m. each day. Admission to the park is $7 for 13 and up, $5 for 4-12 and free for 3 and under.
If you choose to stay overnight here, try to rent one of the cool converted cabooses, stables or silos for the night.
Cindy Richards is the mom of two who gets her muse from traveling the world, usually with kids in tow. She also writes for TravelingMom.com, where she also serves as editor.
See more of Cindy's stories here.