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Fall foliage around Chicago for first-timers

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. 

Here are some fall-tastic locations and activities to jump into this season.

Forest Preserves of Cook County

A great spot to immerse yourself in some nearby fall color is in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Before you go, stop by the library and check out a book about trees or download a free app called Leafsnap. 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.

Morton Arboretum

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 the Fall Color Festival, which includes several events for families every day in October. 

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 favorites: Starved Rock State Park in Utica and Wildlife Prairie State Park, 10 miles west of Peoria.

Starved Rock State Park

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. 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

Wildlife Prairie State Park in Peoria 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 Wildlife Scary Park Halloween event runs from 5-10 p.m. on Fridays, 2-10 p.m. on Saturdays and 2-8 p.m. on Sundays. Admission to the park is $9 for 13 and up, $6 for 3-12 and free for 2 and under.

If you choose to stay overnight, try to rent one of the cool converted cabooses, stables or silos for the night.

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