It’s the season to get lost in the mesmerizing gifts of nature, while reveling in the crisp and invigorating fall air.
The 1,243-acre Volo Bog State Natural Area, in Volo, features a quaking bog and is surrounded by scenic woodlands, savanna, prairies and shrubland. The landscape truly comes alive with autumn colors.
The best place to take in the sights of this expansive preserve is the Tamarack View Trail, says Stacy L. Iwanicki, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Education Coordinator. The Tamarack View loops 2.8 miles around the Volo Bog wetland basin and traverses through woodlands, prairie restorations, marshes and old fields.
“It can be hiked in 90 minutes, but can take longer if one decides to stop and engage in the sights, smells and sounds of autumn,” says Iwanicki. “Insects add an element of interest to any hike. Look for butterflies and other pollinators as they are busy preparing for winter sleep. Look for katydids and long-horned grasshoppers in the background.”
Pay close attention to the tamarack trees, deciduous pines that grow atop the floating bog mat. They’re visible from a distance and turn a lovely golden hue around Halloween. Unfortunately, the best views are inaccessible right now, as one of the main boardwalks is closed until repairs can be made.
“Visitors can enjoy autumn wetland specialties including smartweeds, willowherbs, skullcaps, tickseeds and water dock,” says Iwanicki. “The great diversity of habitats at Volo Bog State Natural Area also provides lots of colors – the yellows of the hickories and aspens, russets of oaks, reds of maples and sumacs – these all add to the woodlands’ fall color display, but it doesn’t stop there.”
Mixed among the autumn prairies are lovely asters and goldenrods, which add color and contrast against the orange hues of big bluestem grass.
Volo Bog’s fall colors tend to be enhanced when the sun fades lower on the landscape and dew settles on the vegetation, says Iwanicki, adding that the best views happen right around opening time at 8 a.m.
Spanning 1,700 acres, the Morton Arboretum, in Lisle, features an unusual range of tree species that showcase rich and varied autumn color, making for a fantastic fall hiking experience. There are 16 miles of wood-chipped trails and 9 miles of paved roads, which visitors can easily access from more than 30 parking areas.
“Hundreds of thousands of trees from all over the world that change in a tapestry of red, orange, gold and brown make fall a dazzling time to hike among the woodlands, prairies, lakes and streams at The Morton Arboretum,” says Bridget Bittman, marketing specialist at the Arboretum.
Some of the more popular paths include the top of Frost Hill, which provides a vista view across the DuPage River valley at the core of the arboretum. The Main Trail Loop 2, a wood-chipped trail that spans just less than 2 miles on the east side of the grounds, allows visitors to take in colorful linden, maple and Appalachia tree collections. Trails ranging from a half-mile to 1 mile cut through the Schulenberg Prairie, where golden grasses and oak trees sway in the wind.
For those who may prefer shorter hikes, Bittman suggests checking out the Woodland Trail, measuring just more than a half-mile, and the Heritage Trail, spanning 1.3 miles.
“Both trails lead through a woodland of oaks and vivid sugar maples,” says Bittman. “Interpretive panels help visitors explore the area’s geology, trees and native plants.”
The Meadow Lake trail invites a half-mile stroll in close proximity to the visitors center. Take in the sights of native grasses and perennials decorating the shoreline. This trail winds around a lake and is surrounded by trees. It’s accessible to strollers and wheelchairs.
The Morton Arboretum hosts an exciting lineup of hiking events during the fall, including the Fall Color 5K Run and Walk; an outdoor “walking play” that’s entertaining for the whole family; the Scarecrow Trail; Troll Hunt exhibition; Family Jack-O’-Lantern Hike; and Fall Foliage Walking Tour.
The timing and intensity of tree color depends on the weather and varies from year to year, but it’s a safe bet that colors at the arboretum will begin to show in early to mid-October. Be sure to check on trail conditions, using The Bloom and Color Report on Morton Arboretum’s website at mortonarb.org/colorreport.
Grassy Lake, Cuba Marsh and Fox River Preserves
Lake County Forest Preserves offers several great trails during the fall, but there are a couple that stand out to Nan Buckardt, director of education.
Fox River Forest Preserve, in Port Barrington, features a trail running alongside the river, close to the marina and venturing out onto a point that meets up with the water. Here, visitors can view oak trees with native wildflowers resting underneath their canopies. The oaks show off beautiful rich browns and deep burgundies during the fall, making a relaxing and pleasant hike that provides a fantastic glimpse into neighboring wetland areas.
Grassy Lake Forest Preserve, in Lake Barrington, has 5.8 miles of gravel and mowed grass trails. One of the best routes is Grassy Lake Yellow Trail, which meanders through grasses and wildflowers and climbs in elevation until it brings hikers to the top of a kame – a steep-sided mound of sand and gravel deposited by a melting ice sheet. From this vista, there’s a sweeping view of the surrounding area and McHenry County.
In Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve, in Deer Park, visitors navigate a winding trail of just more than 3 miles as they traverse wetlands and an oak savanna. The trail leads past white pines and crosses into a wetland via a long boardwalk.
“Some of these trails are part of the Hike Lake County program designed to guide residents to explore various forest preserves,” says Buckardt. “If you complete seven of the 12 hikes before Nov. 30, you’ll earn a commemorative shield for your walking stick, or a zipper pull.”
Early fall, before the frost, is a good time to see butterflies and milkweed seeds floating through the air. By early October, maple trees and flowers start to really show off their colors, with peak displays occurring around Columbus Day.
“My best advice is to spend as much time outside as you can and watch the progression yourself. That way, you can enjoy the entire display that nature offers,” Buckardt says.
These three trails are accessible to hikers of all levels. An interactive trail map on the Lake County Forest Preserves website shows a closer look at all of the system’s many trails and their skill levels.
“Each gives a different view of the world,” Buckardt says. “Though colors associated with autumn are typically produced by maple trees, the colors coming from the oaks and prairie areas in the preserves in the west side of the county can be equally inspiring. Though not the vibrant scarlets and neon orange of maple leaves, the colors are rich and deserve our attention.”
Colors in Kane County
The Forest Preserves District of Kane County encompasses more than 22,000 acres and holds something for all levels of hiker.
Bliss Woods, a 235-acre preserve in Sugar Grove, is one of the best spots in the county, says Barb McKittrick, KCFP environmental education manager. The preserve’s 2 miles of trails meander through south-facing slopes filled with beautiful oaks and hickories.
At the nearly 1,300-acre Freeman Kame-Meagher preserve, near Gilberts in the northwest part of the county, hikers can explore 10 miles of trails and trek along a moraine. They will experience rolling hills with meadows, woodlands and wetlands. Youth group camping facilities are also available at this location.
“There’s a lot of picturesque topography here,” says McKittrick. Visitors will find wet kettle pockets defined by wooded kames and a number of hills and drumlins – small hills formed by compacted boulder clay molded by glacial action.
Johnson’s Mound, located in Elburn, greets hikers with a variety of geological features including a 200-foot-high kame.
“There’s a really great maple woodland here, with nearly 3 miles of trails,” McKittrick adds.
Leaf colors tend to be at their peak from mid-October until the end of the month, but the best places to see fall color can be unpredictable, as the quality of the color depends on the weather. Heavy winds or rains can cause leaves to fall before they reach the height of their vibrant fall hues.
The Kane County Forest Preserve District offers a variety of programs for hiking enthusiasts, including the Trek With a Naturalist program, which features a two-hour naturalist-led hike at a different preserve every month.
Visitors can also check out the Fall Foliage Hike in November, which is a fun way for the whole family to get out and enjoy the beauty of fall.
“We have a lot of quality woodlands and restored prairies that show off nice yellows and purples in the fall,” says McKittrick. “A lot of research says that going for a hike is not only good physically, but mentally as well. It’s termed ‘Nature RX,’ also known as ‘forest bathing.’ It’s a great way to get out in local forest preserves.”
A Hike with a Bike
The Great Western Bike Trail stretches from Sycamore into St. Charles, following 17 miles along a former railway corridor that traverses through DeKalb and Kane counties. In St. Charles, it leads into the Fox River Trail, which follows the river from Kendall County to the Wisconsin state line.
Both trails are multi-use, so they’re often used for biking as well as hiking or rollerblading.
The trail surface of the Great Western is mostly crushed stone; parts of the river trail are paved.
“In general, I would say these bike trails make more of an urban type of hike – they are paved or screened surfaces and travel in a generally straight line,” McKittrick says. “They are especially good for mobility-impaired folks who want to get out for a hike.”
The Fox River Trail is particularly scenic because it courses through many wooded sections and provides lovely, close-up views of the Fox River.
The path connects to additional trails, including the Illinois Prairie Path and the Virgil Gilman Trail in Aurora.
In Algonquin, the Fox River Trail becomes the Prairie Trail, which passes through McHenry County and ends just north of Richmond at the Wisconsin state line. It’s mostly flat and mostly paved along its 26.6 miles north of Algonquin.