Fun Family Fall Foraging

When the warm days of summer turn to the crisp days of autumn, we feel an urgency to enjoy the best this season has to offer, from apple orchards and pumpkin patches to homemade goodies that make the most of our abundant harvest.

When the warm days of summer turn to the crisp days of autumn, members of the animal kingdom get to work, bulking up for a snowy hibernation or collecting and stashing nuts and seeds to get them through the thin winter months.

While humans don’t need to worry about stockpiling food for the winter, we still might feel a sense of urgency knowing that, in the near future, we will be spending more days inside, avoiding the harsh cold of winter.

Fall is the perfect time to fit in a day trip or two, and there are plenty of places in our region where the whole family can forage, not just for tasty treats, but also for long-lasting memories to think back on while staring out the window at the snow-covered world.

Pick an Apple Orchard

A trip to the apple orchard is an autumn tradition for many families in our region for good reason. Most orchards offer much more than just an opportunity to pick apples, making them the perfect place to spend quality time with the family.

fresh-picked apples have a number of advantages over their grocery-store counterparts. A grocery store apple that sits in a room-temperature environment is much more likely to go soft or mealy than one that sits on the branch. Picking apples also offers more quality control, since the apples aren’t all sitting together in a pile. One bad apple can, literally, spoil the bunch. Picking your own apples gives you the ability to bypass any with defects. And let’s not forget the fresh air, exercise and sense of accomplishment that comes with picking your own food … even if you do cheat and grab a bag at the orchard’s on-site market.

Most orchards grow a wide variety of apples, each with a different harvesting season. This means that, from August to October, families can fill their baskets with a wide range of delicious fruit for cooking, eating or both.

Speaking of eating apples versus cooking apples, what is the difference? While a great many varieties of apples fall into both categories, eating apples tend to be larger than their cooking counterparts. Sugar content is also a factor. Deliciously sweet apples like the Fuji or the gala are popular for eating on their own, making into apple sauce or slicing up for salads. Tart apples, like the pink lady or granny smith, are coveted for pies, crisps and cobblers.

All of these apples and more can be found in orchards throughout the Chicago suburbs. Royal Oak Farm, at 15908 Hebron Road, in Harvard, grows 30 varieties of apples on a 160-acre, four-orchard farm. Visitors can choose from jonafrees, blondees, honeycrisps, galas and other popular varieties, picked directly from the orchard or purchased pre-picked from the orchard’s store.

All Seasons Orchard, 14510 Ill. Rt. 176 in Woodstock, is another popular stop for apple pickers. An autumn staple for over 30 years, All Seasons is the largest of Woodstock’s u-pick orchards, boasting more than 15,000 trees in two orchards. Eleven varieties of apples can be found here, as well as three varieties of pears. Like Royal Oak Farm, visitors can opt to pick their own apples or pop by the orchard’s store to purchase them pre-picked.

But there are more to these orchards than apples. Both Royal Oak Farm and All Seasons Orchard offer a myriad of activities for family fun and adventure.

All Seasons Orchard’s corn maze offers a traditional maze for visitors to explore. Royal Oak Farm, on the other hand, has stuck to the apple theme with Amaze ‘n Apples, the only known apple tree maze in the country. Containing 1.5 miles of possible routes, three activity areas, a climbing tower and nine varieties of apples to be picked along the way, Amaze ‘n Apples gives visitors a singularly unique way to get lost.

Petting zoos are another way to keep visitors engaged. Royal Oak Farms keeps baby cows, lambs, goats and fowl around for visitors to see up close. All Seasons Orchard’s petting zoo also includes a bunny village and a goat bridge. Both parks offer playgrounds, where kids can blow off some steam before hopping back in the car.

All Seasons’ barnyard is filled with activities including giant swings, a mini zip line, pedal carts and giant wooden animals for climbing and photo ops. At Royal Oak, children love the climbing structures as well as an old-fashioned carousel, where visitors can ride horses or chariots while listening to calliope music. Royal Oak also features two trains. The Royal Oak Express is a replica of a 19th century train that’s fun for kids and parents alike. The colorful barrel train is just for the kids to enjoy a fun-filled tour around the orchard.

When your visit comes to an end and you’re ready to take your bountiful harvest of apples home, be sure to keep them stored in a plastic bag with holes. The bag will help the apples hold on to their juiciness, while the holes will prevent the apples from getting too warm, which can lead to rot.
If you want apples to last, keep them in the refrigerator. An apple will ripen 10 times faster at room temperature than at a temperature of 33-40 degrees. When serving apple slices or using them for salads, be sure to dip them in lemon juice first, to prevent them from losing their freshness too quickly.

Have a Gourd Time at the Pumpkin Patch

You don’t need to be Linus, from the “Peanuts” comics, to enjoy spending time in a pumpkin patch. For many Midwestern families, the pumpkin patch is as popular and time-honored as the apple orchard. In fact, many orchards, like Royal Oak Farms and All Seasons Orchard, feature pumpkin patches, making them a one-stop shop for fall family fun. And with pumpkin-adjacent holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving on the horizon, a trip to the pumpkin patch is a great opportunity for grownups to pick the perfect pie pumpkin, while kids seek out the ultimate jack-o-lantern.

Speaking of kids, a trip to the patch (or any farm) is a great teaching tool, providing insight into how pumpkins, squash and other vegetables are grown and how they make their way to the dinner table. It’s a fun, safe way for them to experience life on a farm, and selecting their own pumpkin for Halloween provides an important connection, as well as a real and lasting sense of accomplishment.

Wiltse’s Farm, 50W379 Ill. Rt. 38, in Maple Park, is a quintessential example of life on the farm. Visitors are treated to a tractor ride to the farm’s pumpkin patch, where they are free to roam until the gourd of their dreams catches their eye. For those who don’t want to travel too far, a wide assortment of pumpkins is also available for purchase in the farm’s front market. Wiltse’s Farm also provides u-pick opportunities for sweet corn, flowers and other assorted vegetables, depending on the season.

Also in Maple Park, Kuiper’s Family Farm, 1N318 Watson Road, is an orchard, pumpkin patch, flower farm and wedding venue with plenty of activities for the family to enjoy. Admission to Kuiper’s includes apple and pumpkin picking as well as a chance to climb on the tire tractor mountain, ride the tractor train, cheer on your favorite porcine competitor in the pig races and pet adorable farm animals. Brave visitors might want to explore the haunted forest and Jed’s Scream Shed. It’s a great place to get into the fall spirit and find a pumpkin to take home as a temporary souvenir.

Once you’ve found your pumpkin, be sure to store it with the stem attached in a cool, dry place with good ventilation. Pumpkins are a hardy squash and do best in temperatures around 45 to 50 degrees. Make sure the pumpkin you select is free of bruises or soft spots.

Pumpkins are one of nature’s super foods. They’re high in Vitamin A and potassium, and they’re low on fat and sodium. Their pulpy flesh is perfect for pies and stews, while their seeds can be roasted and salted for a delicious snack. And once Halloween is over, your jack-o-lantern makes a valuable contribution when it’s tossed on the compost heap.

Stock Up on Memories at a Forest Preserve

Winter can provide its own type of outdoor fun, but fall is a time where families can have one last hurrah at hiking, biking, fishing and any other outdoor activity that doesn’t require snowshoes, skis or parkas. Luckily, the Chicago suburbs have plenty of forest preserves to explore before the snow falls.

One activity that’s particularly fall-friendly is stargazing. Autumn is a favorite season for many sky watchers because it gives them a chance to get a last look at summer’s stars, while winter’s constellations move toward center stage. The McHenry County Conservation District provides stargazing opportunities in three of its conservation areas. Pleasant Valley Conservation Area in Woodstock, Marengo Ridge Conservation Area in Marengo and Winding Creek Conservation Area in Hebron all have the lower light levels needed to make those stars really pop. Although the areas close to the public after sunset, astronomy enthusiasts can call the Brookdale Administrative Office for a permit that gives them access to stargaze from the parking area. Be sure to provide 48 hours’ notice and state the hours of your stay.

Geocaching is another great way to get outside and enjoy the fall. It’s essentially a real-world outdoor treasure hunt using a global positioning system (GPS). Geocachers place a small object in a container and hide it, providing coordinates for other geocachers to find via GPS. Once the cache is found, the hunters sign a logbook provided with the cache, then return it to its hiding place for others to discover.

The Kane County Forest Preserve District has embraced the geocaching craze and provided an online list of places where geocachers can hide their treasures. In total, there are 20 preserves in Kane County where geocachers are active. Just be sure to fill out the online application and place the sticker you receive on the geocache container. Happy hunting!

Autumn may signify the end of summer, but it’s also a beginning of a whole new chapter of exploration, adventure and family connection. With so many orchards, pumpkin patches, farms and forests to experience, there’s plenty of fun to be had before the winter winds blow.