Pros Reveal Favorite Leaf-Peeping Spots In The Chicago AreaSep 29, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Dave Griffith noticed some trees in northern Illinois going into early dormancy at the beginning of this year’s growing season, and that did not bode well for brilliant autumn colors. But ample moisture later in the season has Griffith, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources district forester, believing this could be another great year to enjoy changing hues in leaves of trees and shrubs in the region.
“You want good moisture right before the fall season,” says Griffith, who works in the northeastern counties. “Ideally, to get optimal fall color, you need a combination of warm sunny days and cold nights, but not freezing temperatures.”
Every autumn is different regarding the timing and the brilliance of colors, but what is constant is the fact that the leaves on trees and shrubs like oaks and maples cannot tolerate cold, so they go into dormancy when the amount of daylight begins to diminish.
“When fall comes, trees begin taking the nutrients out of the leaves and sending them down to the roots, where they are stored there like batteries to help with leaf out in spring,” Griffith explains.
Leaves are green in spring and summer because they contain chlorophyll, which contains a green pigment. Other color pigments such as yellow, orange and brown are masked by the chlorophyll, which interacts with sunlight to create food for trees. When chlorophyll disappears in fall, leaves take on the masked colors. In addition, another color pigment, which is reddish and is called anthocyanin, develops in the leaves in fall.
“If you want the flashiest fall colors, it’s all about sugar maples,” says Greg Spyreas, associate research scientist in botany for the Illinois Natural History Survey. Sugar maple leaf colors range from deep golden yellow to bright cherry red in autumn.
“Most of our Chicago region forest preserves have sugar maples,” he says, but the best places to view many colorful maples is in the Cook County preserves along the North Branch of the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River that goes way up north. These areas have some of the highest densities of sugar maples in the region.”
Spyreas’ favorite way to see sparkling sugar maple color in autumn is to find a scenic overlook. One good vantage point is from an apartment or other building along Lake Michigan that has a great view of Chicago’s Lincoln Park or take a walk through the park and into the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is free, to explore fall colors.
“One of my favorite spots for fall colors in the Chicago area is a hidden gem called Black Partridge Woods,” Spyreas says. “The overlook from the trail is incredible in fall.” The 80-acre forest preserve features bluffs overlooking the Des Plaines River with spring-fed streams and forested ravines. “You also can get a sugar maple canopy view from nearby Paw Paw Woods.”
Griffith also mentions Coral Woods, near the McHenry County town of Marengo, for brilliant sugar maple color. “In fall when you walk through Coral Woods, it’s like bright orange lights have been turned on where the sugar maples are,” he says. “It’s like you’re wearing orange sunglasses.” He says although some maples have been removed from some forest preserves and natural areas to allow oaks to regenerate and get some sun, there’s no worry that there won’t be enough sugar maples to gawk at in the Chicago region in fall.
One of Griffith’s favorite places for fall colors is at Chain O’Lakes State Park, in Lake and McHenry counties. “There are lots of oaks, hickories and sumacs,” he says. The hickories turn a bright yellow. Red oak leaves change to dark red. White oak leaves are often light brown and sumacs turn blood red. “It’s a really cool combination of colors,” Griffith relates.
Moraine Hills State Park is another place to enjoy fall colors, he says, adding that oak woodland restoration done by the state has opened up the canopy and allowed the oaks to shine in fall. “At Volo Bog, the fall color is spectacular,” he notes. “There’s a lot of sumac there and the tamaracks turn goldish brown.”
Spyreas says some of Chicago’s older cemeteries, such as Graceland, are peaceful and lovely and can put on a show in fall. “These cemeteries are diverse with trees, so you get lots of different colors,” Spyreas says. “In good years, you can see flaming orange and red in the maples.”
“The gnarled oaks at Illinois Beach State Park look especially timeless in fall, and a great place to see incredibly bright yellow color of sassafras, one of our uncommon trees, is at Sand Ridge Nature Preserve,” he adds. Visitors also can wander the stands of black oaks and Hill’s oaks, which turn brown and red in autumn.
“I also really love how some prairies can look in the fall with hues of gold, orange and blue,” Spyreas says. “Sand Ridge Nature Preserve is one of our best ancient prairies, and it is vibrant in most autumns.”
A little farther afield, “The dunes in Indiana and Michigan really, really explode with color in the fall,” Spyreas says. “It’s some of the prettiest land in the Midwest.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health
and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and
regional publications. Read more
Other local spots
to take in the fall colors:
Nature boardwalk at Lincoln Park,
2001 N. Clark St., Chicago
Millennium Park and Lurie Garden,
201 E. Randolph St., Chicago
Maple Grove Forest Preserve, Downers Grove
Night-Heron Trail at Fullersburg Woods
Forest Preserve, 3609 Spring Rd, Oakbrook
Wright Woods, 24830 St. Mary’s Road, Mettawa