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Nothing says fall like a meandering drive or a visit to a local park to view the seasonal color. The brilliant leaves and gold-dusted landscapes are set off to perfection against the bright blue skies that nature delivers in abundance this month. Fortunately, here in the Chicago area there are plenty of places for leaf peepers to enjoy the annual show—from the grounds of Friendship Village to rolling prairies and nature preserves.
The peak week for color in this area generally occurs in mid-October, although the exact dates vary from year to year. This year, the Farmers’ Almanac suggests our region will experience peak color from October 5 to 21 while the Illinois Fall Color Report estimates it is occurring now, in the second week of October.
Predicting when peak color will be achieved is always just an educated guess. Wet springs get trees off to a strong start, but overly rainy summers can often tamp down autumn color. Drought, in contrast, stresses trees and can cause them to lose their leaves early before they develop maximum color.
In addition to the right amount of rain at the right time, the ideal weather conditions to produce a colorful autumn include sunny days and cool nights starting in August. This helps leaves to produce those glorious red, orange and yellow hues leaf peepers covet.
As we all learned in elementary school, leaves contain chlorophyll—a green pigment which converts sunlight into sugars that nourish the tree by a process called photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is responsible for those summery green shades, but it isn’t the only pigment contained in leaves. Lurking unseen during the summer are yellow and orange carotenoids, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their color.
While many people assume it’s the cooler fall temperatures that trigger leaves to change color, it’s actually the shorter days associated with this time of year. Trees begin to block the production of chlorophyll as nights lengthen and it decomposes, revealing the yellow and orange pigments that are hidden during the summer months. Red leaves are the result of yet another pigment, anthocyanin, that is manufactured during the fall when sunlight hits sugars that are trapped inside the leaves.
In this area, sugar maples are often considered the showstoppers, with their bright red, sunny yellow, or mixed red-orange-yellow-and-green displays. But other trees and shrubs also dazzle. They include the beautiful red burning bushes and sumacs and blazing yellow hickories and black walnuts. These trees are all approaching their height of color this week, which makes the coming days a perfect time to enjoy the show.
Here are some of the best area places in the area to tree gaze:
Morton Arboretum, Lisle—With 4,200 types of trees on 1,700 acres of woods, wetlands and gardens, you’ll certainly find variety here. Hike on wooded paths, stick to the roads or stroll the Scarecrow Trail around Meadow Lake. Check out the weekly Fall Color Report to learn which trees and plant collections are at their peak and where to find them.
Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton—The centerpiece of this preserve, previously a private estate, is the equestrian center, but you can also take in the color on the 6.4-mile Danada-Herrick Regional Trail and the 1.1-mile Danada Forest Nature Trail.
Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville—Formed by glaciers 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, this popular nature preserve features lots of options for drinking in the fall color, including oak and hickory woodlands, prairies, wetlands and grasslands, a lake and two ponds, and Mt. Hoy, an 836-foot hill that offers beautiful views of the area.
Ned Brown Preserve, Elk Grove Village—Also known as Busse Woods, this 3,558-acre site features ancient forests, numerous trails and the Busse Reservoir.
And if you prefer to take in the color on wheels, the Illinois Office of Tourism offers several beguiling road trips—including The Great River Road—on its Enjoy Illinois website. If two wheels are more to your liking, there are many bicycle trails in the area, including the Busse Woods Trail that runs between Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village and Schaumburg.
Looking to stay even closer to home? The grounds at Friendship Village are bursting with autumn beauty, from the adjacent Friendship Woods to the fall flowers of the new Butterfly Garden. Or enjoy the reflection of the blue sky in the koi ponds.
Wherever you choose to take in the seasonal color, don’t wait. It won’t be long until, as Shakespeare said in his Sonnet 73, “yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang upon those boughs which shake against the cold.’