"If I were a bird, I would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns." Fine words, from the fine English novelist George Eliot (who was in fact a woman, Mary Anne Evans). We only get one autumn in Chicago, and although the trees downtown aren't exactly bursting with color yet, the suburbs certainly are.
Unfortunately, the city itself is dominated by ashes and elms, which make for a relatively bland autumn palette. But that doesn't mean reds and oranges can't be found. Your best bet within city limits will be Lincoln Park's North and South Pond, home to some fiery maples and oaks, Jackson Park near the Museum of Science and Industry on the South Side, and Millennium Park in the Loop, which is lined with sugar maples, crab apples, hawthorns, and red buds.
And if you'd like to hit the open road, here are the 5 best places to see fall foliage within an hour's drive of downtown. If I were you, I'd call the appropriate park or forest preserve district before your visit and ask about the current level of leaf color. Also, you can find more detailed profiles of all of the following areas in my book, Best Hikes Near Chicago.
Chicagoland's best-kept natural secret, this quiet patch of forest lies along the Des Plaines River near Buffalo Grove, 30 miles north of downtown. The area is celebrated for its lush tree diversity--maples, oaks, hickories, ashes, and more--which creates quite an autumn spectrum of color. You'll also find a gorgeous, brand new Welcome Center.
If an arboretum is an outdoor museum, the Morton Arboretum is surely the Smithsonian. Filled with more than 4,000 different kinds of trees from over 40 different countries, visiting this arborist's paradise near Naperville is about as close as you can get to flying around the world like George Eliot's autumn-seeking bird.
This sprawling green ring of wilderness actually surrounds a secretive research facility, the Argonne National Laboratory, once home to the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Today, the thick forest of oaks and maples provides plenty of fall color. Plus, you can try to spot one of the ghostly white deer that lend the area yet another layer of mystique.
Handsome and rustic, Fullersburg Woods straddles Salt Creek, a wide river lined with leafy towers of gold, red, and orange during October. A quaint visitor center hosts plenty of free child-friendly programs, and a spooky nineteenth-century grist mill at the southern end of the park was once part of the Underground Railroad.
Chicago Botanic Garden
The name is misleading, in that the Chicago Botanic Garden is far, far more than a garden, and that it feels like somewhere far, far away from Chicago. It's more like a Disneyland for naturalists, horticulturalists, and, well, people who like flowers and trees. A photographer's dream, its 23 gardens are set on 9 picturesque islands that you could spend an entire day exploring.
If you don't mind a slightly longer drive, Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County and the Indiana Dunes are also excellent places to see the seasons change, and they also boast some of the best hiking trails in the Midwest.