The good news: Fall is striking in the Great Lakes region of the Midwest.
The not-so-good news: The Chicago area — along with Milwaukee, Detroit and the rest of the Lower Lakes region — is predicted to have a winter of “bone-chilling cold” and heavy snow, at least according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
So if any year is the year to get outdoors while you still can, this is it. Take advantage of all the Midwest has to offer now, from the crisp, temperate air to the enchanting fall foliage. You can stay close — a recommended site for leaf peeping is The Morton Arboretum, which this year brings back its family-friendly Scarecrow Trail — or travel farther afield.
Better yet, there are enough weekends left to plan multiple adventures.
WBEZ put together a jam-packed guide to get you started. Call it a bucket list if you want, or simply a list of researched suggestions that come highly recommended. Whether you are eyeing an afternoon or a full-day trip, it’s intended to help you enjoy the best the greater Chicago area has to offer, from pumpkin patches to apple picking to hiking.
Don’t see something on the list that you think belongs here? Tell us #WBEZFallOutdoors or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, we recommended calling each site before your visit, as hours may change.
Is there anything more ubiquitous in fall than a pumpkin? Outdoor activities were limited for the previous two years because of COVID, but this fall pumpkin patches have fully reopened, with plenty of U-Pick and pre-picked options. Many patches have loads of activities all season long in addition to picking pumpkins, from hayrides to petting zoos. Pricing varies.
Sonny Acres Farm, in West Chicago has been in operation since 1883, but in 2019 it was acquired by the Joyaux and Fontana families. They’ve expanded the already bountiful attractions, which include a petting zoo, outdoor kitchen, amusement rides, haunted barn, hayrides and wildly popular apple cider donuts. By mid-September, the farm was already filled with pumpkins, with different varieties coming in throughout the early fall. (29W310 North Ave., West Chicago; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Oct. 30. Cost varies)
Goebbert’s Farm Pingree Grove offers U-Pick pumpkins every day of the week, depending on the weather. Through Halloween, you can also purchase a ticket for their Fall Festival, which includes wagon rides, a straw maze, a giant pumpkin slide and loads of other family activities. (42W813 Reinking Rd., Pingree Grove; call 847-219-3413 for U-Pick field status. $5-$22)
The 40-acre Abbey Farms in Aurora is open Wednesday-Sunday through Oct. 30, offering both pre-picked and U-Pick options. Tickets to their Pumpkin Daze festivities include a corn maze, jumping pillow, go-karts and a weekend petting zoo. (2855 Hart Rd., Aurora; Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $15-$20)
Autumn is one of the most beautiful times of year in the Midwest — that the changing colors of the leaves are fleeting makes the season all the more special. Each state has its own beloved drives for catching the fall foliage. Below are a few noteworthy routes.
Wisconsin’s Holy Hill
About forty minutes’ drive from Milwaukee, the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill sits atop one of Wisconsin’s highest points; in the fall, a scenic tower at the church affords spectacular views of autumn’s changing colors. The site sits inside Kettle Moraine State Park, where you can embark on a 115-mile scenic drive and glimpse Wisconsin’s most beautiful geology. (Suggested GPS point: 1525 Carmel Rd., Hubertus, Wis. 53033; tower is open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in October, and Sunday 1:30 to 4:40 p.m.)
For drivers craving a day trip and maybe seeking out a quaint place to stay for the night, this route takes you along Lake Michigan, from Warren Dunes State Park to Benton Harbor, and then loops inland for a drive through some of Southwestern Michigan’s most picturesque towns. Embarking during the month of October guarantees the best foliage views; along the way, you can stop off at attractions like the Fernwood Botanical Gardens & Nature Preserve in Niles or the Warner Vineyards Winery, on the banks of the Paw Paw River. (Suggested GPS point: 224 W. Buffalo St., New Buffalo, Mich.)
This scenic route for weekenders begins in Hartford in Southern Illinois on the bank of the Mississippi River and takes drivers northwest along stunning river scenes before ending at Pere Marquette State Park. The byway sits about five hours from Chicago, an area loaded with history and majestic natural areas, such as the onetime home of Lewis and Clark and the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. (Suggested GPS point: 100 W. Broadway, Alton, Ill.)
Illinois claims the second highest corn production of any state, with 11 million acres allocated to the crop, so it makes sense it’s also home to its fair share of corn mazes. This year there’s everything from spooky themes timed for Halloween to an intricate design with a James Bond theme. Go for the maze, stay for the apple cider doughnuts and hayrides.
Richardson Farm in Spring Grove has one of the best-known corn mazes around. Each year, the farm chooses a different theme for their epic maze — this year’s pays homage to James Bond, with an insanely detailed design featuring over nine miles of trail on a path that winds through 28 acres of corn. (909 English Prairie Rd., Spring Grove; open Thursday 3 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday noon to 9 p.m. through Oct. 30. $16-24)
Besides U-pick pumpkins and apples, Jonamac Orchard serves up a corn maze that usually takes about an hour to complete. This year’s design has a fall theme — but if you’re in the mood for something spooky, select dates feature a haunted version of the maze. The latter is recommended for ages 13 and up. (19412 Shabbona Rd., Malta; open Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 30. $3.75 to $8 for general admission)
About an hour north of Chicago, the corn maze at Kroll’s Fall Harvest Farm in Waukegan comes with its own virtual app, equipped with a GPS. Kroll’s corn maze celebrates its 20th anniversary this year; while you’re there, be sure to stop by their petting zoo and take a hayride. (13236 W. Townline Rd., Waukegan; open Monday and Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday-Thursday 1 to 8 p.m., timed entry tickets required on Saturday and Sunday. $6-8)
So it’s technically not a corn maze, but the Morton Arboretum’s annual Scarecrow Trail is a not-to-be-missed, family-friendly event that features a walking path lined with scarecrows. The scarecrows are made by local scout troops, and visitors can vote for their favorite after their walk. (Morton Arboretum, Meadow Lake Trail, near the Visitor Center, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; daily in October, 7 a.m. to sunset. $8-16, included with timed entry ticket)
There’s no shortage of spooky film offerings in the city this Halloween season — in fact, there are events every night of the month. Take your pick, from the truly terrifying, such as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to the family-friendly Ghostbusters.
The Music Box of Horrors: Scared Stupid series, which opens Oct. 1, runs the gamut, from art house (A Girl Walks Alone at Night) to high camp (Jennifer’s Body) to timeless classics (Nosferatu). And for those who can’t get enough horror, on Oct. 22 the theater will screen 24 straight hours of rare and cult movies. (3733 N. Southport, Chicago; through Oct. 31. Single tickets are $8-$11 and series passes are available)
On Oct. 8, you can listen to the Chicago Philharmonic perform the Elmer Bernstein-composed score to the 1984 blockbuster film Ghostbusters. Meanwhile, the movie will play on the big screen of this gorgeous, Adler and Sullivan-designed Auditorium Theater. (50 E. Ida B Wells Dr., Chicago; Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $34.75)
Cine Latine is a new program from the Gene Siskel Film Center that honors the films and filmmakers of Latin America. For this iteration, the center screens five films from the Academy Award-winning Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, known for his rendering of the absurd, the dark and the haunting. (164 N. State St., Chicago; Oct. 7 to 13. Tickets start at $12)
At the turn of the 20th century, people of German descent made up the largest ethnic group in Chicago — that long lineage is one reason the region now boasts numerous Oktoberfest celebrations. Originally conceived as a people’s festival in Munich, today the tradition lives on in iterations throughout Chicagoland, featuring plenty of beer, hearty food and German music.
Lincoln Square’s DANK Haus German American Cultural Center closes out Oktoberfest season with this indoor Open Haus Oktoberfest on Oct. 21, featuring both imported and local beers, yodeling, live music from the Paloma Band of Chicago and authentic German food. Dirndls and lederhosen are encouraged but not required. There’s a $5 donation suggested at the door and food and beverage for purchase. RSVPs are requested: https://dankhaus.com/event-4952241. (4740 N. Western Ave., 5th Floor Marunde Ballroom Chicago; Oct. 21, 7:30 to 11 p.m. $5 suggested donation)
St. Alphonsus was founded by German immigrants in 1882; more than 100 years later, the church continues to honor that history by throwing an epic annual Oktoberfest. Local bands, such as School of Rock and Polkaholics, play Friday and Saturday, when you can also purchase tickets for a craft beer tasting featuring 15 different brews. (1429 W. Wellington Ave.; Sept. 23 to 25. $10)
Naperville celebrates the Oktoberfest tradition at Naper Settlement on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Live polka and rock bands will play both days, and a professional pumpkin-carver will be on site; guests can also take part in lawn games and a stein-holding contest. Enjoy German food and beverages no matter the elements — all activities take place under a heated tent. (523 S. Webster St., Naperville; Friday 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday 3 to 10 p.m. $15-20)
Fall might not seem like an obvious time to think about gardening, but it’s actually a great time to save seeds, plan next year’s planting or extend this year’s growing season. Courses at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Morton Arboretum often fill up quickly, so it’s best to reserve a spot as early as possible.
The free lecture Extending Your Growing Season, at Gethsemane Garden Center in Andersonville, is presented in partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program. The program aims to teach participants how to get the most out of their harvest and will take place rain or shine; enter via the south lot at the corner of Clark and Edgewater. (5739 N. Clark St., Chicago; Sept. 24, 10 to 11 a.m.)
The Morton Arboretum’s Fall Native Plant Propagation class, taught by restoration ecologist Jeff Weiss, will teach participants how to grow native plants for seeds and cuttings. The in-person class also will cover identifying and collecting seeds, storage and planting. (4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; Saturday, Oct. 15, 8:30 a.m. to noon or 1 to 4:30 p.m. $39 member, $46 non-members)
Plan Your Vegetable Garden, taught by gardener and writer Nina Koziol, is an online class that will cover soil preparation and testing, garden layout and more. (The Oct. 6 class will be taught online via Zoom from 6 to 8 p.m., and registration is requested two days in advance. $32 for members and $40 for non-members)
Fall harvest season is the best time to enjoy the bounty of the land, and farm dinners are the perfect way to enjoy locally grown food. The fact that you’re helping to support the hard work of local farmers is icing on the cake.
Howard Street Farm in Skokie teams up with Paul Fehribach, chef and co-owner at Andersonville’s Big Jones for an Oct. 2 Farm Dinner. The four-course dinner will be made with produce grown on-site. Tickets include access to the farm, a drink and nighttime s’mores, with a portion of proceeds benefiting the farm. (3669 Howard St., Skokie; Oct. 2, 4 to 8 p.m. $200)
Grace United Church of Christ hosts a multi-course dinner on It Takes A Village Community farm on Sept. 24. Tour the farm and enjoy drinks and a multi-course dinner featuring homegrown organic produce. All proceeds benefit the farm, which offers free programming and job training. (2500 223rd St., Sauk Village; Sept. 24, 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. $50)
Whether you are stocking up on fruit for winter pies or just looking to get outside and be close with nature, apple picking is a quintessential fall activity in the region. Most area orchards tend to grow multiple varieties, with what’s available waxing and waning as the weeks progress – so before you go, be sure and check the orchard’s social media pages or call ahead to see what’s available that day.
Click here for 10 of the best area spots for apple picking, including Wisconsin’s Apple Holler, which grows 40 varieties of apples, and Peck & Bushel Organic Fruit Company, which is growing the new variety Riverbelle, a Honeycrisp hybrid.
Fall is the pinnacle of hiking season in the Great Lakes region due to the beauty of the changing leaves, dissipating mosquito and tick populations and that crispness to the air. We’ve put together this list of 20 great hikes to do before winter sets in. The list includes short treks perfect for families (including those in Indiana Dunes National Park and the Palos Trail System) as well as longer treks for the adventurous who crave uncongested trails and the beauty of prairie.
Dramatic improvements in water quality during the past several decades of conservation advocacy have made excursions on regional waters healthier and more pleasurable. Of course, there is the well-trekked Chicago River, which has several launch spots for kayaks and rental companies galore — but northern Illinois also offers dozens of lakes, rivers and other water bodies to paddle within an hour or two of the city.
Click here to find our recommended list of 14 waterways for paddling in the area. It includes everything from still water recommendations, such as the Skokie Lagoons north of the city, which offer a chain of connected pools to view aquatic wildlife. There are also recommendations on moving water: West of Chicago are two easily accessible rivers, the DuPage and the Des Plaines, that flow from north to south through mostly forest preserve land. For moving water, don’t forget to check water levels before you go. Find Illinois river information here.
This story is one in a multi-part series of stories featuring the best things to do outside this fall. We’re collecting reader suggestions. Don’t see something you recommend on this list? Tell us about it on social media at #WBEZFallOutdoors or drop us a line at email@example.com with the subject line “FALL OUTDOORS.”
CORRECTION: The description of one of the scenic drives has been corrected to say that takes you along a route in Southwestern Michigan.