Leisurely road trips to see the changing colors of fall are an annual event for many Midwestern families. Knowing when to go can be dicey -- it's hard to predict exactly when trees will be at their most vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges. Generally, nature's palette hits its prime in Wisconsin in late September, moves into Illinois the first or second week of October and peaks in Kentucky in late October or early November.
The Farmer's Almanac says northern Illinois will be in full color Oct. 5-14 this year. Don't worry, though. If you want to see colors earlier, head north to Wisconsin. If you want them later, head south.
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That's because there are many great fall foliage road trips within a few hours' drive of Chicago. There are even some fall foliage destinations that offer alternative modes of transportation -- bikes, boats and trains -- to give the traditional road trip a little more kid-friendly flair.
Baraboo Hills, Wis.
Take your train-crazy kids on this fall road trip to the home of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. The museum runs seven-mile, 55-minute round-trip diesel-powered train rides through the wooded Baraboo Hills. Passengers ride in restored steel coaches built in 1915 and leave from a historic wooden depot built in 1894. The depot is located in North Freedom, Wis., about an hour north of Madison. Autumn Color Weekend is Oct. 4-6.
Galena, Quad Cities and Iowa
The gently rolling hills of Jo Daviess County, which lies alongside the Mississippi River in the northwest corner of Illinois, is one of the prettiest parts of the state. The Great River Road National Scenic Byway runs along both sides of the river from its headwaters up north all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. But the 125 miles from Galena south to Muscatine, Iowa, on the bluffs above the Mississippi, offer some of the best glimpses of the river and the trees that border it.
Take Route 20 south of Galena to Fulton, pick up Route 84 to the Quad Cities, then take Route 92 into Muscatine. Consider a stop in Davenport or Moline to rent bikes and pedal the paths along the river. For a more laid-back experience, hop onboard the Celebration Belle, a nongaming riverboat that offers Fall Foliage cruises throughout October.
Starved Rock State Park and Ottawa
Located along the south side of the Illinois River, one mile south of Utica, this state park has 13 miles of hiking trails and 18 canyons to explore. Fall Colors Weekend on Oct. 18-19 features two guided hikes each day to see the changing colors of the park. Or head to nearby Ottawa for a mule-drawn canal boat ride. You can drool over the fall colors while the kids watch the mule walking along the path, pulling the boat through the canal.
Parke County, Indiana
Home of the famous Covered Bridge Festival, Parke County, Ind., is about an hour west of Indianapolis, near the Illinois-Indiana state line. The festival runs from Oct. 11-20 this year.
It honors the 31 covered bridges scattered throughout the heavily wooded county. Visit Coveredbridges.com before you go to download driving directions for the county's five covered bridge routes (color-coded black, brown, red, blue and yellow). Each route takes you in a different direction. The blue route, for example, heads north from Rockville and includes a drive over two of the longest covered bridges -- the 176-foot-long Cox Ford Bridge and the 102-foot Wilkens Mill Bridge.