Looking for fall outdoor fun? Suburban nature centers have it covered
Virtual programming. Scaled-back events. Socially distanced hikes.
Planning for fall has been an unusual process for suburban nature centers amid the restrictions and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. But as they navigate social distancing regulations, programming and facility leaders say they have one key advantage: Many of their best and most educational autumn activities take place outdoors.
Some organizers have opted to transition entirely to online or take-home formats. Others are offering a blend of in-person and remote options while using the natural environment as their greatest resource. And they all recognize their plans can change rapidly as COVID-19 case numbers and state guidelines evolve.
Here are the plans nine suburban nature centers have in place for this fall:
The Glass Pumpkin Patch, pictured here in pre-pandemic days, is being adapted to a virtual event, where visitors can purchase products online and pick them up in person at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
- Daily Herald file photo
Morton Arboretum, Lisle
As the Morton Arboretum prepares for fall, leaders have opted to make some of its signature annual events virtual to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions.
The tree campus' major fundraiser, Evergreen: The Gala, will be free to attend via a YouTube livestream. Scheduled for Sept. 26, the 45-minute event is expected to support the arboretum's ability to advance leading-edge tree science in the Chicago area and address threatened species globally, leaders said.
The Glass Pumpkin Patch also is being adapted to a remote format Oct. 14-18, when handblown glass pumpkins will be available to purchase online and pick up in person. The 10th annual celebration will offer opportunities to interact with artists online.
Some in-person events are still expected, including the popular Illumination: Tree Lights, starting Nov. 21.
"The arboretum is committed to providing exceptional experiences regardless of adjustments that must be made," spokeswoman Tari Marshall said.
Leaders also are continuing to plan for a full list of virtual and on-site classes, from aerial yoga to horticulture.
Info: 4100 Route 53, Lisle. (630) 968-0074. Visit www.mortonarb.org or the arboretum's social media pages.
Forest Preserves of Cook County
Forest preserve leaders have been working out the details of in-person and virtual programming for the fall -- a slower planning process than normal due to the coronavirus, said Jacqui Ulrich, deputy director of conservation and experiential programming. Topics will likely include the fall foliage, seasonal gardening, native plants and animals, hibernation and the county's cultural history.
"We're looking for many different ways to connect people with nature," she said. "We think being out in nature is a good way to relax and make sense of what's going on in the world."
Regardless of how the schedule looks, Ulrich says, the grounds of facilities such as the Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington Hills and the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook remain open for visitors to explore the flora and fauna of Cook County.
Some year-round staples are expected to continue throughout the season, such as an animal feeding program every weekend at River Trail. Patrons also are encouraged to hike along forest preserve trails, go camping at sites such as Camp Reinberg in Palatine, or play disc golf at Rolling Knolls Forest Preserve in Elgin, she said.
Info: Visit fpdcc.com for updated information about programming, hours and availability.
Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe
Daily Tram Tours held through October, a Butterflies & Blooms exhibit offered through Sept. 20, and a Model Railroad Garden open through Oct. 11 are among the in-person festivities planned at the Chicago Botanic Garden this fall.
Other upcoming events include Harvest Weekend Sept. 26 and 27; the Fall Bulb Festival Oct. 10 and 11; and Night of 1,000 Jack-o'-lanterns Oct. 14-18 and 21-25.
Programs and events will operate at reduced capacities with social distancing guidelines in place, said Harriet Resnick, vice president of visitor experience & business development. For general admission, advance registration for a timed entry will be required until further notice.
The COVID-19 crisis has forced the cancellation of the American Craft Exposition and Autumn Brews tasting event in October, as well as several flower shows, she said. Other programs and exhibitions have had to be modified or postponed.
A number of online classes, ranging from yoga to photography, are expected to continue through fall.
Info: 1000 Lake-Cook Road. Visit chicagobotanic.org.
Limited programming will be offered this fall at the Knoch Knolls Nature Center in Naperville.
- Courtesy of the Naperville Park District
Knoch Knolls Nature Center, Naperville
Family camp outs, hikes and nature play programs are some of the activities the Naperville Park District may offer at Knoch Knolls Nature Center this fall, said manager Angelique Harshman.
The nature center opened its indoor services in July with limited hours and capacity restrictions -- and without its interactive and tactile displays, she said. Visitors can still enjoy signage and live animals at the facility, which may expand its hours into the fall.
For now, Harshman said, outdoor programming is the way to go, including "Owl Prowl" for adults and families and mobile tours.
Major events such as the Creepy Critters Day, which draws hundreds of people in a three-hour period, have been canceled due to COVID-19 crowd restrictions, she said. The park district still plans to host its annual post-Halloween pumpkin smashing event at the Ron Ory Community Garden Plots, 811 S. West St.
Info: 320 Knoch Knolls Road. (630) 864-3964. Visit napervilleparks.org/knochknolls.
Lake County Forest Preserves
Though some sites and trails remain open, Lake County Forest Preserves leaders have opted to keep facilities shut down and move all programming online for the fall, Education Director Nan Buckardt said.
Staff members from her department have adapted the forest preserve district's popular field trips into 15 different virtual experiences for schools, allowing students to learn about topics ranging from plants and animals to geology to Native American life in Lake County, she said.
Family and adult programming also will continue virtually, exploring what happens in nature during the fall, Buckardt said. "Ask an Educator" sessions are presented biweekly through Zoom and Facebook Live.
A long-standing hiking program will take place again this year, encouraging participants to walk along marked trails at 12 different preserves.
Info: Visit www.lcfpd.org.
Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles
The St. Charles Park District is preparing to offer various programs and events at its Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in the fall, though some activities are being adapted or downsized to comply with restrictions.
An annual Butterfly Ball, for example, is being scaled back and transformed into a Mom & Son Nature Night on Nov. 13 and a Daddy & Daughter Nature Night on Nov. 14. Both will include snacks, games and meeting critters, said Laura McCoy, nature programs supervisor.
From 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 26, a family-oriented nature service project will be organized at the discovery center -- as well as two other park district sites to encourage social distancing -- in celebration of National Public Lands Day, she said. An "outside explorers" series is available three times a month for young children, and a "Not too Creepy Campfire" is planned for Oct. 22.
Virtual programming and nature-themed take-home kits will be available for families who prefer to learn from home, McCoy said.
The Hickory Knolls facility and nature playground also remain open to the public as long as state guidelines allow.
Info: 3795 Campton Hills Drive. (630) 513-4399. Visit stcnature.org.
Though visitors were able to use the trails and grounds in earlier phases of the Restore Illinois plan, the Glenview Park District's nature center facilities at the Historic Wagner Farm, The Grove and the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie have recently reopened to the public with reduced hours, said Jena Johnson, director of brand strategies and community engagement.
Large harvest-themed events have been canceled so far, she said, and both remote and limited in-person programming opportunities are being developed for the fall months, though details have not yet been finalized.
"We're living in a world where we're not able to plan as far in advance as we're used to planning," Johnson said.
At The Grove, an app will lead visitors through self-guided tours, providing information about different landmarks throughout the site, she said. Virtual field trips also are being created for schools.
Info: The Grove, 1421 Milwaukee Ave.; Historic Wagner Farm, 1510 Wagner Road; Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, 2400 Compass Road. Visit www.glenviewparks.org.
Forest Preserve District of DuPage County
The forest preserve district has organized several outdoor programs as the seasons change, including two activities at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook: a Centering Meditation Walk from 8 to 9 a.m. Sept. 25 and 9 to 10 a.m. Sept. 26, and a tour of the gardens and grounds surrounding the Mayslake Hall from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18.
At Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago, visitors can register ahead of time to collect eggs from the chicken coop to take home while learning about the role chickens played on an 1890s farm. The opportunity is offered from 2:30 to 3 p.m. Sept. 17 to 19.
A guided walk and educational session about monarch butterflies are planned for St. James Farm in Warrenville. Bird walks, forest hikes and a guided 45-minute nature walk are being offered on select days at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook, though the nature education center is expected to remain closed through Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan, spokeswoman Deb Humiston said.
Most of DuPage County forest preserves are open for hiking, fishing, golfing and picnicking, she said, and the Blackwell family campground in West Chicago is open on weekends through Sept. 30.
The Willowbrook Wildlife Center and its surrounding grounds are shut down so employees can safely care for the animals.
Registration, masks and social distancing restrictions are required for most events.
Info: For program details, visit www.dupageforest.org.
Spring Valley Nature Center, Schaumburg
The Schaumburg Park District is not planning any indoor events this fall at the Spring Valley Nature Center. But with about 135 acres of fields, forests, marshes and streams, as well as more than three miles of hiking trails, facility manager Dave Brooks says there's plenty of space for outdoor activities.
Larger-scale events are likely to be scaled down, and programming will be offered with lower-than-normal class sizes, he said. Activities from September through November could include a sunset hike, campfires, nature play dates and virtual field trips.
Walking paths will remain open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
"Our focus has been, as we've tried to redevelop and reintroduce programming, to keep it all outside as much as possible," Brooks said, noting social distancing regulations and mask requirements will be implemented. "The safety of our patrons and staff is really our first priority here."
Info: 1111 E. Schaumburg Road. (630) 513-4399. Visit www.parkfun.com/spring-valley.