Where to soak in fall colors at Illinois State Parks not far from home
It's a crisp fall morning, tree colors are starting to pop and Mother Nature is reminding you to break free from a coronavirus-era habit.
Cut back on doomscrolling through social media feeds and make time for a healthier distraction: an autumn adventure in Illinois State Parks.
About a 90-minute drive from the Chicago area, Starved Rock State Park near Utica is the undisputed star. Above-average crowds are descending on the park during the pandemic, bringing traffic congestion and temporary park closures when Starved Rock reaches capacity.
Before you make the trip, consider alternatives. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources operates more than 250 state parks, natural areas and recreational sites. Some hidden gems showcase fall beauty closer to home.
Here's a guide to soaking in the seasonal splendor at these IDNR properties:
To stay ahead of the crowds, plan to visit during the week for a mental release and an oasis of 18 sandstone canyons, waterfalls, forests and trails. A wooden staircase leads up the park's namesake, a 125-foot butte with panoramic views of the Illinois River.
The park is requiring advance online registration for guided tours with limits on group sizes. Visitors also must wear masks when passing hikers on trails if physical distancing is difficult to maintain.
While parking areas can fill up by 11 a.m. on weekends, guests of the Starved Rock Lodge can use a private lot to the west of the 1930s-era campus.
The lodge is promoting midweek stays, but it also has offered guided hikes Saturdays and Sundays, departing at 11 a.m. and heading to Wildcat Canyon, Eagle Cliff and Lover's Leap.
"If you want to have the best experience seeing fall colors, book a getaway to Starved Rock Lodge," CEO Amy Trimble said in a statement. "Parking is included, you're surrounded by fall color, seasonal waterfalls and sandstone canyons, plus we have on-site dining with comfortable rooms and cabins."
Nearby Matthiessen and Buffalo state parks are smaller hiking spots but have their own fall color palette.
Visitors can check the status of closures and parking restrictions at Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks on IDNR Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Volo Bog State Natural Area
A unique ecosystem, a floating mat of green sphagnum moss surrounds an open pool in the center of the bog, turning its waters acidic. Tamarack trees form one of the outer rings of the bog.
The deciduous pines turn golden in the fall before the Tamaracks lose their needles. The red hue of poison sumac and the year-round green of sphagnum moss add to the colorful flourish.
"The bog itself is really gorgeous in the fall. It's like no other place in Illinois," said Stacy Iwanicki, natural resources coordinator.
The best time to see the Tamaracks in their full golden glory varies from year to year, but it's generally around Halloween, that last week in October or first week in November.
The rest of the site near Ingleside features oak hickory woodlands, prairie restoration areas and some marshland.
"Even the prairie lends itself beautiful color hues, purples, especially of asters, goldenrod yellows in the fall, late summer into fall," Iwanicki said.
A half-mile, interpretive boardwalk that takes visitors into the heart of the bog remains closed due to disrepair and while a replacement project awaits funding.
But Iwanicki has permission to allow access into the boardwalk with a guide. She's organizing interpretive walk group tours by appointment, limiting the size to no more than 14 people, plus the leader. Groups can make arrangements by calling the site at (815) 344-1294.
"We'll have some set times for the general public as drop-in tours," Iwanicki said.
Moraine Hills State Park
About 15 minutes from Volo Bog is Moraine Hills, a 2,200-acre site containing oak woodlands, hickories, prairie restoration areas, wetlands and lakes near McHenry.
Both Moraine Hills and Volo Bog will offer at least one fall color walk.
Iwanicki also has scheduled a series of talks called "Walks with a Naturalist." Those ecological tours are tentatively set to leave from the Northern Woods parking area at 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 24; the Whitetail Prairie parking area on Oct. 1; and the McHenry Dam parking lot on Oct. 8.
"State parks and natural areas do a really good job of providing access to those natural areas for the people of Illinois as well as people from all over the world," Iwanicki said.
To register, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (815) 344-1294. Walks are limited to 15 people, including the leader. Walk-ins are welcome if space allows. Visitors should bring a mask and sunscreen, a hat, water, comfy shoes and bug spray.