The Most Beautiful Fall Foliage Within Driving Distance of Chicago
Let the leaf-peeping commence.
It feels like just yesterday summer was nigh, and we were waxing poetic about rooftop bars, Lollapalooza, and disastrous pizza festivals. But a new season beckons, and with it comes renewed opportunities for sweater weather, pumpkin-carving, corn-mazing, and house-haunting. And let’s not forget the main act: the foliage. The Midwest may not be the leaf-peeping Shangri-La of New England, but its soaring flora certainly puts on a colorful show worth a drive. Sure, you can witness some luminous leaves right in the city, at places like Lincoln Park, but to really revel in Mother Nature’s gallery, your best bet is road-tripping throughout the surrounding states. So before the Halloween hoopla and subsequent holidays consume your social life, check out these drivable destinations for stunning foliage near Chicago.
Peaks mid- to late-October
Iconic: Perched on the southernmost tip of Illinois, Shawnee National Forest is well worth the journey for questing leaf peepers. The nature-lover’s destination is home to nearly 300,000 acres of lush oak and hickory trees, miles of sweeping hills, towering bluffs, and, most importantly, the Garden of the Gods, a 320-million-year-old collection of gargantuan sandstone formations and craggy cliffs offering epic technicolor views of the dense autumnal landscape below. For the ultimate vantage point, lace up your hiking boots and set off on the quarter-mile Observation Trail, a winding sandstone path that opens up onto one of the state’s most photographed panoramas. Take note of the interpretive signs posted along the way to gain insight into the area’s fascinating geological history.
Lesser known: If small town charm is more your style, point your GPS in the direction of Galena, one of Northern Illinois’ most picturesque fall escapes. Amid the quaint shops, farm-to-table restaurants, intriguing historic sites, and top-notch wineries and distilleries, you’ll find Horseshoe Mound Preserve, a 1063-foot scenic outlook providing 360-degree views of the Mississippi River in all its colorful glory. If the weather cooperates, sights can stretch upwards of 50 miles in any direction and span a confluence of three different states. The park is accessible on foot via a handful of groomed, occasionally steep hiking trails or by driving up a short dirt road to the tippity-top and taking it all in from the comfort of your car.
Close to home: Those not wanting to leave Chicagoland for their foliage fix can chart a quick course to the 1,700-acre “tree museum” that is Lisle’s Morton Arboretum. Cruise through both the East and West Sides of the park, and be sure to get out and stretch your legs along the many chipped or paved trails and gentle mowed paths. We’re partial to the area around the West Side’s Lake Marmo, but wherever you go, you’ll be treated to the finest assemblage of fall scenery within many, many miles. This place ain’t exactly a secret, however, so schedule your visit mid-week or get ready to wait in line on the weekends.
Peaks mid- to late-October
Iconic: Ask any tried and true Hoosier the state’s best spot for autumnal gaping and they won’t hesitate to send you straight to Brown County State Park. The massiv—we’re talking upwards of 16,000 acres massive—pastoral mashup of undulating hills, broad vistas, and hidden gulches sits just outside of the equally delightful college town of Bloomington (pro tip: Upland Brewpub has your post-excursion nachos and barrel-aged beer needs covered). A paved 20-mile road traversing the richly forested environment invites hoards of drivers to soak up the scenery with minimal effort while a dozen hiking trails ranging from rough and rugged to easy and breezy provide adequate leg-stretching opportunities. Don’t leave without snapping a requisite selfie atop the park’s famous 90 foot Fire Tower.
Lesser known: For a more secluded leaf-viewing experience, hop off the beaten path and make a beeline 80 miles northwest of Indianapolis to Portland Arch Nature Preserve. Perched on the bank of the Wabash river, the 430-acre refuge is chock full of hickory, black gum, and sugar maple trees, creating a fiery inferno of vivid scarlet, gold, tangerine, and rusty brown hues that lasts deep into the season. The sandstone gorge, trickling creek, and eponymous natural rock bridge yield ample photo-ops, broken up by sundrenched prairies and dramatic cliff sides. Finish the day with a quick trip up to nearby Williamsport Falls, the state’s tallest waterfall, and dip your tired toes into the cool, refreshing waters.
Close to home: Many locals think of Indiana Dunes National Park as strictly a summer destination, but the park’s 15 miles of breezy Lake Michigan shoreline have plenty of appeal for fall spectators as well. With significantly fewer crowds and more room to maneuver, venture beyond the beach and get lost in the park’s 50 miles of trails, listening to the sound of the wind rush between the color-soaked trees at serene local spots like Miller Woods. The more exercise-challenged car-bound among us can also get a glimpse of the seasonal glory by cruising along Highway 12 or The Dunes and Lake Drive. And the best part? It’s easier—and often quicker—to get to than O’Hare.
Peaks mid-September to late-October
Iconic: The Mitten State is rife with natural wonders, sure, but Emmet County’s Tunnel of Trees is hands-down the most breathtaking way to immerse yourself in fall’s radiant splendor. The tree-lined 20-mile stretch of Route M-119 runs along Lake Michigan’s sandy shore from Harbor Springs to Sturgeon Bay, blanketing drivers in a sea of eye-catching color and crisp autumn air. And if 20 miles seems like too short a ride, don’t worry—there are plenty of excuses to stop along the way, including sand dune-strewn beaches, nature preserves with groomed hiking trails, century-old family farms, roadside stands, general stores, historic and architectural finds, and other curiosities worthy of a full day’s exploration.
Lesser known: If the Tunnel’s congestion potential has you sweating, avoid the caravans and travel instead to the Keweenaw Peninsula where Brockway Mountain Drive presents an explosive nine-mile tour of the UP in all its shimmering exquisiteness. Start by rolling up to Brockway Mountain Lookout for a spectacular perspective of Lake Superior’s ice blue waters, then make your way down to Brockway Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and keep your eyes peeled for Bald Eagles soaring high above the thick, jungle-like canopy of flamboyantly colored trees. For the ultimate in solitude and serenity, book a ferry to Isle Royale National Park, one of the most remote—and underrated—national parks in the country. Only accessible by boat, this string of islands in the midst of oceanic Lake Superior receives less annual visitors than Yellowstone receives in a single summer day, which means you’re likely to have the terrain all to yourself. Only open until October 31 due to extreme winter weather, the park is lined with stunning shoreline hikes along the main 45-mile-long island, and sea kayak rentals allow visitors to view the floral show from the mighty lake.
Close to home: The Red Arrow Highway, stretching across a laid-back 21 miles of scenic Southwest Michigan coastline just across the Indiana border, is many things to many people: a beachfront hideaway, a boozy brewery and distillery tasting route, an easy escape when you just want to get the hell out of dodge. It’s also a more than worthy candidate for your foliage peeping excursion, stopping off at state parks like Warren Dunes and Grand Mere for dazzling colors after getting your fill of some excellent fall offerings in bottle form at nearby Journeyman Distillery and Tabor Hill Winery (apple cider is for quitters). On second thought—maybe take an Uber for this one.
Peaks mid-September to mid-October
Iconic: Buckle up and cruise over to Door County’s absurdly spectacular Coastal Byway for 66 full miles of leaf-peeping bliss. Highways 42 and 57 combine to lead travelers on a loop all the way from Sturgeon Bay to Gills Rock at the peninsula’s windswept northernmost tip, set to a backdrop of Lake Michigan’s crashing waves to the east and the calming waters of Green Bay due west. A diverse array of well-maintained state parks like Potawatomi, Newport, and Whitefish Dune add to the area’s fairytale appeal, as do historic lighthouses, u-pick apple farms, mom-and-pop cafes, and, of course, more awe-inspiring fall foliage than just about anywhere else on God’s scorching orange earth.
Lesser known: Northern Wisconsin might be the ultimate winter wonderland, but fall has plenty of cozy merits all its own. Oconto County, in all its tree-lined ponds and miles of wooded trails, is the stuff of leafy dreams. About an hour north and northwest of Green Bay, anchored by peaceful lil’ towns like Mountain and Suring, this is the type of place where traffic and stress is utterly replaced by serenity, horse-drawn carriages, quintessential supper clubs, and romantic log cabins. Drink it all in on a hike or bike ride through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, a mammoth 1.5-million-acre preserve that contains sweeping vistas from Butler Rock, the hemlock-filled haven of Cathedral Pines, and the soaring Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, where those unafraid of heights are treated to a luminous panorama. The region also contains a portion of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which weaves through glacier-carved terrain, offering ample hiking, fishing, and camping opportunities amidst an ancient backdrop.
Close to home: Locals know Lake Geneva can be an absolute zoo in the summer, but fall is a whole other animal. A miniature Door County-style experience awaits nature-seekers who steer clear of the still-bustling downtown in favor of lesser visited haunts like Bigfoot Beach State Park and Rustic Road 29. South Lake Shore Drive is an excellent foliage-packed alternative route between downtown Lake Geneva and the popular Abbey Resort, but pretty much nothing beats a sunny fall meander along the show-stopping 26-mile Geneva Lake Shore Path, extending across the length of the entire lake. Well, maybe a sunny summer day meander—but who's keeping score?