When the season comes, fall colors explode across Illinois state parks, national forests, recreation areas, and scenic drives which overlook grand rivers. In northern Illinois, the leaf colors begin to change by the third or fourth week of September and peak around mid-October. Whereas in central Illinois, fall hues unveil themselves only during the second week of October and peak later in the month. Southern Illinois is the last to see this burst of color—not arriving until late October or even early November.
Chicago area (peak foliage: second week of October)
Though visiting a state forest sounds like a great idea, you might not need to leave the capital, as the Chicago area has a surprisingly large variety of spots to view the colors of autumn. Plan your itinerary across such popular places as The University of Chicago, Potawatomi Woods, Chicago Botanic Garden, the Morton Arboretum, and Swallow Cliff Woods.
Galena area (peak foliage: second week of October)
Galena lures crowds of leaf peepers in the period between mid-September and late October. The rolling hills blend with the 19th-century architecture and the Galena River as the backdrop make it a perfect fall foliage destination. Explore the scenic Galena River Trail by bike, or rent a kayak and view the fall colors from the water. Stunning panoramic views open from the top of Chestnut Mountain Resort. Take a ski lift ride to the summit or discover the area's picturesque hiking trails. For a scenic drive, follow 40-mi (64-km) Stagecoach Trail rimmed with foliage, or take State-84 to Mississippi Palisades State Park boasting stunning overlooks.
Fall foliage near Oglesby (peak foliage: mid-October)
The city of Oglesby boasts two state parks within 5 mi (8 km) that take top positions on the list of best fall foliage places in Illinois. Discover Matthiessen State Park along the Vermillion River and Starved Rock State Park along the Illinois River. The parks are at their best when trails, canyons, and waterfalls are surrounded by vivid red, yellow, and orange. Explore the beauty on your own, join a guided hike, or hop on a Fall Colors Trolley Tour.
Pere Marquette State Park (peak foliage: second week of October)
Pere Marquette State Park is a favorite fall getaway near St. Louis, Missouri. The state park is the largest in Illinois, offering 8,050 ac (3,260 ha) to soak in the fall scenery. One of the park's main assets can be found at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Illinois River. Also, the Great River Road winding alongside the Mississippi River is considered by many to be the most scenic drive in Illinois, especially the passage between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park.
Garden of the Gods (peak foliage: last week of October)
In southern Illinois, Garden of the Gods Recreation Area in Herod takes the cake. The best vantage points can be found atop 300 million year old towering rock formations. From these ancient bluffs, you'll be soaking up breathtaking panoramas of the Shawnee National Forest. For the best vistas, come here at sunset.
Where to stay
Take a look at the Illinois fall foliage map to find the most convenient option for a night stay. Make sure to book in advance, as bed and breakfast rooms fill up quickly during the peak foliage season.