Where to Enjoy Fall Colors in and Around Chicago

Despite its reputation as an urban jungle, there are plenty of places to admire the reds and golds of fall in Chicago
Despite its reputation as an urban jungle, there are plenty of places to admire the reds and golds of fall in Chicago | © James Andrews / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Elizabeth Newhart
25 September 2020

When you’re surrounded by concrete and glass instead of green space – as you often are in Chicago – you can easily miss out on the fantastic foliage of the fall. So if you’re in the Windy City, make sure you see in the new season by stopping to smell the roses (or, rather, gaze at the trees) in its most spectacular natural areas. Read on for Culture Trip’s pick of the top spots to see fall foliage in and around Chicago.

Chicago Botanic Garden

Botanical Garden
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The best spot to marvel at fall colors in Chicago itself is the 385-acre (56-ha) Botanic Garden, home to 2.6 million plants. Peak time is during the first two weeks of October, but you can see a spectacular color show here anytime from late summer to the end of the fall, especially if you take the Fall-Color Tree Walk. Beginning at the Visitor Center and terminating at the Plant Conservation Science Centre, it offers visitors the opportunity to see the changing leaf colors of rare species such as the Japanese maple and Chinese pear tree.

Garfield Park Conservatory

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Located in the center of the neighborhood from which it takes its name, Garfield Park Conservatory offers eight indoor display gardens and 10 acres (4ha) of outdoor landscapes, the latter of which are a great spot to enjoy vibrant fall hues. For the most striking changes in leaf colors, head to the City Garden, where you’ll find a cluster of aspen trees glowing with reds, oranges and yellows during the peak of the fall. Especially innovative is the Artists’ Garden, which hosts temporary exhibitions focused on the flowers and plants that have inspired great painters.

Grant Park

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Another top spot to admire fall colors in Chicago is the 312-acre (126-ha) Grant Park, situated in the heart of the city’s Financial District. As well as being home to one of the world’s largest fountains (the Buckingham Memorial Fountain) and leading museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History, the park also offers several natural areas in which to admire the changing leaf colors of elms, hawthorns and maples. Be sure to also check out the cockspur hawthorns in the Art Institute’s South Garden


Architectural Landmark, Natural Feature
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If you fancy getting out of Chicago to admire the annual change of leaf colors, head to Evanston, an attractive commuter town located a half-hour drive north of the Windy City. Recommended spots, especially during the peak of the season, are the expansive gardens of Northwestern University, the three-lined central artery of Ashbury Avenue, Dawes Park and the 23-acre (9.3-ha) Ladd Arboretum, where you’ll find species such as elm, maple, oak and pine wearing their finest fall attire. The arboretum’s Cherry Tree Walk is also at its best during the fall months.

Lincoln Park

Park, Zoo
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Colorful Autumn Scene in Lincoln Park Chicago
© James Andrews / Alamy Stock Photo
Occupying a 7-mi- (11-km-) long stretch of the Lake Michigan shoreline to the north of Downtown, the 1,188-acre (481-ha) Lincoln Park is the largest public green space in Chicago. It was named after President Abraham Lincoln soon after his assassination in 1865, and offers visitors the opportunity to witness the changing leaf colors of its maples, ashes, birches and elms. Other key attractions include the Lincoln Park Zoo – open 365 days a year – the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum for family-friendly fun.

Morton Arboretum

Library, Park, Museum
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Colorful Landscape in the Fall in Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois
© wildnerdpix / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’re looking for the ultimate nature immersion during the fall, head to the Morton Arboretum, located in the town of Lisle a half-hour drive west of Chicago. Founded in 1922 by salt magnate Joy Morton, its unspoilt natural spaces are spread over 1,700 acres (688ha) and feature over 4,000 species of tree. Among the most striking of these during the annual change in leaf colors are bur oaks, walnut and willows. Flora buffs will also love browsing the specialist library, which holds almost 30,000 volumes on plants, flowers and trees.

Winnemac Park

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Winnemac Park is located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, and provides a large, green space that’s at its most spectacular throughout September and October. It underwent a $2 million renovation in the late 1990s, which saw the addition of around 200 trees, a prairie packed with wild flowers and a nature trail, all of which show their finest colors during the fall (particularly notable are the willows and elms). Much of Winnemac’s land is owned by nearby schools and is used for sports and youth programs.

LaBagh Woods

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An area of untamed beauty located a 20-minute drive north of Downtown Chicago, LaBagh Woods provides the perfect escape from the city. Most of its territory consists of densely wooded areas populated by large oaks, maples and cottonwoods, which explode into color during the fall, their colors changing from refreshing greens to vibrant oranges and reds. Other natural areas include wetlands, savannas and sedge meadows. To explore this wild region and admire the fall colors, go hiking or biking on the 20-mi (32-km) North Branch Trail System.

The 606

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Named after the prefix of every Chicago zip code, The 606 (also called the Bloomingdale Trail) is a 2.7-mi (4.3-km) elevated walkway running through the neighborhoods of Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and Bucktown. It follows the route of a railway track built in the early 1870s, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and provides plenty of opportunities to admire the changing leaf colors of the sumac and aspen trees along its length. You’ll also stroll through several parks along the way, which come to colorful life during the fall.

Jackson Park

Museum, Park
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Chicago, Osaka Japanese Garden in Jackson Park, Hyde Park neighborhood
© Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
The 551-acre (223-ha) Jackson Park is located in the Woodlawn District south of Downtown, and achieved international fame when it hosted the World Columbian Exposition in 1890. For beautiful changing leaf colors, head to the Wooded Island, where you’ll find aspens and maples in full fall bloom. This area is also home to the Japanese Osaka Garden, the tranquil Bobolink Meadows and some colorful flower and vegetable patches. Jackson’s other amenities include tennis and basketball courts, a golf course, three harbors and a beach.

North Park Village Nature Center

Park, Natural Feature
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The North Park Village Nature Centre is found about halfway between Chicago and Evanston, on the site of a tree nursery founded in the 19th century. Its 12-acre (4.9-ha) Walking Stick Woods are an ideal spot in which to soak up peak-time fall foliage, particularly to admire the changing leaf colors of its decades-old oaks and maples. In addition to the woods, North Park also boasts a 46-acre (18.6-ha) nature reserve, where you can walk through wetland, prairie and savanna, and runs a year-long program of interactive, educational events for both adults and children.

Humboldt Park

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Located in a Northwestern Chicago neighborhood of the same name, Humboldt Park was designed in the early 1870s by William Le Baron Jenney, the architect who would go on to build the world’s first skyscraper – also in Chicago – a decade later. It’s packed with trees that change their leaf colors in showy style during peak-time fall, especially the aspens around its central lagoon. Spread over 197 acres (80ha), Humboldt’s other key features include an inland beach, a famous boathouse and the only museum in the country dedicated to Puerto Rican arts and culture.

Graceland Cemetery

Memorial, Cemetery
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Pyramid mausoleum in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.
© Diana J. / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

It might sound morbid to suggest a stroll around a cemetery, but there’s nothing gloomy about Graceland Cemetery during the fall. Located a few blocks back from Lincoln Park, in the Buena Park area of the city, this tranquil resting place is also home to a collection of over 2,000 trees spanning 50 species, which has been certified as an arboretum by the Morton Arboretum. During the fall, the changing colors of its red oaks, silver maples and European beeches – to name just three – are among the most magnificent sights in Chicago.

Millennium Park

Park, School
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Fall colors and foliage at Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois, United States.
| © Jerry Lai / Alamy Stock Photo
Situated in the heart of Downtown, Millennium Park is one of Chicago’s most famous public spaces. Occupying a 25-acre (10-ha) site on the northern extremity of Grant Park, its elms, hawthorns and maples are particularly striking during the fall, especially those found close to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture (also known as The Bean). Once you’re done admiring the trees’ changing colors, check out the 2.5-acre (1-ha) urban oasis that is the Lurie Garden and the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which hosts the city’s largest outdoor music events.

Burnham Park

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Located on the lakeshore between Jackson Park (to the south) and Grant Park (to the north) is the 653-acre (264-ha) Burnham Park. Beautiful trees can be seen pretty much anywhere within this vast green space, but the best spot to witness the annual changing of the leaves is Promontory Point, a man-made peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan. From here, you can admire a dense bank of aspens and maples, set against the backdrop of Downtown’s glinting skyscrapers. The contrast of grey metal and glass and bright foliage is especially dramatic in mid-October.

Additional reporting by Mark Nayler

These recommendations were updated on September 25, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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