Where, When to See Kane County's Most-Spectacular Fall Colors

Where, When to See Kane County’s Most-Spectacular Fall Colors

  • valerie-blaine-sm“Nature Nearby” is written by Forest Preserve District of Kane County Nature Programs Manager Valerie Blaine, whose home base is Creek Bend Nature Center in LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com


Want to know when and where the peak fall color will be? The answer is easy: Go to any forest preserve, any day this month. Both woodlands and prairies are resplendent in autumn colors that change both subtly and spectacularly — sometimes day to day.

tree-oak-canopy-fall-color-crane-woods-2The pageantry of color runs from September through November with fashion statements ranging from bold and brash to subtle and discreet. Oaks, maples, and hickories all put on quite a show. These and other native hardwood species are breathtaking in their autumn garb.

But autumn color is more than just trees. The prairie is just as glorious as the woodlands in October.

Take a look at some of the prairie plants that are bursting with color. Goldenrods — all 15 or so species of them in Kane County — start the show with glorious golds and yellows. Some goldenrods live in woodlands, some on the prairie. If awards were given, the prairie’s Showy Goldenrod would be a winner for its blast of brilliance. Stiff Goldenrod’s a close runner-up.

The sunflowers come in close behind the goldenrods, as towering Prairie Dock and tall Compass Plants — hangers-on from the summer performance — thrust the last of their gaudy yellow blossoms skyward.

The purples and blues make a bold statement among all the yellows on the prairie. Some flamboyant flowers called New England Aster put on quite a display in October. The gentians prefer a more conservative look, going for the subtle, soft blues and cream colors on the autumn prairie.

Little Bluestern and LeRoy Oakes.

Little Bluestem glistens in the October sun at LeRoy Oakes.

Sky-blue Aster, as its lovely name implies, adds a heavenly touch to the floral mix. Not to be outdone, the tall boneset with its white blossoms is showing off like there’s no tomorrow.

Lest the flowers steal the show, stalks and stems and fruit and seeds create their own mélange of fall color. The slender, graceful stems of Indian Grass emanate russet and auburn hues. Big Bluestem has purple-tinted stems that stretch 10 feet high and wave in the wind. Blending in with these rich colors are the paler tints of Switch Grass and Canada Rye.

A shorter grass that likes slightly drier prairies is Little Bluestem. When backlit by the October sun, “little blue” is a magnificent sight, its silver seeds glistening in the light. By the end of the month, these and other seeds ride the wind. Milkweed is a perennial favorite, sending its seeds like silver parachutes across the prairie sea.


Milkweed pods launch “parachute seads” in the prairie at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve.

At the edge of the prairie, sumacs sport scarlet leaves that will knock your socks off.  Smooth Sumac and Staghorn Sumac form small colonies where protected from prairie fires, and their autumn color is as intense as the fire itself. Poison-ivy, although no one’s favorite, is a close relative of the sumacs, and it too can add color to the prairie’s edge.

A lot of people want to see fall color — through their car window. The essence of fall is more than a drive-through experience. You need to be IN the colors. Walk a trail among the golds and the purples and the russets under a cobalt October sky.

Listen to the wind and the insects and the hawks. Smell the autumn earth and taste the prairie air. Get dizzy with the dance of light on the surface of the prairie sea. Lose yourself in the golden glow of a maple forest.

Autumn’s alchemy is a mixture of color and sound and smell and texture. Be part of it this October. Come along on a Forest Preserve District program, or take a day to walk the trails. And, prepare to be amazed.

Did You Know … ?

  • The breathtaking beauty of color on the prairie was noted by American Indians, European explorers and American settlers alike.  “A world of grass and flowers stretched around me,” wrote pioneer Eliza Steele near Peoria in 1840, “rising and falling in gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell, and it was at rest forever. We passed whole acres all bearing one hue, as purple, perhaps, or masses of yellow or rose; and then again a carpet of every color intermixed, or narrow bands, as if a rainbow had fallen upon the verdant slopes … the iridescent glow was beautiful and wondrous beyond anything I had ever conceived … ”
  • The colors we see are due to pigments in the plants. There are numerous pigments present in plants all year long but green chlorophyll predominates throughout the growing season. Chlorophyll breaks down as the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop.  This unmasks the “hidden” pigments that create such breathtaking displays in the fall. Anthocyanins produce brilliant purples and stunning reds. Carotenes and xanthophylls give us the oranges and yellows.
  • Not all animals see color as we do.  If fact, very few animals see the same way. Insects – notably bees – see ultraviolet light.  Nocturnal mammals have no need to discriminate color, and they rely on sight to detect shape, form and movement.  Some birds and tropical fish have three to five color vision systems, but we humans may be the only critters to oooh and ahhh over fall color!

October Programs in the Forest Preserves

Harvest of the Acorn Moon – Celebrate the harvest season at our fall festival!  There will be nature crafts, pumpkin painting, outdoor games, folk music, and harvest-themed refreshments.  All ages are welcome to this free family festival!

  • 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2
  • Oakhurst Forest Preserve, 1680 Fifth Ave., Aurora, 60504
  • FREE; nominal fee for crafts

Senior StrollsSeniors are invited to join District naturalists at Elburn Forest Preserve this month.  We’ll enjoy a leisurley walk, enjoying fall color while we discuss the natural and cultural history of the area.  The strolls begin at 10 a.m. and last about an hour, with social time and refreshments following the walk. For information, call (630)444-3190 or e-mail programs@kaneforest.com.

  • 10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 6
  • Elburn Forest Preserve, 45W061 IL Route 38, Maple Park, 60151
  • Free; Donations welcome

Big Tree Tours — Come along on a guided hike to see some of the biggest trees in Kane County. We will visit the sites of some of our local champions in the Kane County Big Tree Program. You’ll see huge oak trees, fine specimens of old hickory and elm trees – and some surprising species of trees as well! During the walk, we’ll do a little tree identification and show you how trees are measured in the Big Tree Program. Join us on one or all of these walks. Registration required. Please call (630) 444-3190 or e-mail programs@kaneforest.com.

  • 10 a.m. to 11:30 am. Saturday, Oct. 8, at Bliss Woods Forest Preserve, 5S660 Bliss Road, Sugar Grove (FREE)
  • 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, at Hannaford Woods Forest Preserve, 5S002 Merrill Road, Sugar Grove (FREE)
  • 10 a.m. to 11:30 am.  Saturday, Oct. 22, at Glenwood Park Forest Preserve, 1644 S. River St., Batavia (FREE)

Fall Tree Identification – This class for adults will cover the basics of tree identification. We’ll look at tree morphology, habitat and ecology. Students will learn several methods of tree i.d., including the use of field guides, hand lenses and bincoculars. The program will take place on the trail, so dress for the weather. Advance registration is required. Call (630) 444-3190 or e-mail programs@kaneforest.com. Co-sponsored with the St. Charles Park District and the Geneva Park District.

  • 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15
  • Freeman Kame Forest Preserve, 40W346 Freeman Road, Gilberts
  • $10

Scary Stories in the Woods – Gather around the campfire for an evening of scary stories told by master storytellers from the St. Charles Public Library. Due to the fright factor, this program is exclusively for children in grades three and above, and adults.  Registration required. Please call (630) 444-3190 or e-mail programs@kaneforest.com.

  • 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Friday, Oct. 28
  • Creek Bend Nature Center, LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles
  • FREE

Spiders — What a great time of year to hunt for little eight-legged creatures! On this family walk, we’ll learn all about arachnids – the spiders and their kin. We’ll catch some in bug jars so we can look at them up close, and then release them back in their habitat. You may not be a spider-lover, but you will have a greater appreciation for their role in nature after this walk! Registration required. Please call (630) 444-3190 or e-mail programs@kaneforest.com.

  • 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 29
  • Bliss Woods Forest Preserve, 5S660 Bliss Rd., Sugar Grove, 60554

About the Forest Preserve District of Kane County

The Forest Preserve District of Kane County acquires, holds and maintains land to preserve natural and historic resources, habitats, flora and fauna. The district restores, restocks, protects and preserves open space for the education, recreation and pleasure of Kane County citizens. For more information, visit the district’s website or find them on social media via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Also, sign up for the quarterly TreeLine Newsletter.

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