Leaves already are changing color north of Chicago, so it's time to plan your fall leaf-hunting getaway. We've come up with some of the most scenic autumn areas within roughly 180 miles of Chicago, so it can be a day trip, or you can make a weekend of it.
Distance: 50 miles
Peak season: mid-October
What to see, do: A fall drive in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park takes you along Lake Michigan and over roads lined with forests and marshland. Tree varieties include oak, maple and walnut. Fall-focused events in the area to keep on your radar: Valparaiso's Haunted Railroad & Fall Festival (219-462-0025, tinyurl.com/valpohaunt), all of October, and "Howl"oween at Indiana Dunes State Park, Oct. 26-27 (219-926-2255, tinyurl.com/howldunes). After a day of leaf viewing, dine at Bartlett's Gourmet Grill & Tavern in Beverly Shores (219-879-3081, eatatbartletts.com) or Lucrezia Cafe in Chesterton (219-926-5829, lucreziacafe.com). Overnight recommendations include the DunesWalk Inn, At Home in the Woods and Gray Goose Inn (a lakeside B&B), all in Chesterton. Traveling with your family? Try the Inspiration Wood Cabins in Westville. For more information: (219-926-2255, indianadunes.com)
General directions: From Chicago, take Interstate Highway 94 east to Indiana Highway 49 north, which ends at the Indiana Dunes State Park. For additional fall snapshots, from the park, take Highway 49 south to U.S. Highway 12 east, go left onto East State Park Road, turn right onto Lakefront Drive, take a right onto Broadway and then turn left onto Beverly Drive. If you have some extra time to see more leaves, about 70 miles from the Indiana Dunes State Park is Indiana's Amish Country, where you can drive the scenic Heritage Trail. (Download the driving tour maps at amishcountry.org.) This leaf tour takes you past autumn colors in Elkhart, Bristol, Middlebury and Goshen. Check out the Bonneyville Mill County Park (53373 County Road 131, Bristol; tinyurl.com/bonneyvillepark) with walking paths that go through woodlands and an open prairie known for its bird-watching. The park also has a gristmill where you can buy fresh flour through October. To see the autumn colors upfront, pedal along the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail (pumpkinvine.org) from Middlebury to Shipshewana, traveling through woodland tunnels of maples, oaks and hickories.)
Michigan's Harbor Country
Distance: 70 miles to New Buffalo
Peak season: early to mid-October
What to see, do: In the fall, visitors to Michigan often choose Harbor Country — officially New Buffalo, Union Pier, Three Oaks, among others — for a leaf-viewing excursion. Hills of maple, oak, beech, birch and ash trees, as well as wineries, pumpkin farms and apple orchards are all part of the area's fall appeal. A kaleidoscope of fall colors can be found in the timber-filled Warren Woods State Park (269-426-4013, tinyurl.com/warrenwoodspark) near Sawyer, which has hiking trails and a rugged dune formation you can climb for an autumn view. The Round Barn Winery Tasting Room in Union Pier (269-469-6885, roundbarnwinery.com) is worth a stop if you like handcrafted wines, fruit brandies and microbrews. For pumpkin picking and hayrides, try Jollay Orchards in Coloma (269-468-3075, jollayorchards.com). Overnight at the Boulevard Inn in St. Joseph, on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, or at the Three Oaks Inn Bed & Breakfast in Three Oaks. Information: 269-469-5409, harborcountry.org.
General directions: From Chicago, take I-94 east to New Buffalo.
Illinois & Michigan Canal
Distance: 84 miles to Ottawa
Peak season: early October
What to see, do: From historic towns to tree-covered roads, there is a lot to see on this fall escape that runs along the Illinois & Michigan Canal. The canal connects Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, and it's where autumn enthusiasts can explore historic river towns, including LaSalle, Lockport and Utica as well as Buffalo Rock State Park (815-433-2224, tinyurl.com/buffalorock) in Ottawa and Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby. Starved Rock hosts an Oktoberfest Oct. 12-13 and 19-20 (815-220-7386, tinyurl.com/starvedrockbeer). Trees in the area include red and black oaks and hickories. Leaf-favored roads include Canyon Drive heading east from Starved Rock toward Ottawa. Or take Interstate Highway 80 to Illinois Highway 351 from LaSalle heading south to Oglesby, go over the Illinois River, then take Illinois Highway 71 east to Starved Rock. Overnight accommodations include the lodge and cabins at Starved Rock and the Fox River Bed-and-Breakfast in Ottawa. After your leaf tour, try a glass of wine at August Hill Winery in Utica (815-667-5211, augusthillwinery.com). Information: 888-688-2924, experienceottawa.com.
General directions: From Chicago, take I-80 west to Ottawa. From there, take Illinois 71 to Starved Rock.
Wisconsin's Elkhart Lake
Distance: 150 miles
Peak season: late September
What to see, do: Travel along the 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive, which traverses six counties, from Whitewater Lake in Walworth County north to Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County. (Get a map at tinyurl.com/kettleroute or at any forest office. Follow the "acorn" signs that take you past sugar, maple, aspen and oak trees.) Other fall-friendly routes include County Highway J out of Elkhart Lake to the Sheboygan County Marsh (climb the observation tower for a panoramic fall view) and from Elkhart Lake to Kiel along Wisconsin Highway 67, a 6-mile wooded drive. Turn west on Wisconsin Highway 57 into Kiel. (In Kiel, sample cheddars at Henning's Cheese Factory (920-894-3032, henningscheese.com). Spend the night at the Osthoff Resort (request a lake-facing room), and dine at the resort's Lola's on the Lake (920-876-5840, lolasonthelake.com) or the nearby Paddock Club (920-876-3288, paddockclubelkhartlake.com). You also can head east to Kohler and stay at the dog-friendly Inn on Woodlake and have dinner at the Blackwolf Run Clubhouse Restaurant (920-457-4448, tinyurl.com/kohler-blackwolf) overlooking the tree colors along the Sheboygan River. (Tip: If you are in Kohler Oct. 17-20, check out the annual Kohler Food & Wine Experience, 855-444-2838, tinyurl.com/kohlerwine). Information: (877-355-4278, elkhartlake.com).
General directions: Take I-94 north to Interstate Highway 43 north to Wisconsin 57 north. Turn west on Wisconsin Highway 23, then north on Wisconsin 67.
Iowa's Upper Mississippi River Valley
Distance: 179 miles to Dubuque
Peak season: mid-October
What to see, do: On this fall getaway, expect to find valleys of fall leaves from white and red oak, ash, walnut, maple and hickory trees. Scenic drives include the Iowa Great River Road (byways.org/explore/byways/2190), with limestone bluffs and overlooks of the Mississippi River, and the Driftless Area Scenic Byway (byways.org/explore/byways/2315) from Lansing or Harpers Ferry that winds west from the Mississippi River through Allamakee County. Two noteworthy picture-taking spots are Effigy Mounds National Monument (3 miles north of Marquette at 151 Iowa Highway 76), with forested trails, and Pikes Peak State Park (32264 Pikes Peak Road, south of McGregor; tinyurl.com/pikespark). You can also jump aboard The Spirit of Dubuque (563-583-8093, dubuqueriverrides.com) paddle-wheeler in Dubuque for a foliage tour on the water. Overnight at the Hotel Julien, built in 1839 (guests included Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Al Capone). Dine at the hotel's Caroline's (563-556-4200, tinyurl.com/carolinerestaurant), or try the Clock Town Inn for what is said to be the best pizza in Dubuque (563-556-1022, townclockinndbq.com). Information: 888-472-6035, traveliowa.com.
General directions: From Chicago, take Interstate Highway 90 to Rockford, then U.S. Highway 20 west to Dubuque.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun