Brightly colored leaves floating through the air, campfire smoke curling into the cool, crisp evening air and such special events as tagging monarch butterflies and dressing in costumes make a perfect time to fall in love with Illinois state parks.
Whether you opt to book a room at an historic lodge, set up a tent or take a day trip, you can find fun in any direction from Springfield. Illinois' state parks offer an array of options, from those packed with people to hidden gems away from crowds.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources' website lists the many state parks, fish and wildlife areas and recreation areas available in Illinois. Go to dnr.illinois.gov/parks to find a natural area near you.
Four of the most popular parks are those with lodges: Pere Marquette, Giant City, Starved Rock and White Pines. Illinois Beach in far northeastern Illinois has a more modern hotel fronting Lake Michigan. Cabins and campsites abound at other parks around the state. But book early, as fall is a busy time.
Pere Marquette, Grafton
The current Farmers' Almanac website names Pere Marquette as the ninth-best spot in the United States for fall leaf viewing, and an abundance of trees throughout the park almost guarantees visitors will not be disappointed.
Overlooking the Illinois River near its marriage to the Mississippi, the 8,050-acre park offers sweeping vistas, a restaurant, rooms in the Depression-era lodge and nearby cabins, camping, horseback riding and 12 miles of hiking trails. The lodge features a massive stone fireplace, comfy chairs, a small wine-tasting room, a gift shop and an indoor pool.
The river also makes boating, fishing and bird watching popular. Winter skies bring eagles soaring above, and the adjacent Sam Vadalabene bike trail is not to be missed in any good weather.
But fall remains an especially busy time, and the lodge's schedule includes an apple festival Sept, 17, goat yoga Sept. 24, a paranormal investigation and Boos and Booze Halloween party Oct. 13, murder mystery dinners Oct. 27 and Nov. 17 and a wine festival Nov. 12.
For more information about Pere Marquette lodge, go to pmlodge.net.
Giant City, Makanda
This park deep in the Shawnee Hills of southern Illinois may make you think you can't possibly be in flat-farmland Illinois. Like its Grafton sister, Giant City has an impressive stone fireplace and popular restaurant in the lodge. Three types of cabins and campgrounds are available for overnight stays.
Rock climbers and rapellers flock to the park to take advantage of its sandstone bluffs while horseback riders and hikers can enjoy the 20 miles of trails.
Jennifer Randolph-Bollinger, the park's natural resources coordinator, notes fall is the perfect time for a visit. "We usually have full, glorious fall leaves by the end of October."
Hikers likely will get to see fall wildflowers, she says, "and with the leaves falling you have a better view of the sandstone bluffs so a drive through the park is lovely."
September is monarch butterfly month at Giant City, and visitors can pick up a kit at the visitors center to capture live butterflies and bring them back for tagging before release.
At the annual "trek and treat" event, on Oct. 28 this year, volunteers will dress as some of the park's commonly misunderstood animals and talk about their importance to the ecosystem. The free afternoon event features such creatures as a copperhead snake, a praying mantis, a brown bat, a bobcat, a raccoon and a great horned owl.
For more information about the Giant City lodge, go to giantcitylodge.com.
Starved Rock, Utica
One of the most-visited parks in the state is Starved Rock, within a few hours of Chicago, and weekends can be packed with people. They come for the interesting geography and hiking trails, views of the Illinois River and the myriad of activities at the historic lodge. An indoor pool, several dining options and rustic lobby with immense fireplace make the lodge a great spot to spend some time. Nearby cabins and campsites are overnight options.
Park naturalist Lisa Sons says the best spots for viewing fall colors are from the top of Starved Rock, Lovers Leap and Eagle Cliff and along the 13 miles of trails. Also popular are the park's 18 canyons.
The lodge offers historic trolley tours of the area, boat cruises, guided hikes and music tribute shows.
The fall lineup includes shows honoring Rod Stewart Oct. 2-3, The Beatles Oct. 23-24 and Elvis Nov. 6 -7.
Oktoberfest will be celebrated with a German menu in the restaurant Oct. 15-17.
For more information about the lodge and its activities, go to starvedrocklodge.com.
White Pines, Morris
Nestled in the Rock River Valley, White Pines is a bit of hidden gem. At 385 acres, it isn't as large as some of its cousin state parks but still makes for a relaxing stay among a forest of tall pine trees. For many years, the area was on the main route between Chicago and Iowa.
The lodge, built like the others by the Civilian Conservation Corps, has a restaurant and has hosted a dinner theater for more than 30 years. An extensive gift shop inhabits a nearby log cabin. Another 21 log cabins and campsites allow for overnights.
While fishing and hiking are popular in any good weather, the park offers a special treat when the water is low. That's when you can drive over creeks on the park's concrete fords.
For more information about the lodge and cabins, go to whitepinesinn.com.
Springfield travel writer Mary Bohlen counts these four state parks among her favorite places to visit in Illinois.