Morton Arboretum Offers Trees, Hills and Trails—Plus The Best Fall Colors in the Chicago Area

You won't find any better hiking trails in the fall than at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.
You won't find any better hiking trails in the fall than at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. Morton Arboretum
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Runners, cyclists, and hikers will admit that the Chicago-area is fortunate to have plenty of fine trails, which enable them to avoid traffic and enjoy the outdoors. And while you never want to take the impressive trail system for granted, most outdoor athletes also will admit to at least one flaw in the system—all the trails look the same.

Of course, that isn’t exactly right. Each trail features something unique. But the vast majority of Chicago-area trails are crushed-limestone paths about 10 feet wide, with very few hills in sight.

Which is just one of the reasons why the Morton Arboretum in west-suburban Lisle is such a gem.

You’ll find a huge variety of trees at the Morton Arboretum. Morton Arboretum

Located just north of I-88 about 25 miles from downtown Chicago, the self-described “museum of trees” features a collection of species from around the world. The 1,700-acre preserve was created in 1922 by Joy Morton, the founder of the Morton Salt Company, on the site of his Thornhill Estate. Trees had always been a love of the Morton family—Julius Sterling Morton, Joy’s Father, was the founder of Arbor Day in the United States in 1872.

The arboretum has grown to now feature more than 4,000 different species of trees and shrubs. And, of most interest to those who like to run, bike and hike, the arboretum features 16 miles of hiking trails and 9 miles of road that provide a scenic escape unlike anything else in the Chicago area.

Located on the Valparaiso moraine, the arboretum features more hills that you would expect for the area. In fact, you’ll have a hard time finding any flat trails once you venture away from the visitor’s center. The East Branch of the DuPage River runs through the property, offering many scenic river crossings. And while the grounds are an excellent place to enjoy the outdoors and find some quiet reflection, the arboretum has a calendar-packed full of events that take advantage of their natural surroundings and offer learning opportunities for those interested in growing plants of their own.

Exploring the Grounds

The Fall Color 5K is a great way to explore the arboretum for the first time. Morton Arboretum

As you’d expect, the fall is an amazing time to take a peek at the huge variety of trees in their fall splendor. Exploring the grounds by foot is the best way to see it all up close. Unfortunately for runners, those 16 miles of off-road hiking trails, mostly woodchip covered, are for hikers and walkers only. And it’s understandable considering the number of people out on the trails that the arboretum wouldn’t want people yelling “on your left” as they passed by the leaf-peepers.

The arboretum is divided into two sections, the east side and west side, each with a paved road that loops through the section in lopsided figure eights. For hikers and walkers, there are a huge variety of choices to explore, divided by the types of trees you’d like to see. The further away from the visitor’s center and paved road, the more isolated you’ll find yourself on the trails. A good trail map of the east side and west side will help you find interesting routes, just follow the red trails.

But that’s not to say runners or cyclists are out of luck—they are welcome to use the paved roads in the park. The bigger east side features a loop that’s approximately four miles long, with two connecting roads that allow you to shorten the loop. You’ll run or bike through groves of magnolias, buckeyes, oaks and maples, in addition to a section of trees from China and Japan. And that’s just to name a few.

The west side of the park features a smaller loop, about three miles, once again with a couple of connecting roads to make smaller loops if you like. On this side you’ll find groves of flowering trees, pines, spruce, hemlocks, birch and willows, once again, just touching on some of the biggies.

The Thornhill Education Center is on the west side, which is used for classes as well as weddings on the weekends. There’s more water on the west side, with the East Branch of the DuPage River snaking through, in addition to Sunfish Pond, Lake Marmo and Sterling Pond. Take the alternate route road on the east side for a really fun run through both oak and pine forests and great views of the lake.

For runners, a good place to get a taste of the arboretum is at the Fall Color 5K on Oct. 4. The race is one of the hillier options in the Chicago area—you will be going up or down most of the race—so you’ll earn the treats at the post-race party. Plus entry to the arboretum is free to you and your family with a race entry. With the arboretum open at 7 a.m. 365 days a year, it has become a popular spot for morning running and biking.

Beyond the Trails

The Morton Arboretum offers plenty of quiet space to explore the wide variety of fall colors. Morton Arboretum

If you’re looking for less strenuous activities at the arboretum, you’ve got plenty of options. The Acorn Express Tram offers guided tours of the arboretum. For families, the Children’s Garden just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and it’s one of the most impressive parts of the facility. Kids have a blast playing among water features, climbing structures and other interactive exhibits. Plus there’s a maze garden to explore.

The Gingko Restaurant and Café offers good food and a glass-encased dining room that offers excellent views outside. Other fall events include their popular Theatre-Hikes that features live performances outside on the grounds. A Cider & Ale Tasting is another good way for adults to recover from some time on the trail.

Admission to the arboretum can get pricey at $14 for adults on weekends. If you live in the area, consider a membership (which start at just $60 a year), allowing you access to the arboretum year-round. You’ll also find that many other Chicago-area arboretums and gardens offer reciprocal memberships, allowing you to explore other outdoor attractions both in Illinois and across the U.S. But even if the visit to the Morton Arboretum is a one-time thing, you won’t be disappointed this fall.

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