Sometimes, summers can feel wonderfully endless. Winters, undoubtedly, feel long. Spring seems to take its time, but the fall, well, that can go by in a blink of an eye. While we’re still savoring the shorter days of summer, fall tends to arrive without notice. The lush green trees of the neighborhood landscapes covertly begin to hatch variations of red and yellow. Backyard pools remain open and hopeful, but the shadow of fall encroaches. Unable or unwilling to let go of summer, we finally realize, fall is coming! However, before we are able to plan an autumn excursion, we realize peak colors have emerged. In a panic, we find ourselves trying to get out before that one rainy, windy day swoops through and with it, steals the colors of fall and then leaves the tree branches barren. How does it happen? “Another fall missed,” I always seem to mutter to myself.
I’ve played that game too often, for sure. It can be near impossible to get out and enjoy fall at its finest. So last year, I made the decision to go out every weekend in “early fall” and watch as the seasons gradually changed. I wasn’t going to wait for the one perfect peak weekend because, usually, in doing so, I always arrived too late.
Since my plan was to venture out every weekend, I needed local places. Destinations with short drives. My weekly quest of colors forced me to find some local hidden gems in and around the Chicagoland area where I could take in the blessings of this unique season.
When you search “best places for fall colors near Chicago,” you get the usual haunts: Galena, Starved Rock, Matthiessen, Morton Arboretum, Waterfall Glen, etc. These are all scenic locations outside of the city center. However, instead of fleeing the metropolis in search of the seasonal hues, last year I wanted to head into its heart. That’s when I came across Graceland Cemetery, which, ashamedly, I’d never heard of.
Graceland Cemetery was founded in 1860, and is located on the northside, in the Uptown community. This beautiful cemetery and arboretum sits at the busy intersection of Clark and Irving Park Road, but it serves as a respite from the city commotion that surrounds it. Once inside, the chaos disappears, and you almost feel as if you crossed a time warp and traveled back in time. The monuments are monumental. They are architectural art. Many are grandiose antebellum designs. Since it is a garden cemetery, a certified arboretum, and a nature sanctuary, it is the perfect place to relish the changing of the colors within the city confines. The vibrancy of the oak, ginko, maple, dogwood, and sassafrass trees, juxtaposed to the historic tombs and vaults, seemed to complete the haunting fall feeling. I found my fall gem!
Within the 120 acres of well-landscaped grounds, the history of Chicago comes to life, oddly in this place of death. Reading the etched names on the graves, one begins to connect famous Chicago entities to the people they honor: Daniel Burnham, George Pullman, Marshall Field, Charles Wacker, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, John Kinzie, Potter Palmer, William Goodman, etc. All prominent names in the formation of The White City.
As you stroll the park-like grounds, be sure to listen to the audio tour and /or read the biographies provided on the burial grounds map. Learn of the contradictory legends of seven-year-old Inez Clarke, the notable career of Ernie Banks, and the haunted history of “The Statue of Death.” Let the cool autumn air swirl around you in this place of magnificent foliage and spectacular stories.
Simply, my goals were twofold last year: to bask in the beauty of the autumnal season and to find the brilliant warm tones of fall contrasted against the concrete and metals of an urban landscape. These two desires led me to Graceland Cemetery. There, I walked amongst the spirits of old Chicago while fall was still blooming, and it was a gift I didn’t see coming.
Certainly, take those annual trips to Wisconsin or Michigan. In Illinois, stroll Galena, hike Starved Rock, and sip wine at the Morton Arboretum. All will wrap you in a welcoming fall blanket. Don’t dismiss, however, fallin’ for Chicago! Allow yourself to visit Chicago’s northside and walk through the trees and tombs of Graceland Cemetery.