A Midwestern fall brings out the best of our region. From stargazing to festivals to family-focused activities, Ogle County offers the best this too-short season has to offer.
When the leaves transform into a symphony of colors and a refreshing crispness fills the air, Byron, Ill., and Oregon, Ill., emerge as an autumn playground. Those who make the trip along Illinois Route 2 will discover an abundance of attractions that capture the essence of the season.
“We’re kind of a hidden gem. We have something for everyone here,” says Administrative Services Coordinator Michelle Gerke, at the Byron Forest Preserve District. “When people find out we’re here, they’re amazed at everything that goes on.”
One of the district’s standout attractions is the J. Weiskopf Observatory, where stargazing takes center stage. Unlike a planetarium, this observatory boasts a dome that reveals the breathtaking night sky. Every Saturday night, weather permitting, the observatory welcomes the public for free viewings that allow visitors to marvel at the wonders of the universe through its 11-inch reflecting telescope.
For those in search of family-friendly excitement, the first annual Honey Harvest Festival on Sept. 17 promises an educational and entertaining experience. This free admission extravaganza at the district’s Heritage Farm Museum, in Byron, features beekeeping demonstrations, food trucks, wagon rides and hands-on activities at the pioneer farm.
Then, embark on full moon hikes on Sept. 30 and Oct. 28. Guided by the gentle glow of the full moon, participants can explore the forest and gain insights into the interplay between moon cycles and the natural world.
A cherished tradition, the annual Halloween on the Prairie event on Oct. 22 brings the community together for a day of laughter and merriment at the Byron Forest Preserve. From noon to 4 p.m., families can partake in games like apple snapping, hayrides around the prairie and spooky crafts. With the addition of a bounce house and a complimentary hot dog lunch, this event is certain to enchant families.
“We’ve done that for many years here,” says Gerke. “It’s a fun, free event that the community looks forward to.”
The Byron Forest Preserve District offers even more activities through the fall, with homeschool classes, geocaching adventures and picnic shelters providing just a taste of what’s to come.
In all, the district has nine preserves that span more than 2,000 acres and 35 miles of trails. Visitors can marvel at the magnificent Eastern Cottonwood tree at Bald Hill Preserve, in Mt. Morris, Ill., and see the oldest and largest tree in the state. It’s estimated to be more than 200 years old. At Nardi Equine Preserve, observe the river landscape from a sea of prairie grass.
Just downriver in Oregon, the 52nd annual Autumn on Parade takes place Oct. 7-8. This two-day extravaganza features a vibrant array of vendors, crafters and family-friendly activities. With fun zones for kids and inviting beer gardens for adults, Autumn on Parade embodies the community spirit of Ogle County in a festive celebration.
“Autumn on Parade originally started with a few vendors in the 1970s,” says Jayne Rose, vice president of marketing for the Blackhawk Waterways Convention and Visitors Bureau, which covers Ogle, Lee, Carroll and Whiteside counties. “This year’s theme is spooktacular spirit, so it should be a great time.”
Immersing oneself in the county’s natural beauty is a must during the fall season. Notably, Lorado Taft’s “Eternal Indian” statue in Oregon, sets a scenic backdrop and an incredible lookout on the river valley below. Nearby, Castle Rock State Park boasts even more amazing overlooks of the sweeping river landscape.
For those seeking thrilling experiences – and other, not-so-scary fun – the Trail of Terror, runs from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. It beckons visitors to go beyond Ogle County as they tour haunted houses, corn mazes, orchards, wineries, breweries and many more thrilling activities.
The autumn months are still a great time to hit the water. White Pelican Canoe & Kayak Rental, in Oregon, provides opportunities to tube, kayak and canoe along the serene river.
Additionally, the village of Grand Detour sets the stage for plenty more fall color at the annual Grand Detour Fine Arts Festival. Set in a public park with towering trees adorned in brilliant autumn hues, the festival showcases the Midwest’s incredible talent, as artists working in all mediums share their works with the public.
“The fine arts festival draws people from all over,” says Rose. “Grand Detour is very picturesque, and in the fall there are all these huge trees with beautiful colors.”
No visit to Ogle County would be complete without savoring the local culinary delights. BerryView Orchard, in Mt. Morris, is a tranquil orchard where visitors not only pick fresh fruit, but their choices include unique offerings like Aronia berries and high-level oxidation pears.
“It’s a very nice and peaceful orchard. They also have apples like Fujis and galas, and you can bring friends and family,” says Rose. “It’s not overly crowded. It’s very peaceful.”
The 6-acre Wheeler Farms Pumpkin Patch, in Byron, provides a delightful experience for families with a wide variety of pumpkins, corn and gourds, as well as fun games and activities such as a petting farm for children.
Ogle County’s commitment to education and history is evident in attractions such as the Oregon Public Library, where visitors can delve into the area’s natural history, explore a vast collection of original works by artists in the area, and immerse themselves in the tapestry of the past.
“Artists from all over would come to Oregon in the summers and paint because the area was so beautiful,” says Rose. “They would come from cities like Chicago and New York. So, that library displays a lot of original work captured in the area.”
Whether you seek outdoor adventures, educational experiences or community events, Ogle County is full of autumnal adventure – and best of all, it’s just a stone’s throw away.