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Fall Colors on Illinois’ Fox River

by Luke Michaels on 29/10/06 at 6:52 am

When the fall colors hit, a canoe trip down the Fox River is a must. Just a one-hour trip from Chicago, a paddle down the Fox is a great family escape. Prepare to see wonderful fall colors, Great Blue Herons, eagles, sandstone cliffs, islands and more.

Though many Chicago-area residents already have plans to take a leisurely drive along their favorite tree-filled country roads when the fall colors arrive, you can also see a fantastic fall color explosion from a different venue: the water. Located a few miles northeast of Ottawa, easily assessable from Interstate 80, the Dells Section of the Fox River is one of the most scenic waterways in Illinois, especially in fall.

“The fall colors around here are absolutely gorgeous,” said Bill Bickett owner of Ayers Landing, a canoe outfitter located along the Fox. “You’ll see oranges, and yellows, and reds, and still a lot of green, with all the towering pine trees in the area.”

Canoeing the Fox River

The Dells section of the Fox is lined with St. Peter’s sandstone cliffs and outcroppings that can climb as high as 40 feet in some parts of the Dells. These cliffs are home to multitudes of swallows that love to dart madly about the cliffs as you canoe past. The river, dotted with islands big and small, is the habitat of a number of great blue herons, egrets, ducks and birds, as well as a pair of eagles that have been nesting in the Dells section for just over two years.

“The best time to see the colors is usually between October 1st and the 20th,” Bickett offered. “And with all the rain we’ve been getting in the area, the colors should be real good this year.” For $40.00, Ayers rents canoes and transports paddlers upriver for their choice of a 12-mile trip, starting six miles above the Dells Section, or the 6-mile trip which begins just outside the Dells. Multi-day trips are also available.

I’ve paddled the 6-mile Dells river section many times. It’s the perfect place to spend a day with some friends and a cooler of cold beverages. We always enjoyed exploring the islands and caves along the way, jumping off of rock ledges into the water below, and lunching on Indian Island—the biggest of the Fox islands at just over one-block long. The many sandbars along the water make great places to stop, lounge about, and take a breather from the winds that can whip through the river at times. These same sandbars occasionally cause riffles which are always fun to paddle through. The sighting of a majestic great blue-heron, with its 5-foot wingspan, has made each of my trips to the Fox memorable. With paddling, a lunch break, and time to explore, the 6-mile trip takes about 4-5 hours. And believe me when I say this: the sight of the fall colors burning bright atop a sandstone cliff is a sight to behold.

Getting there. From Chicago. Take the Dan Ryan (94) South to Interstate 57 South. Take 57 South to I 80 and exit at Route 23 (Exit 90). Take Route 23 North for 5 miles until you see a sign marked “Wedron.” Turn right, going east for 3 ½ miles. At the bottom of the lone hill, you’ll see a red barn on the right, followed by the Ayer’s Landing sign on the left. Turn Left and follow the road to the outfitter (Ayers: (800) 540-2394/(815) 434-2233. Other area outfitters: C & M Canoe Rentals in Wedron at (815) 434-6690.

Other sights of area interest: (1) Starved Rock State Park. Fifteen miles west, the many trails in this state park are a great way to experience the fall colors and learn about the history of the Fox Indians and their impact on the area. (2) Ottawa. The quaint town of Ottawa is a fun place to explore, and the town square itself, the sight of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, is now a great park with many benches and picnic tables to relax on and take it all in.

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