Lakes, riverfronts and state parks are gorgeous destinations for absorbing fall colors, but to truly appreciate the trees that make autumn the kaleidoscope season, a visit to an arboretum is a necessity.
The Midwest has several good ones to choose from, each teaching you a bit about bringing various landscapes to your own property and how to better understand those plantings. And beyond Minnesota's own top-shelf arboretum, which charges a timed admission fee for nonmembers, most of the other Midwestern facilities below are free to roam in.
So let's road-trip to some favorite outdoor classrooms and celebrate the colors of nature.
Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
First up, closest to home is the 1,200 acres of the Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, managed by the University of Minnesota. Dating to 1958, the original mission of "The Arb" was to develop plants and trees that can survive Minnesota winters.
As a result, pines are dominant here, with more than 200 specimens. But the conifers don't turn colors, so look for the Buckeye Collection. Although the deciduous buckeye is not native to Minnesota, it is among the first to turn bright yellow and orange.
Find these and much more along Three-Mile Drive, the self-guided driving route that links most of the Arb's diverse sections. You may drive your own vehicle, take a tram, or ride a bike and learn at your leisure. Master Gardeners are available on Saturdays in the library to answer questions. (8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. 3675 Arboretum Drive, Chaska. Timed reservations $15 for ages 16 & older; arb.umn.edu.)
University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
The red-maroon tree blazing in front of this arboretum's visitor center is nicknamed Carolyn, after former curator Ed Hasselkus' granddaughter. It's actually a black tupelo that was planted in 1961.
The Badger State's magnificent arboretum, known for exemplary restoration ecology and conservation, is a National Historic Landmark. Explore the woodlands, which glow yellow with basswoods and sugar maples, along 17 miles of trails through more than 1,200 acres. If you have time for only one highlight, make sure to visit the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. A guided fall color hike ($25) is scheduled for Oct. 16, expected to be peak color time in Madison (arboretum.wisc.edu).
Plan on a trip to Madrid, in central Iowa, on Oct. 11 or 18 for an in-depth walking tour of the Iowa Arboretum, 160 acres of woodland set in the Des Moines River Valley. Curator David McKinney will explain what trees and other plants make for the best fall show in your own lawn and garden.
The grounds, filled with maple, oak and black tupelo trees, are expected to be at their most spectacular at that time. McKinney will talk about planting hickory and walnut trees that are not only colorful in the fall but also help build an urban habitat for wildlife with their nut crops (iowaarboretum.org).
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum & Omaha Public Power District
As the home of Arbor Day, Nebraska commands a superior position when it comes to trees. While tours at the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City are highly educational, it is not a true arboretum.
The Cornhusker State does operate a network of more than 100 arboretums and public gardens statewide, anchored in Lincoln by the Earl Maxwell Arboretum. Guided walking tours are on the first Tuesday of the month (plantnebraska.org).
In Omaha, check out the arboretum maintained by the Omaha Public Power District. More than 1,000 native trees and adjacent signage demonstrate the need to plant the right trees in the right places and keep them trimmed properly (oppd.com/residential/trees-power-lines/arboretum).
Illinois: The Morton Arboretum
This arboretum in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, founded by the same family that created Arbor Day in Nebraska, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The space includes 16 miles of trails for hiking, bicycling or trams and more than 222,000 specimens representing 4,650 different kinds of plants. Plan on Oct. 21 or 28 for a peak-color educational hike with an arboretum ecologist, and learn more about seasonal changes in trees besides their colors (mortonarb.org).
The Missouri Arboretum
Next to the administration building at Northwest Missouri State University stands a small grove of Chinese ginkgo trees, an unusual species to be found in Maryville, Mo. They turn a striking shade of yellow this time of year.
The institution in the far northwestern corner of the state is home to 1,800 trees spanning 160 species. Three walking trails around the 370-acre campus take visitors past many prize trees, including one the students call "the elf tree." It's actually a northern catalpa, but a low-lying limb and a hollow trunk create a perfect home for pixies (nwmissouri.edu/arboretum).
Indiana: The Purdue Arboretum
Indiana's biggest arboretum sprawls across 900 acres of West Lafayette. While many people visit the campus for football in fall, take time to learn more about the 40,000 trees and woody plants from 800 unique species.
Most of those trees and plants have a QR code posted nearby that opens an audio file providing information for landscaping and biodiversity in your own lawn. The Arbor Day Foundation has awarded Purdue "Tree Campus USA" status every year since 2009 (arboretum.purdue.edu).
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a Kansas City-based travel writer.