Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fall family fun close to Chicago

Hey, parents: Columbus Day is coming right up.

That means no school Monday. And that means a three-day weekend during what’s arguably the prettiest time of year in the Midwest.

Pumpkins and apples are begging to be picked. Corn mazes are calling. Trees are catching fire with color.

So drop the Wii controllers, grab the kids and head out for some fall fun with the family before Old Man Winter holds us hostage until spring.

Haven’t done your homework on where to go? Check out this cheat sheet for four fantastic autumn day trips from Chicago:

Hobart, Ind.

County Line Orchard

From the Loop: 42 miles

Some 27 varieties of apples are grown at County Line Orchard — a place that proudly proclaims itself “the closest U-Pick apple orchard to downtown Chicago.”

It’s a little late in the season for galas, McIntosh and honeycrisps, but the jubilee fujis, keepsakes and shizukas are ripe for the pickin’. Grab a bag, jump on the tractor and take a ride to the rows of fruit-heavy trees. When you’re all done, weigh in and take home as much as you like for $1.65 a pound.

The orchard also has a corn maze, kids’ farm, moo-choo train and more to keep the young ones entertained. Bands play live music on weekends in the picnic area, where you can bring your own food or buy a cob of sweet corn, apple doughnuts and other goodies.

Admission costs range from $1-$10, depending on how much you want to do; 200 S. County Line Rd., (219) 947-4477.

If that’s not enough entertainment for one day, get on Interstate 65 and head south to Fair Oaks Farms for a fascinating — and I mean fascinating — look at dairy farming (not to mention some delicious cheese and ice cream). Watch cows get milked on a giant lazy Susan and see a baby cow come into this world. Up to 100 calves are born here each day, and you can snag a front-row seat in the birthing barn; 856 N 600 E, Fair Oaks, (877) 536-1194.

Spring Grove, Ill.

Richardson Corn Maze

From the Loop: 65 miles

George Richardson calls it the biggest corn maze in the world. We’ll let Guinness decide. Suffice to say Richardson’s maze is plenty big.

More than 11 miles of trails carve through this 28-acre cornfield on a farm that’s been in the Richardson family for six generations. (“Jeopardy!” fans might recognize Richardson’s Corn Maze from an episode earlier this year, when the corny artwork was pictured as a video clue on the quiz show.)

This year’s maze — open through Nov. 1 — is devoted to Abraham Lincoln in honor of the 200th anniversary of Honest Abe’s birth. It’s really four separate mazes connected by big wooden bridges. If you’re lucky, you might find George’s son Ryan wandering around the maze on stilts, dressed as Lincoln and handing out shiny new pennies.

Climb up an observation tower for a good overview of the maze. If that’s not thrilling enough, fork over $15 for a ride on the farm’s new 700-foot-long zip line.

General admission is $11.50 for adults, $8.50-$10 for kids. Children under 5 are free.

Lug along a cooler with your own food and drinks (alcohol is allowed). The farm has 150 picnic tables and dozens of campfires. Pack a flashlight, because the corn maze stays open well after the sun goes down.

“People love the maze at night,” Richardson said. “It’s a totally different experience.”

The farm is at 9407 Richardson Rd., (815) 675-9729.

Harbor Country, Mich.

Harvest Days

From the Loop: 70 miles

Cast your vote for the best scarecrow (shown above), take a hayride and chow down at a chili cookoff. Or test your artistic skills in a pumpkin carving contest at Camp Buffalo Cottages in New Buffalo. These are just a few things to keep you occupied at Harvest Days, a Columbus Day weekend tradition in Michigan’s Harbor Country — the umbrella term for eight small towns tucked into the southwest corner of the state.

“Harvest Days is one of our more popular events because fall is so great here,” said Ryan Keller, a New Buffalo resident who’s in charge of this year’s festivities.

A bunch of activities are scheduled throughout the region, including a special event Saturday that might appeal especially to Mom and Dad: The New Buffalo Harvest & Wine Fest from noon to 10 p.m. at Lion’s Park ($5 for adults) is a great spot to catch the sunset over Lake Michigan, listen to live music and sample the fruits of local vintners’ labors, with wines from Round Barn, Free Run Cellars, Lemon Creek, Domaine Berrien and Tabor Hill. Kids’ activities are on tap, too.

Get a complete lineup of events at, and remember: Michigan is an hour ahead of Chicago.

While you’re in Harbor Country, you can stretch your legs and soak up the foliage at Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer.

Want to bring some pumpkins, squash and gourds back home? Drop by Dinges’ Farm, 15219 Mill Rd., Three Oaks, to pick your own; (269) 426-4034.

Mukwonago, Wis.

Elegant Farmer

From the Loop: 109 miles

What started as a roadside vegetable stand has evolved into a family-friendly attraction that turns into an autumn playground. Every weekend through Oct. 31, you can hop aboard a pony or take a tractor-pulled hayride, pick pumpkins and make your own caramel apples.

Take a 10-mile round-trip ride on the East Troy Electric Railroad’s turn-of-the-century trolley ($12.50 for adults, $8 for children). The trolley comes and goes from the Elegant Farmer Depot every 45 minutes between 11:40 a.m. and 4:10 p.m.

Don’t miss the Elegant Farmer’s famous apple pie baked in a paper bag. It’s so tasty, the Food Network’s Bobby Flay dropped by to challenge farmer John Bauer to a bake off. Bauer won.

“That pie has kind of put us on the map,” Bauer said.

The Elegant Farmer’s Autumn Harvest Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, but it’ll be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Monday.

“The Wisconsin kids don’t get Columbus Day off,” Bauer said. “We started staying open because there’s a lot of folks from Illinois looking for things to do.”

The Elegant Farmer is at 1545 N. Main, (262) 363-6771