A Dazzling Autumn by Design: Lake Geneva’s Fall Colors

Grace Eckland is the Director of Marketing
and PR for the Lake Geneva Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Anyone who appreciates the beauty of fall colors will have a hard time believing their eyes upon a trip to Lake Geneva in the fall. Due to a little known secret, Lake Geneva has always been the place for the most dramatic, longest lasting color display. If you are planning a trip to Lake Geneva this autumn, you can be sure to thank America’s foremost landscape architects for the spectacular view.

When many of Chicago’s elite built estates on Lake Geneva beginning in the late 1800s, they didn’t stop with just their mansions. Several went on to hire America’s foremost landscape architects to design the grounds. For estates like Wrigley’s Green Gables, a top request was to have the longest lasting color display possible. So, architects carefully selected landscapes that yielded specific colors from a wide species of trees and shrubs. Beginning in early September, trees begin to be dotted with yellow accents, followed by bursts of burnt orange, dashes of fiery red and ending with a finale of caramel brown in late November.

According to John Notz, Jr., a Chicago lawyer and amateur historian, these “artists” who helped to paint the area with beautiful fall colors included John Charles Olmsted, son of the founder of American landscape architecture; Jens Jensen, Danish landscape architect of Humboldt Park in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood and Olof Benson, designer of Chicago’s Lincoln Park North Pond.

For the grounds at Grommes’ Allview estate, Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen designed enchanting woods on the lake side of the residence with a mile-long “maple alley” – a winding path lined with brilliant orange in the fall. The Allview site exalted nature and explored new ways to relate buildings to landscapes.

Several substantial landscape projects around Lake Geneva, including the estates of Hutchinson, Harris, Swift, Bartlett and the Yerkes Observatory, were designed by John Charles Olmsted.  He was heavily influenced by his father’s work, especially having grown up in a small home in the middle of Central Park during the construction of his father’s design for the park. Brothers John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. went on to create the largest landscape architecture firm in America.

For the famed Wychwood estate, a country home for then president of the Art Institute of Chicago Charles Hutchinson and his wife, the Olmsteds left many of the native trees undisturbed. The estate is prized for its flower and wildlife sanctuary, and was once in the trust of The University of Chicago for use as a research site. Named for the witch hazel that grows wild on the land, the bright green foliage becomes magenta in the fall.

Black walnut trees are what give Black Point Estate, an 1888 Victorian home landscaped by Olof Benson, its name. Since walnut trees quickly shed their leaves in the fall, it is a rare treasure to catch them when they burst with bright, yellow color. However, one can still enjoy the estate after this magnificent display – the fallen leaves are highly aromatic when walked upon and crushed.

There are many ways to enjoy the fall colors in the Lake Geneva area – whether by foot, boat, car, rail, bicycle or air. One of the best drives in the area is Snake Road, a three-mile-long, wooded, winding road off of Highway 50 on the northeast end of Geneva Lake. Another leisurely ride is Rustic Road 12 in nearby Lyons.

If you prefer an even slower pace, a hike on the 21-mile Geneva Lake shore path affords up-close views of fall foliage along with a peek at grand estates on the water. Great hiking can also be found in nearby conservancies, preserves and Big Foot Beach State Park.  In addition to foot paths, biking trails are plentiful, with routes both to and from downtown on the Lake Geneva bike path.

For those looking to kick back while enjoying the scenery, the Lake Geneva Cruise Line continues daily water tours through October. Signature cruises that complement the fall palette include a Sunday morning champagne brunch or a sultry, jazz dinner cruise every Friday night.  Other slow-rolling tours include horse and carriage rides and a vintage trolley that operates 10-mile round trips from its East Troy depot.

And for a single glimpse that says it all, catch a bird’s eye view in a hot air balloon ride. Daily tours glide over the area at sunrise and two hours before sunset.

No matter how you choose to enjoy Lake Geneva in the fall, it’s bound to be a picture perfect escape.

Grace Eckland is the Director of Marketing and PR for the Lake Geneva Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. To learn more about Lake Geneva, visit lakegenevawi.com or connect with them on at Facebook.com/mylakegeneva or on Twitter at @mylakegeneva.