Look, this time of year ain't easy. School has started, leases are a-changing, and we need to navigate all that and more while adhering to social distancing norms. Even day trips can be fraught: Illinois residents who flocked to Indiana beaches this summer encountered overcrowded dunes, and we all know what happened to the lakefront. So much for getting away from it all.

If you're feeling some seasonal wanderlust but are worried about overcrowding, here’s five places to flee, safely and stress-free.

Rock Cut State Park

Photo: Yinan Chen / iStock

Once the leaves start to change, swap the usual state park standbys and head north to Rock Cut State Park instead. Sitting just outside Rockford, these 3,000 acres boast two sparkling lakes and a bevy of camping facilities. 

Hiking trails stay open year-round, but ifyou want to take advantage of the bike trails, go soon: They close November 30. Keep your eyes peeled on the trail for local fauna, like deer, foxes, and beavers.

Try it instead of… Starved Rock State Park

Private hayrides in Naperville

Photo: Courtesy of the Naperville Park District

Not every family tradition will be able to withstand COVID-19, but the Naperville Park District’s hayrides are here to stay. The parks offer hayride rentals that include private use of picnic facilities, including firepits, and as many 20-minute long hayrides as you can cram into your allotted time.

Available at either Knoch Knolls Park picnic grove or Seager Park Pavilion, the $80 fee covers up to 10 people for an hour. Two-hour reservations for large groups of up to 50 people are also available with a $190 fee for residents ($220 for non-residents).

Try it instead of… Shlepping to Michigan like typical FIP

Morton Arboretum

Photo: Wildnerdpix / iStock

The Morton Arboretum in Lisle is my go-to spooky Halloween activity — said no one, ever. But, since many pumpkin patches have cancelled their annual corn mazes due to safety concerns this year, the arboretum may be your best bet at getting lost in the twists and turns of a botanical maze.

The 1,700 acre arboretum is operating at limited capacity, with timed reservation tickets ($15 for adults, $10 for kids) required to ensure safe, touchless access to the park’s facilities. You’ll need a mask to enter the perennially popular Maze Garden, but if you’d rather watch the fun, anyway, you can perch on a 12-foot high spectating platform built into an old sycamore tree. The arboretum’s seasonal Scarecrow Trail, which features homemade straw men crafted by local scout troops, takes visitors for a stroll around Meadow Lake starting October 1. Finally, it’s impossible to miss the latest attraction: six 30-foot-tall troll sculptures that are spread across the grounds.

Try it instead of… Garfield Park Conservatory

Zion Nature Parks

Photo: stockphoto52 / iStock

Has months of sheltering-in-place left your stamina, erm, wanting? Just an hour north of the city, Zion is the ideal day trip for those who want to be surrounded by nature without having to hit strenuous hiking trails.

The North Dunes Nature Preserve and Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park offer scenic shorelines and diverse habitats; in fact, Illinois Beach State Park is the only ridge shoreline in the state, meaning its nearly seven miles of shoreline are accompanied by small forests and diverse wetlands. Be sure to plan ahead, though: While the North Dunes are open daily, Illinois Beach is open only to registered campground guests on weekends to prevent crowding.

Try it instead of… Garfield Park Conservatory

Brookfield Zoo

Photo: Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society

Petting zoos are so passé, not to mention a hygiene nightmare. Luckily, this suburban stalwart has hatched a pandemic-appropriate workaround. Through November 1, 40 animatronic dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, and a three-story tall Argentinosaurus will roam the park. Paleontologists-to-be can prove themselves by answering dinosaur-related trivia to win prizes.

Think your child (or you, no judgment) would be terrified by large robotic reptiles? There are other seasonal perks to enjoy, instead, like concession stands slinging caramel corn, brats, and pretzels with beer cheese. Spiked wine and Leinekugel’s Oktoberfest beer are also on tap for the grownups. And you can drink easy: Brookfield is requiring reservation tickets, masks, and cashless payments from all visitors.

Try it instead of… Lincoln Park Zoo