Have you ever visited a national park, monument, or other National Park Service property? If not, the Labor Day weekend is a great time to start. According to the NPS, “the National Park System covers more than 84 million acres and is comprised of 417 sites with at least 19 different designations. These include 129 historical parks or sites, 87 national monuments, 59 national parks, 25 battlefields or military parks, 19 preserves, 18 recreation areas, 10 seashores, four parkways, four lakeshores, and two reserves.”
The good news: that’s a lot of options—especially if you live outside the Chicago area.
The bad news for Chicagoans: there are only a few NPS properties in the Chicagoland area. But let’s make lemonade out of lemons. Here are four noteworthy NPS natural and historical destinations to check out this weekend—or at any other time. The last two destinations typically require a full weekend.
1. Indiana Dunes National Park (50 miles from downtown Chicago): Our nation’s newest national park! Yes, there are towering dunes, sandy beaches, and crashing surf at this NPS treasure, but also wetlands, rivers, prairies, swamps, bogs, marshes, and quiet forests. The national park’s 15,000 acres feature 50 miles of trails, as well as more than 1,100 native plants, which places it fourth in plant diversity among all NPS sites. More than 350 bird species have been sighted at the lakeshore. Looking for itinerary advice? Click here for tips on what to do if you have 1–2 hours, a half day, or an entire weekend to spend at the lakeshore.
2. Pullman National Monument. One of the NPS’s newest monuments is located on the far south side of Chicago. You won’t find nature in abundance, but rather a wealth of history about the first model, planned industrial community in the United States and the Pullman Company, the founder of the community. Another noteworthy site in the Pullman Historic District is the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which explores African-American labor history. A. Philip Randolph was a labor and civil rights leader, and the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union that represented African-American railroad porters during contentious battles with the Pullman Company over worker rights.
3. Lincoln Home National Historic Site (200 miles from downtown Chicago in Springfield, Illinois). Surveys of presidential historians and the general public typically rank Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president. So why not tour his Springfield, Illinois, 12-room, Greek Revival house, in which he lived for 17 years before becoming president? While in Springfield, also consider checking out The Lincoln Depot, where the president-elect gave a farewell speech before heading to Washington, D.C. in 1861; the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site. If you’re on a presidential site kick, also check out the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa (about 211 miles from Chicago), and the Ulysses S. Grant Home in Galena, Illinois (about 170 miles from Chicago). Note, the Grant home is not part of the National Park Service.
4. Effigy Mounds National Monument (220 miles from downtown Chicago). More than 1,200 years ago, a culture known today as the Effigy Moundbuilders began building mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, bison, bear, lynx, turtle, deer, and other animals along the Upper Mississippi River and in other areas in what is now Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Some were burial mounds. Archaeologists speculate that others were used to mark celestial events or serve as boundaries between tribes. Effigy Mounds National Monument, which is located three miles north of Marquette, Iowa, features more than 200 mounds in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful areas of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Note that the Fire Point Trail involves a somewhat-challenging climb up switchbacks that is entirely doable for those in good health/shape. Is hiking the Fire Point Trail worth it? YES. The views of the Mississippi River from Fire Point were beautiful, the forests were filled with wildflowers and birdsong when we hiked, and discovering and tracing the shapes of the animal effigies was both enjoyable and awe inspiring.
Here are four things to check out at Effigy Mounds and the surrounding area that I did not get a chance to see during my visit:
- The Marching Bear Group in the South Unit. Many consider it the most impressive collection of effigy mounds in the monument. An EMNM staff member told me the following about the trail’s hiking difficulty: “The elevation gain for both trails (i.e, Fire Point and Marching Bear) is about 400 feet. The South Unit trail differs from the North Unit in that the trail does not switch back up and is gravel, not wood chips. If you hiked in the North Unit without issue I do not see the Marching Bear Trail being any problem. Just keep in mind that to get to the Marching Bear Group and back is four miles.” This sounds like an interesting hike, and we will be back to check this out when my son gets a little older.
- The one-mile Yellow River Boardwalk Trail, which travels through a wetland environment. It is accessible for those with disabilities. Located south of the visitor center.
- Sny Magill Unit. Features the largest mound group, and is located about 12 miles south of the visitor center. Ask the rangers at the visitor center for directions to this remote unit.
- The Driftless Area Wetland Centre, an environmental education facility that features information on wetlands, prairie, wildlife displays and animals native to the Driftless Area. Located just south of Effigy Mounds.
Click here to learn about other NPS parks and properties. The database is searchable by type of activity (hiking, caving, state, stargazing, historical, etc.), state, and other criteria.
Copyright Andrew Morkes (text); all photos copyright National Park Service except if otherwise credited