Spring is here in Chicagoland—at least if you look at the calendar, but not the thermometer. Warmer weather is on the horizon, spring flowers are stirring beneath the ground, migratory birds are heading north, and it will be warm and green in no time. Here are 8 things you should do outdoors this spring in Chicagoland:
1. Walk Along Lake Michigan. Don’t just head to the shore and linger for a few moments, but take a long walk on the sandy beaches of our vast inland sea (it’s the fifth-largest lake in the world). Skip some stones. Listen to the sounds of gulls and other birds. If it’s warm enough, dip your feet in the water and feel the energy of the waves. If you head north from downtown, check out the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, often known as “The Magic Hedge” at Montrose Beach. (4400 North Simonds Drive). More than 300 bird species have been recorded. If you head south from downtown, first check out Northerly Island, a 91-acre park that offers great views of migratory birds and a mile-long walking path with a stunning view of the Chicago skyline. Before you leave the area, don’t forget to check out Chicago museum staples such as The Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. Next, head south from downtown to check out the South Shore Natural Area (SSNA, 7059 S. South Shore Drive) at the South Shore Cultural Center (which is a pretty amazing place in itself). The SSNA features 6 acres of dunes, wetlands, a woodland, prairie, savanna and shrubland habitats. If it really warms up, you might just want to lounge at one of Chicago’s 26 free beaches.
2. Check Out Visitation Prairie and Walk the Esker Trail at Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve. Cap Sauer’s Holding, which is in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, is my favorite hiking destination in Chicagoland. I’ved hiked at Cap Sauer’s for more than 25 years—sometimes twice a week when I was in my 20s and fancy free. At 1,520 acres, it is the largest roadless area in Cook County. At Cap Sauer’s, you’ll find hiking, biking, and horseback trails; wetlands, marshes, and streams; savannah, prairie, and forest; and much more. It is easy—and enjoyable—to get lost in this vast nature area.
My first spring suggestion: hike to Visitation Prairie in the middle of Cap Sauer’s. It offers peace and solitude that can rival the remotest monastery; prairie grasses that grow as tall as LeBron James in the summer; Evening Primrose, Goldenrod, Prairie Sunflower, New England Aster, and other striking wildflowers as beautiful as Lauren Graham (ahem…I mean my wife). Next, exit Visitation Prairie to the east and hike the esker trail back to your car at the Teason’s Woods parking lot at 104th Avenue and Route 83. An esker is a narrow ridge made of sand and gravel that, thousands of years ago, was a river bottom on top of or at the bottom of a glacier. The FPCC says that the esker at Cap Sauer’s is “one of the best examples of this rare feature in Illinois.” As you walk the esker trail, you’ll descend and climb through dense forest, wetlands, marshes, and wildflowers. You’ll hear spring peepers (a type of chorus frog), cricket song, and other animals in the wetlands and forests on each side of the trail. It’s a stunning walk (especially in late spring, summer, and fall), and I wish this esker was my own. I would walk it every day if I could. More on Cap Sauer’s in an upcoming blog post.
3. Help Clean Up. Seeing garbage is a good walk ruined, so every time I hike, I bring a garbage bag to help clean up. I carry a little garbage out every time and it’s my small way of making a difference. On a larger level, environmental groups around Chicago schedule clean-up days at parks, woodlands, and along Lake Michigan. These are a great way to meet other people who care about the environment while doing good. Here are a few organizations to check out for clean-up opportunities:
- Forest Preserves of Cook County
- Chicago Park District
- 29th Annual Chicago Earth Day Parks & Preserves Clean-Up (April 21, 2018)
- Sierra Club-Chicago Group
4. Check Out Red Gate Woods for Great Hiking and Biking and Glimpses of Remnants of the Manhattan Project. This area in the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) offers some of the highest-quality natural habitat in the Chicago area. Hiking trails range from paved flat paths, to boggy, muddy single-person-wide trails, to challenging hilly terrain. There are many lakes and sloughs (perfect for a picnic lunch or fishing), and wildlife in abundance at Red Gate Woods, which is in Lemont. There are also remnants of the top-secret Manhattan Project above and below ground (bring your Geiger Counter…just kidding). There are only a few places in Chicagoland where can you walk three or four miles in the woods without crossing a road—and this is one of them. Don’t worry, you almost can’t get lost. The FPCC has installed an amazing system of trail signage that tells you where you are in this vast preserve, what trail you’re on, and which direction to take if you want to stay on a specific trail or switch to another one. To learn more about Red Gate Woods, check out my past blog post, “Red Gate Woods: Hawks and Hills, Sloughs and Snakes, and Ghosts and Buried Nuclear Waste, Oh My!”
5. Plant a Garden. Do so, not just because it’s a great activity to do with kids (and a way to teach them about nature and responsibility), it’s fun, and a way to eat healthier, but also because it keeps us connected to nature and what’s important in life (at least as I see it). With each passing decade, an increasing number of Americans have become disconnected from the land and nature. Farms, forests, and prairies were once almost a part of our DNA but, today, most of us get our food from supermarkets, only encounter nature at zoos and nature centers, and do everything possible to avoid getting out in the great outdoors. We need to fight this mindset and get back outdoors, get our hands dirty, and grow some of our own food. Planting a garden will help you to feel healthier both physically and mentally, and you won’t have to wait in line at the grocery store. For more of my thoughts on gardening, check out my blog post, “Why I Garden…And Thoughts on My Italian Ancestors, Farming, the Seasons, and What Not.”
6. View the Spring Flowers at Messenger Woods Nature Preserve. This 441-acre preserve in the Forest Preserve District of Will County features forests, prairies, savanna, wetlands, and a portion of Spring Creek. Visitors have recorded seeing more than 60 bird species. Messenger Woods has been on my Chicago nature bucket list for years, yet I’ve still not visited. I aim to change that this spring. Why? Because, if you go in April, you’ll see one of the most beautiful and vast displays of Virginia Bluebells and other spring flowers in Chicagoland. From photographs and stories from people I know, they blanket the woodlands and the banks of Spring Creek for as far as the eye can see. In May, you’ll see Great White Trillium and other spring flowers. There is also camping and many outdoor programs that are fun for people of all ages.
7. See Some Bison. After you visit Messenger Woods, head 20 miles southwest to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (815-423-6370) in Wilmington, Illinois. The site was formerly a U.S. military ammunition and explosives production facility from World War II to the 1970s. It was decommissioned, and it became the first national tallgrass prairie in the country in 1996. Midewin’s restoration is being managed by the USDA Forest Service and dedicated volunteers. Approximately 13,000 acres, including 34 miles of trails, are open to the public for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. Nearly 150 bird species have been sighted at the prairie, and 18 endangered or threatened species, 23 species of reptiles, 40 aquatic species, and 27 species of mammals (including bison) make Midewin their home.
But the nearly 30 bison at Midewin are the main attraction, so my best advice is to head to the Midewin visitor center to learn where the bison have most recently been sighted. (A buffalo webcam is also available.) The small, but interesting, facility offers exhibits that detail the site from its Native American era, to the time of white settlers, to its use as an ammunition plant, and now as a grassland (and larger ecosystem) in the process of restoration. The kids will enjoy the bison hide they can touch and the small exhibits on bison bones and fossils. A bookstore, a pleasant outdoor picnic area, and guided tours and presentations on select days round out the offerings at the visitor center. To learn more about Midewin and 6 other places to see bison, check out one of my past blog posts. “7 Places to See Bison in the Midwest.”
8. Get Up Early and Say Hello to Summer. Summer begins at 5:07 A.M. (CDT) on June 21, 2018. If you prefer not to welcome summer that early, wait till noon, when the sun is at its most northern point in the sky. This day offers the largest amount of sunlight all year—15 hours and 14 minutes. It’s a perfect day to take a hike, learn how to kayak, go camping, enjoy the beach, plant some beans in your garden, or just savor the transition from spring to summer—my favorite season in Chicagoland.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes