More Than 10 Nature Centers and Other Destinations to Visit to Beat the Heat

IMG_1865Chicagoland is baking in a 90+ degree heat wave. Heat indexes are expected to exceed 105 degrees during the next few days. A hike, horseback ride, or run in the forest preserves are probably not on your list of must-do activities during this extended summer scorcher, but there are many indoor nature- or history-oriented spots you can check out to beat the heat, including the following destinations. Quick summaries are provided for the destinations. Click on the links for more information.


The Field Museum (Chicago): Great historical and nature-oriented exhibits including Underground Adventure (open through December 31, 2020) and Mummies (open through April 21, 2019). Permanent exhibits and features such as Inside Ancient Egypt; Evolving Planet; The Crown Family PlayLab; Fossil Preparation Laboratory; Meteorites; and Pawnee Earth Lodge.

Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center (Oak Brook, IL): This nature education center is top notch. When you walk inside, you’ll be greeted by friendly staff, tons of exhibits (including one that shows birds that have been recently spotted in Fullersburg Woods), books, informational maps and flyers, and other resources. The kids can view live animals (snakes, toads, etc.), learn about the prints made by different types of animals in the woods via a hands-on exhibit (this was one of my eight-year-old son’s favorites), check out the skeleton of a 13,000-year-old woolly mammoth, and use microscopes and spotting scopes to study various animals and organisms. Kids can play with all types of hands-on exhibits in the kids’ area and climb into a “bird’s nest” (another favorite of my son). Also: good hiking, river views, and much more. Click here for my article on the nature center.

Graue Mill and Museum (Oak Brook, IL): Step back in history during a visit to this underappreciated local gem, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and is the only operating waterwheel gristmill in the Chicago area. The museum features a variety of rooms that depict life in the mid-to-late 1800s; an exhibit on the Underground Railroad (Frederick Graue sheltered African slaves who had escaped from southern plantations as they made their way north to freedom); milling, spinning, weaving, and living history presentations by docents; and special events such as the museum’s annual Fine Arts Festival, Craft Beer Tasting Event, Civil War Encampment, and Christmas at the Mill Holiday Boutique. The mill and museum are kid-friendly, and picnic tables are available with a nice view of the mill and Salt Creek. The mill and museum are open from mid-April through mid-November. Museum Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.; closed Monday, except for holidays. Contact the museum for the most current information on museum hours and events.

Lemont (southwest suburbs): The town, which was first settled in 1833, offers historic churches and other buildings made from dolomite limestone (known locally as Athens Marble, and which was used to build the Chicago Water Tower, Holy Name Cathedral, and other Chicago landmarks). Lemont also offers a walkable historic downtown, antique shops, boutiques, and tons of history. It’s one of my favorite towns in the southwest suburbs.

Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center (southwest suburbs): One of the crown jewels of the many great nature centers in Chicagoland. The center offers a large and fun kids’ indoor play area with live animals, a reading section, games, and much more; an outdoor play area for kids; a two-story museum that traces the geological history of the area and features live snakes, turtles, frogs, fish, and other fauna; the actual Schoolhouse, which was built in 1886 in a nearby area and hosted classes until 1948; easy and enjoyable hikes [the Farm Pond Trail (0.25 miles) is a good hike for families; the Black Oak Trail (1.75 miles) is the longest trail]; and a 6,000-square-foot garden for those with disabilities, or just those who want to immerse themselves in nature.

North Park Village Nature Center (northwest side of Chicago): A nature preserve and educational facility that offers easy walking trails through woodlands, wetlands, prairie, and savanna; a hands-on exploratory room of natural objects (antlers, shells, pine cones, fossils, etc.); and public programs for preschoolers, school age children, families, and adults. A perfect place to spend a few hours hiking, picnicking, and learning about nature.

Pullman National Monument (far south side of Chicago): One of the National Park Service’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.

River Trail Nature Center (northwest suburbs): A nature center that features beautiful views of the meandering Des Plaines River; great birdwatching; three easy-to-hike trails through forest and wetlands; friendly and helpful staff; and a Noah’s Ark–menagerie of other animals for viewing—from flying squirrels, frogs, turtles, snakes galore, and lizards indoors, to a coyote, bald eagle, owls, and an impressive bee colony outdoors. (Sorry, no elephants or giraffes.). It also features a large children’s indoor play and exploration area where kids can climb into an “eagle nest,” crawl in a “fox den,” view Native American artifacts, play checkers on a tree stump, read nature books, climb through massive logs (just outside one of the center’s doors), and do much more.

Here are a few other nature centers in the Chicago area to check out (with websites and contact information provided). I’ll cover some of these in future blog posts.

In addition to the aforementioned nature preserves in Cook County, visit the websites of the following forest preserve districts for information on their nature centers:


8 Places to See Bison in the Midwest: See bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Wilmington, IL); Fermilab (Batavia, IL); Nachusa Grasslands (​Franklin Grove, IL); Kankakee Sands (Newton County, IN); Blue Mounds State Park (near Luverne, MN); Minneopa State Park (near Mankato, MN); Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve (near Sioux City, IA); Sandhill Wildlife Area (near Wisconsin Rapids, WI).

Lake Michigan. 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. Dip your feet in the water and feel the energy of the waves–or just dive in to escape the heat. Have a picnic or lounge at one of Chicago’s 26 free beaches. 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.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (50 miles from downtown Chicago): Yes, there are towering dunes, sandy beaches, and crashing surf at this National Park Service (NPS) treasure, but also wetlands, rivers, prairies, swamps, bogs, marshes, and quiet forests. The national lakeshore’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.

If you’re a glutton for punishment and enjoy the scorching weather, check out the What to Do This Weekend section of this website for more nature, hiking, history, camping, and/or activities for kids or for yourself in the Chicagoland area.

Copyright Andrew Morkes (text/photo)


One thought on “More Than 10 Nature Centers and Other Destinations to Visit to Beat the Heat

  1. You listed many excellent suggestions but this grandma will chose watching the Cubs from My air-conditioned family room until it’s time for 4:30 Mass. If I were 35 years younger with little ones to entertain, I would jump on your list. Thanks.

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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