14 Things to Do Outdoors in Chicagoland Before Summer Ends

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August is here, and summer is in its third and final act. The “actors” are still on stage: the leaves are green, the flowers are in bloom, the beaches are packed, the kids are still out of school, the sidewalk cafes are jammed with summer revelers, and the sun doesn’t set till around 8 p.m. But pretty fall colors, mild days, and cool nights await us in another month or two. So, let’s enjoy summer while we can because it’s the best time to live in Chicagoland. Here are 14 things you should do before summer ends:

1. Visit Our Next (Hopefully) National Park—Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Enjoy the towering dunes, sandy beaches, and crashing surf at this National Park Service (NPS) treasure, which is about 50 miles from downtown Chicago, but also check out its 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. Be sure to check out the Indiana Dunes Apple Festival on September 15 and 16, 2018. Indiana Dunes is still only categorized as a national lakeshore but, someday, I hope wise politicians follow through and make it a national park (giving it full protection from economic exploitation).

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Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (Photo courtesy of Michelle Michael, NPS)

2. Take a Road Trip to Galena: Nestled on bluffs above the Galena River, Galena is a beautiful historic town about 155 miles northwest of Chicago near the Iowa border. It has more than 1,450 buildings on the National Historic Register, including President Grant’s home), and it’s one of my favorite weekend destinations. This charming town features great restaurants, antique shops, bookstores, art galleries, and live music (including my friend Katie Sullivan, who performs one weekend a month at the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel; check her out on August 24 and 25 and on September 14 and 15).

Nearby, the town of Elizabeth offers several interesting destinations, including:

Finally, Dubuque, Iowa, an underrated city 25 minutes from Galena, has many interesting attractions, including the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the Dubuque On Ice Brewfest (held next February), and the Dubuque Museum of Art. Crystal Lake Cave just outside Dubuque is also worth a visit.

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Katie Sullivan performing at the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel in Galena
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Apple River Canyon State Park
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Crystal Lake Cave

3. Troll on Over to the Morton Arboretum: Troll Hunt is a fun interactive art exhibition at the Morton Arboretum (4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL 60532, 630/968-0074). The trolls, which were crafted from reclaimed wood and other materials by Danish artist Thomas Dambo, are 15- to 20-feet-tall (one reclining troll is 50-feet long), and were inspired by the trolls of European folklore. The trolls share the arboretum’s desire to care for trees and protect the environment. All trolls are located between two feet and three-quarters of a mile from the nearest parking lot. Should you choose to hike, the Troll Hunt route is 6 to 7 miles. My eight-year-old son and I had a great time troll hunting, and the rest of the arboretum is fun and beautiful, as well. Click here for my article about the trolls.

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The trolls can be a little cranky at times. Some might even want to capture a human or two with a net or trap, so be on guard.
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Morton Arboretum

4. Visit the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Garden (1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022, 847/835-6801) is a beautiful, awe-inspiring place in any season, but the following upcoming activities are especially noteworthy:

  • Model Railroad Garden. Check out 18 garden-scale trains on 1,600 feet of track, with nearly 50 miniature American landmarks amidst 5,000 plants in more than 300 different varieties. Open till Sunday, October 21, 2018.
  • Carillon Concert. Listen to a one-hour musical performance of carillon bells as you watch lights illuminate Evening Island. Preconcert carillon tour and demonstration, Monday, September 3, 5:30 p.m.
  • American Craft Exposition. View and purchase beautiful art in 12 types of media, including jewelry, ceramics, metal, glass, leather, and baskets. Friday-Sunday, September 21-23, 2018 (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday)

These events have just passed, but check them out in 2019 and beyond:

  • Kite Festival. Fly your own kite, build a kite in a workshop, or watch professional stunt-kite performances set to music at this annual event.
  • Bike the Garden. Ride the full perimeter of the Garden during this a once-a-year event.
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Chicago Botanic Garden

5. Hike All or Some of the Outerbelt Trail. The Outerbelt is a 170-mile hike through and around Chicago that winds its way through a variety of natural spaces. The first hikers completed the trail this spring, staying at forest preserve campsites along the way. The Outerbelt Trail is in its infancy, and detailed maps and perhaps even a guidebook are in the future. You don’t have to hike all 170 miles to get the Outerbelt experience, just a portion here or there. Click here for a map and more information. Additionally, REI offers a good article about the first through-hikers. Perhaps someday the Outerbelt Trail will become as famous as some of our nation’s other renowned through-trails.

6. Plant a Garden. It’s not too late to plant certain types of vegetables if you start soon. For example, you can still plant beans, some types of peppers, and a few other warm-weather-loving plants. I just planted more beans, and I’ll continue to do so until about September 1, but I’m an optimist and count on Chicagoland’s increasingly global-climate-change-warm autumns to keep the plants growing well past historical first-frost dates. To extend the growing season, you can also cover your favorite veggies with a plastic sheet or old towels as I do.

It’s a perfect time to plant cool weather crops—kale, cabbage, carrots, spinach, lettuce, peapods, etc. Plant now, and enjoy a garden harvest though mid-November (with a little extra care). 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.”

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7. Visit a Nature Center. This is a perfect way to introduce your kids or yourself to nature, hiking, and conservation. There are dozens of nature centers in Chicagoland. Some of my favorites include Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center, Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, North Park Village Nature Center, River Trail Nature Center; Crabtree Nature Center, Sand Ridge Nature Center, and Sagawau Environmental Learning Center. Visit the “What to Do This Weekend” section of this site for more information on these and other nature centers.

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North Park Village Nature Center

8. Enjoy a Lazy Day at the Beach. Summer is short in Chicagoland, so be sure to take some time to lounge at one of Chicago’s 26 free beaches. If you’re not the sitting and sunning type, 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. Better yet, dive in and splash around.

If you like birdwatching, check out the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, often known as “The Magic Hedge” at Montrose Beach. (4400 N. Simonds Drive). Birders have recorded more than 300 bird species. 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.

9. Visit a Few Farmers’ Markets: Fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan bread and cheese vendors, live music, activities for kids, people-watching, and much more—all in the great outdoors. Time Out offers a good list of popular farmers’ markets in Chicago. If you don’t live in Chicago, visit your town’s chamber of commerce for more information.

10. Check Out Visitation Prairie and Hike the Esker Trail at Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve. Cap Sauer’s Holding, which is located in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, is my favorite hiking destination in Chicagoland. I’ve 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’s 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’s easy—and enjoyable—to get lost in this vast nature area.

My first 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.

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Visitation Prairie, Cap Sauer’s Holding
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Esker Trail, Cap Sauer’s Holding

11. 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 great hiking and a surprisingly wild experience so close to Chicago. 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!”

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Red Gate Woods

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Red Gate Woods

12. See Some Bison. You don’t need to head to South Dakota or Wyoming to see bison. There are herds in our own backyard. One of my favorite places to view bison is 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 other places to see bison, check out one of my past blog posts. “7 Places to See Bison in the Midwest.”

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Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

13. Try Something New. Kayaking, canoeing, hiking, zip-lining (try Treetop Adventure at Bemis Woods-South in Western Springs), horseback riding, geocaching, fishing, etc. It’s never too late to learn a new skill and discover a new passion.

4. Say Goodbye to Summer at 10:54 PM. (CDT) on September 22, 2018. I hope that your summer has been filled with quality time with family and friends, hiking and kayaking, camping, and any other activity that gets you outdoors under the sun and stars. But nothing lasts forever. I hope that when the “actors” make their final bows and the time comes to say goodbye to summer and hello to fall, you—ideally with your favorite drink in hand, friends and family nearby, the sounds of the lake, forest, or just your background around you, and the stars overhead—won’t have any regrets.

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Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes; all photos copyright Andrew Morkes except the image of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (photo courtesy of Michelle Michael, NPS)

 

 

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