You don’t expect to find 40-foot limestone cliffs, a stream, beautiful waterfalls, and a pond in the middle of Chicago. But at Palmisano Park—a hidden gem at 27th and Halsted in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood—that’s just the case. This beautiful urban oasis is an attractive destination for hikers, runners, fishers, wanderers, dog walkers, kite-fliers, urban philosophers, and anyone else who loves the outdoors. And don’t be misled by the term “park.” This is no typical flat city park with freshly-mowed grass, dusty baseball diamonds, and a few beat-up picnic tables.
Palmisano Park is the site of an ancient coral reef that existed 400 million years ago. Dolomite limestone formed from the remains of the reef. In the late 1830s, limestone quarrying operations began at this site and continued till 1970. In the ensuing years, the quarry was used for construction waste. But city planners had another idea for the quarry—turn it into a park to provide the neighborhood with much-needed green space. More than 40,000 square feet of clean topsoil was brought to the site, and, in 2009, Palmisano Park opened to the public.
When I entered Palmisano Park (formerly known as Stearns Quarry) at its north entrance, I was struck by how quickly the sounds of city life dissolved. Blaring horns and the whoosh of cars on the highways were replaced by cricket and birdsong and the sounds of the wind through the native prairie grass and trees and cascading water (thanks to a beautiful water sculpture and other water features). The landscape architect Ernest Wong designed the sculpture and the entire park, as well as Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown.
At this entrance, visitors have the option to either hike trails that take them to the top of a hill or down to the quarry. I chose the latter. I hiked past late-blooming flowers and large boulders that were pulled from the quarry, enjoying the wetlands and prairie habitats as I gradually descended about 30 feet from street level.
If Palmisano Park was a movie, one of its star actors would be the sky. The design of the hills and trails draw visitors’ eyes to the vast sky. It was an Academy Award–winning view when I visited—the day was sunny and the sky was ocean blue and only blemished by a few wispy clouds. The juxtaposition of the prairie grass and oak and other trees against the backdrop of the blue sky reminded me of walking some of the trails at Indiana Dunes National Park, or even hiking in the mountains out west.
There are 1.7 miles of trails in all—metal walkways, recycled timber boardwalks, a crushed stone running path, and other types of paths. The gray metal walkways zig and zag down to the quarry bottom, and they’re beautiful in their own right. One of the best aspects of this park are the constantly changing views. It’s been designed so that you see something different and unique every time you walk further along the trails.
And after some zigging and zagging, I arrived at the quarry fishing pond, which is stocked with bluegill, largemouth bass, and channel catfish, and features a fishing pier that works just as well for nature-watching. The park has a self-sustaining water system that collects rainwater, which is then channeled through wetland terraces throughout the park. Down at the fishing pond, surrounded by 40-foot limestone cliffs on several sides, you’ll feel like you’re not in the city anymore. You’ll forget that thousands of cars are zooming by on Interstates 55 and 90/94 just to the north and east, respectively; forget that 2.7 million people live in this packed city (which boasted only about 4,000 people when it became incorporated in 1837); and forget that you’re surrounded by bungalows, auto collision repair stores, fast food joints, and factories just beyond the park.
At the pond, I took some time for reflection and contemplation, and then moved on. The world seemed to come to a standstill at the fishing pond, but real-world responsibilities beckoned from outside this 27-acre gem.
I hiked along the base of the hill, and continued to marvel at the creativity and vision of Ernest Wong and others who created this beautiful addition to Chicago’s park system.
Then it was time for the grand finale. I climbed the stone steps to the top of the hill (which local residents have dubbed “Mount Bridgeport”). I passed a few flowers valiantly hanging on amidst the recent freezing Chicago nights and then walked through an area of tall prairie grass. I caught a glimpse of something that surprised me. Through the tall grass I saw first Willis Tower and then the rest of Chicago’s skyline. I’ve lived in Chicago my entire life (almost 50 years) and viewed its stunning skyline thousands of times, but I was overcome by wonder because I’d never seen it from a prairie. These massive monoliths of modern life were obscured by the golden grass, which waved vigorously in the strong wind. They seemed small and insignificant partly hidden behind the grass.
I reached the top of the hill. There it was! My city—a captivating, yet befuddling, mix of beauty and violence, poverty and prosperity, miles of miles of concrete and asphalt, 110+ skyscrapers, and islands of nature (such as Palmisano Park) hanging on for dear life. I felt like an explorer discovering something new, or at least seeing something in a new way.
I marveled at the view, but knew I couldn’t linger. In a few minutes I’d be back in my car on Halsted, and then merging onto Interstate 94 heading south to my childhood neighborhood of Beverly. In a few moments, my solitary time at Palmisano Park would just be another memory as I joined the thousands of other human busy bees making their way through the city. I hoped that I would take something of what I felt and learned at Palmisano Park back into the real world.
Tips and Info:
- The park is named after Henry Palmisano, a fishing advocate and the proprietor of a neighborhood bait shop. He passed away during its construction.
- Palmisano Park is open from 6 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every day of the year.
- The park is not just a warm-weather destination. Mount Bridgeport has become a popular sledding destination in the winter.
- Birdwatching is another enjoyable activity at the park. During your hike, you might see downy woodpeckers, crows, blue jays, finches, sparrows, and crows, among other types of birds.
- The meadow atop the hill is a popular spot for kite-flying.
- Palmisano Park is accessible by car (street parking is available on Halsted), but also by bus and the Orange Line. Click here to access directions via public transportation.
- Washroom facilities are available at McGuane Park, which is just south of Palmisano Park. McGuane also has an indoor swimming pool, two gymnasiums, and an assembly hall.
- Chicago Park District: Palmisano Park
- Palmisano Park Audio Tour (You can use the map below and download the MP3s to use during your on-site visit, or simply listen at home.)
- Audio Tour Map
- Questions for an Architect: Ernie Wong
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes, unless otherwise credited
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