15 Things to Do Outdoors This Spring in Chicagoland

Spring is here in Chicagoland—at least if you look at the calendar, but not the thermometer. Warmer weather is on the horizon, and summer will be here in no time. But before the hot, stifling days of summer are upon us, here are 15 things you should do outdoors this spring in Chicagoland:

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

1. Visit Indiana Dunes National Park, Our Nation’s Newest National Park! This lakeside gem about 50 miles from Chicago has towering dunes, sandy beaches, and crashing surf, but also wetlands, rivers, prairies, swamps, bogs, marshes, and peaceful 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 National Park Service sites. More than 350 bird species have been sighted at the park. 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. Spend a Day on Chicago’s Riverwalk. This 1.25 mile long path along the Main Branch of the Chicago River offers great views of the river and Chicago skyline. On the Riverwalk, you can rent a kayak, take a river cruise (or ride the less-expensive commuter water taxi up and down the river like my son and I did awhile back), and enjoy dinner and a drink at a variety of riverside restaurants and bars. The Riverwalk is a great addition to Chicago, and you should check it out this spring, summer, or fall.

3. Visit the Chicago Botanic Garden (1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022, 847/835-5440) to stroll through its 27 gardens and four natural areas, which are situated on 385 acres on and around nine islands, with six miles of lake shoreline. Amazing stats at the garden’s website: There are 2,587,596 plants representing 9,694 plant varieties of 232 plant families onsite. The garden also has three beautiful greenhouses, and offers classes and workshops in a variety of areas ranging from gardening and cooking, to writing and aquaponics. Here are some upcoming spring events at the garden (be sure to doublecheck dates and times at the garden’s website):

Model Railroad Garden (opens Saturday, May 11, through Sunday, October 13, 2019, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, weather permitting; Wednesdays until 8 p.m., June 5-August 28, 2019)

Shinrin-Yoku Forest Bathing (Saturday, May 18, 2019, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Saturday, June 15, 2019, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 13, 2019, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Sunday, August 11, 2019, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Saturday, September 28, 2019, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.)

Butterflies & Blooms (opens May 25 through September 2, 2019; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, weather permitting)

There are literally hundreds of events, classes, and other activities scheduled at the garden. Click here for more info.

4. Take a 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, or head to beaches on the North Shore.

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5. 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. Click here to read my article, Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve: The Wildest Place in Cook County.

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.

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6. Help Clean Up. Seeing garbage is a good walk ruined, so every time I hike, I bring a garbage bag to help clean up. 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:

7. Hunt for Trolls and Otherwise Enjoy Morton ArboretumTroll Hunt is a fun interactive art exhibition at the Morton Arboretum (4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL 60532, 630/968-0074) that opened in June 2018. It’s expected to remain open until the trolls became unsafe due to deterioration caused by the elements. The trolls were crafted from reclaimed wood and other materials, 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. They can also 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. 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. Click here for my article about the trolls.

The Troll Hunt is the hot activity at the arboretum, but don’t forget to check out the beautiful forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural areas of the 1,700-acre arboretum. Noteworthy features include a 4-acre Children’s Garden, 1-acre Maze Garden, Sterling Morton Library, Plant Clinic, and more than 222,000 plants from around the world. Click here for information on facility hours, the admission fee, educational programs, and visiting tips, as well as maps.

Here are some upcoming spring events at the arboretum (be sure to doublecheck dates and times at its website):

LEGO® Brick Play (daily, May through September, 2019, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Children’s Garden)

Arbor Evenings (live music; Wednesdays, June 5 through August 28, 2019, 5:30 to 7:45 p.m)

Craft Beer Festival (Saturday, June 22, 2019, 1:00 p.m.- 5:00 p.m.; last pour is 4:45 p.m.)

Hundreds of events, classes, and other activities are available at the arboretum. Click here to learn more.

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8. 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 article, “Red Gate Woods: Hawks and Hills, Sloughs and Snakes, and Ghosts and Buried Nuclear Waste, Oh My!”

9. 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 article, “Why I Garden…And Thoughts on My Italian Ancestors, Farming, the Seasons, and What Not.”

10. 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. If you visit soon, you’ll see one of the most beautiful and vast displays of Virginia Bluebells, Great White Trillium, and other spring flowers in Chicagoland. They blanket the woodlands and the banks of Spring Creek for as far as the eye can see. I visited a few days ago, and it was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I’ve ever had in Chicagoland nature. Click here to read my article about this special place in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

11. Check Out the Only Open-Water Quaking Bog in Illinois at Volo Bog State Natural Area (28478 W. Brandenburg Road, Ingleside, IL 60041, 815/344-1294) is located about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. This beautiful nature site includes Volo Bog, the only open-water quaking bog in Illinois. A quaking bog consists of layers and layers of plant matter that have collected over thousands of years atop the remnants of a glacial lake. It’s a special place for nature viewing, hiking (along a fun boardwalk through marshes, wetlands, and forests), and contemplation, and there’s a nature center for the kids. Volo Bog is so unique that it was designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1970. These preserves protect the highest quality natural lands in the state. Click here for my article about Volo Bog. Travel idea: Pair a visit to Volo Bog with a visit to the Volo Auto Museum (just down the road).

12. See Some Bison. After you visit Messenger Woods, you can also 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. If you’d like to learn more about tallgrass prairies before your visit, check out my interview with Cindy Crosby, the author of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural and Cultural History (forthcoming in 2020). 

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 bison 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 my article. “7 Places to See Bison in the Midwest.”

Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center

13. Visit a Nature Center. Nature centers are an excellent starting point for those who may not be regular nature lovers. Most offer a variety of indoor and outdoor activities for kids. Some have live animals, and many have play areas that come in handy during rainy days. Here are a few nature centers in the Chicago area to check out (with websites and contact information provided).

14. Check Out Thousands of Activities That Are Sponsored By Our Area’s Forest Preserve Districts. If you want to learn how to fish, shoot a bow and arrow, canoe, or photograph nature; take a star hike; camp; learn about invasive species; create nature-oriented art; or develop some other outdoor skill or enjoy a nature-related experience, the forest preserve districts in our area have an opportunity for you. Visit the following websites for a list of activities in your area:

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15. Say Hello to Summer. Summer begins at 10:54 A.M. (CDT) on June 21, 2019. This day offers the largest amount of sunlight all year—nearly 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

3 thoughts on “15 Things to Do Outdoors This Spring in Chicagoland

  1. You left out one possibility which is to bike around Lake Michigan for the time and energy wealthy. I only heard of this during an interview with Mayor Emmanuel. He plans to start the adventure the day after leaving office. I always enjoy your suggestions for activities and outdoor excursions. Tally ho, as said by the cartoon “Nature Cat”.

    Liked by 1 person

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