More Than 20 Museums, Nature Centers, and Other Destinations to Visit In Chicagoland on a Winter Day

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

It’s a snowy weekend in Chicago, but that’s no reason to stay at home. A 10-mile winter hike = NO! Camping = NO! But you can still get out and take a short walk or, more realistically, enjoy one of our area’s many natured-oriented places, museums, and even an auto museum. Try one of the following places this weekend or on any cold or snowy day in Chicagoland.

1. Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center (3609 Spring Road. Oakbrook, IL 60523, 630/850-8110): 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 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 (in better weather), river views, and much more. Click here for my article on the nature center.

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2. The Field Museum (1400 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605, 312/922-9410): Sue, the most famous dinosaur in the world, has a new exhibit hall, and the museum’s Great Hall has been creatively reimagined. There are also great historical and nature-oriented exhibits including Underground Adventure (open through December 31, 2020) and Fantastic Bug Encounters! (open through April 19, 2020). Also, check out permanent exhibits and features such as Inside Ancient Egypt; Evolving Planet; The Crown Family PlayLab; Fossil Preparation Laboratory; Meteorites; and Pawnee Earth Lodge. Click here for my article about the museum.

copyright Field Museum, photo by Martin Baumgaertner

3. The Chicago Botanic Garden (1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022, 847/835-6801) has three amazing greenhouses—two filled with exotic tropical plants (pruned in the summer so that they bloom in the winter to wow us shivering Chicagoans) and another arrayed with an amazing medley of cacti and succulents—some more than 10-feet tall. The Chicago Botanic Garden also has a cozy restaurant and plenty of indoor educational programs that you should check out.  Click here for my article about the garden.

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Story time at the Lenhardt Library, copyright Chicago Botanic Photos

4. Volo Auto Museum (27582 Volo Village Road, Volo, IL 60073, 815/385-3644). The museum features 33 distinct exhibits in 12 buildings on 35 acres. It also features a restaurant and a large antique mall. There’s literally something for everybody at the museum. It’s a family-owned and -run museum and collectibles auto market. More so, it’s a sweet exhaust blast of kitschy Americana. There are hundreds of vintage and famous cars, but the museum also features everything under the sun—from 1950s jukeboxes and arcade games, to military aircraft and 100-year-old trains, to antique bikes, scooters, tractors, and snowmobiles. Unless you’re a chronic grump, you’ll find something that will make you smile, laugh, or simply say wow (like I did when I saw the 28-foot-long guitar car and the 14-foot-tall roller skate car). Click here for my article about the museum.

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5. Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center (9800 Willow Springs Road, Willow Springs, IL 60480, 708/839-6897): This is 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; and the actual Schoolhouse. Click here for my article about the nature center.

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6. The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian (3001 Central Street, Evanston, IL 60201, 847/475-1030) is a great place to visit to see both the past and present of Native Americans—not only in Chicagoland, but throughout the United States and Canada. In addition to the exhibits, the museum hosts many events, including artist demonstrations, a film festival, a speakers series, a Weekend Arts & Stories program, and an annual Native American Fine Arts Market. Click here to read my article about the museum.

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7. North Park Village Nature Center (5801 North Pulaski Road, Chicago, IL 60646): A nature preserve and educational facility that offers a hands-on exploratory room of natural objects (antlers, shells, pine cones, fossils, etc.); a reading room for kids; and public programs for preschoolers, school age children, families, and adults. Click here for my article.

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8. Sagawau Environmental Learning Center (12545 West 111th Street, Lemont, IL 60439, 630/257-2045, Facebook): There are 2.6 miles of varied hiking trails (where you can cross-country ski in the winter), an environmental education center and lodge that also features information on Native American history, and weekly indoor and outdoor education programs. Click here for my article on the center.

9. Sand Ridge Nature Center (15891 Paxton Avenue, South Holland, IL 60473, 708/868-0606, Facebook): If you’re looking for a good hiking destination in the south suburbs, the 235-acre SRNC should be one of your first choices—especially if you’re seeking easy trails that provide nice views of oak savannah, wetlands, prairies, and other ecosystems. There’s also a great nature center for kids (with live animals), an 1800s pioneer homestead, a variety of workshops and guided hikes, and annual festivals and events such as the Underground Railroad Interactive Hike, Juneteenth Celebration, Archaeology Day (which celebrates Native American culture), Settlers’ Day, and Christmas Past. Click here for my article about the center.

10. Isle a la Cache Museum and nature preserve: A well-organized and attractive museum on an island in the Des Plaines River. The museum (501 East Romeo Road, Romeoville, IL 60446, 815/886-1467, Facebook) provides information on the fur trade between the French voyageurs and Potawatomi. Things to do include visiting the museum and participating in its programs (bird hikes, craft club, etc.), taking a short hike and viewing and enjoying the forest, river, and wildlife; fishing; canoeing; kayaking; geocaching; cross-country skiing; and snowshoeing. Check out my article on the museum.

11. Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens (7402 W. Lake Katherine Drive, Palos Heights, IL, 60463, 708/361-1873) is a beautiful nature area with easy trails, a nature center with live animals and a play area for children, and much more. There is something for everyone at this beautiful south suburban destination. A good place to spend an hour or even a day (in warmer weather). Open: Nature Center: Weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The park is open daily from dawn until dusk. Learn more about the nature center.

12. 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.

13. Axe-Tossing. Axe-throwing is a great way to blow off some steam and have some fun with friends. There are several axe-throwing businesses throughout Chicago, in other U.S. cities, and in Canada. I suggest that you give it a try—or a throw. Click here to read my article on my recent axe-throwing experience and for some Chicagoland, U.S., and Canadian places you can go to give axe-throwing a try.

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14. River Trail Nature Center (3120 Milwaukee Avenue, Northbrook, IL 60062, 847-824-8360): A nature center that features beautiful views of the meandering Des Plaines River; friendly and helpful staff; 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.); and 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.  Click here for my article about the nature center.

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15. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (far southwest suburbs): Midewin, which was established in 1996, is the first national tallgrass prairie in the United States. Check out its small visitor’s center for kids activities and a museum. Regardless of the weather, try to see the bison, which roam approximately 13,000 acres of the preserve. The visitor center’s staff can help you find the current location of the bison in this vast preserve. Click here for my article about Midewin and other spots to see bison in Chicagoland.

16. Galena, Illinois, Area (about 155 miles northwest of Chicago): Nestled on bluffs above the Galena River, Galena is a beautiful historic town (which has more than 1,450 buildings on the National Historic Register, including President Grant’s home), and one of my favorite weekend destinations. This charming town features great restaurants, antique shops, bookstores art galleries, live music, and much more. Nearby, the town of Elizabeth offers the Elizabeth’s Grand Antique Co. (28,000 square feet of antiques; the Apple River Fort State Historic Site (a re-built fort that was the site of a battle in the Black Hawk War of 1832, and at which Abraham Lincoln and his militia supposedly were present; great for kids—especially during the warm months when reenactments and other events are held); the Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum, and Apple River Canyon State Park, which is about 17 miles from Elizabeth. A good hiking option is Mississippi Palisades State Park. 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, and the Dubuque Museum of Art.

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Galena, Illinois
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Galena, Illinois

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:

Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos, except those otherwise credited) Andrew Morkes

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2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT

Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. 

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Interested in a career that protects the environment? I frequently write about job opportunities in environmental science, environmental activism, and clean energy in my career newsletter, the CAM Report. Of course, it also offers information on hot careers, the latest on internships and salaries, and interviews with workers–from our nation’s planetary protection officer, to entertainment engineers, to crossword puzzle creators. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.

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CAM Report newsletter-300 dpi
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My College Spotlightnewsletter often covers interesting environmental majors. It also provides information on admissions trends, scholarships, and much more. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.

Finally, my book, They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Editionprovides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. Click on the title to read the table of contents, the introduction, and a sample chapter.

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