20+ Great Destinations on Chicago’s South Side and in the Southland to Check Out This Weekend and Beyond

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

Looking for something to do this weekend and beyond? If so, check out these 20+ great places on Chicago’s South Side and in its south and southwest suburbs. I’ve also included Indiana Dunes National Park, one of our nation’s newest national park, and it’s just as beautiful neighbor, Indiana Dunes State Park. These gems are just about 50 miles from Chicago.

Have a great weekend, and get out in Chicagoland’s beautiful outdoors.

1. Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens (7402 W. Lake Katherine Drive, Palos Heights, Illinois, 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. 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.

2. 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.

3. Black Partridge Woods (southwest suburbs): Ravines and streams. Prehistoric-looking fish and endangered dragonflies. Challenging hiking. Stunning fall colors. Migratory bird watching. These are just a few of the cool things you can see/do at this Illinois Nature Preserve in a southwest Chicago suburb. After your visit, be sure to head west on Bluff Road to check out the Keepataw Preserve, then visit the historic town of Lemont just across the river.

4. Cap Sauer’s Holding (southwest suburbs): This 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 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.

5. Isle a la Cache Museum and nature preserve (southwest suburbs): 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, WebsiteFacebook) 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.

6. Keepataw Preserve (southwest suburbs): This is an excellent destination if you are tired of the flat, boring topography of most of Chicagoland; like a good hike or run; enjoy seeing rare and endangered species; and want to see the “birthplace” of limestone that was used to construct some of Chicago’s most famous downtown buildings. After your visit, head east on Bluff Road to visit Black Partridge Woods, then visit the historic town of Lemont just across the river.

7. Ghost Hunting: Chicagoland’s forest preserves, cemeteries, and towns are loaded with ghost stories. I heard these stories frequently as a kid when I sat around Boy Scout campfires, when I drove with my parents through the dark forest preserves at night, and at other times. Stories of scary specters wandering forlornly along roads that wind through Chicagoland’s dense forest preserves, mysterious houses and blue lights appearing in graveyards, strange ghost animals running down paths in the woods, oozing piles of slime and bones creeping across lonely country roads, and one sad young woman in a white dress and dancing shoes continuing to haunt Archer Avenue. Click here for some of the most popular ghosts and haunted destinations in the southwest Chicago suburbs, should you decide to take a ghost tour.

8. 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.

9. Messenger Woods Nature Preserve (southwest suburbs): Stunning swathes of spring flowers (I’ve never seen anything like them in the Chicago area), ravines, a pretty meandering creek, prairie, oak savannas, and wetlands. Perfect for hiking (easy-to-moderate hiking trails), birdwatching (60 species), and camping.

10. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (far southwest suburbs): Approximately 13,000 acres, including 34 miles of trails, are open to the public for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. Midewin, which was established in 1996, is the first national tallgrass prairie in the country. 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 make Midewin their home. But the bison are the main draw. Visit the welcome center vestibule for trail maps and nature guides and the current location of the bison in this vast preserve. There is a a small museum, but it is currently closed due to the pandemic.

11. Orland Grassland (southwest suburbs): A large restored grassland complex with prairie, oak savannas, shrublands, ponds, wetlands, and woodlands. Perfect for hiking and birdwatching, with more than 140 bird species (click here for a birding checklist). (Note: If you plan to hike on the dirt trails, be sure to wear longsleeves and long pants, as well as use bug repellant, because the ticks were prevalent when I visited about two weeks ago.)

12. Palmisano Park (Chicago): 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. Nice nature strolls, interesting terrain, sledding in the eater, and great views of the Chicago skyline.

13. 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. The visitor center is open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.

14. Red Gate Woods (southwest suburbs): Hiking trails that range from paved flat paths, to boggy, muddy single-person-wide trails, to challenging hilly terrain. Many lakes and sloughs (perfect for a picnic lunch or fishing). Wildlife in abundance. Camping opportunities at Bullfrog Lake. And 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.

15. Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve (south suburbs): This 213-acre Illinois Nature Preserve is a great destination for a short hike (0.27-mile trail) and wildflower viewing (wild geraniums, mayapples, blue-eyed Marys, and Virginia bluebells); listen to birdsong (including more than 80 species such as the scarlet tanager and eastern wood-pewee); check out Rock Creek, a pretty meandering waterway that runs through the preserve; and soak up the golden hues and other colors of the white, bur and black oak; shagbark hickory; and sugar maple trees in the fall. I bet the snowshoeing is pretty fun in the winter, too, when a deep blanket of snow covers the forest floor.

16. 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.

17. Sagawau Environmental Learning Center (12545 West 111th Street, Lemont, IL 60439, 630/257-2045, Facebook): The only canyon in Cook County (tours are available in the spring and summer; registration required), 2.6 miles of varied hiking trails, an environmental education center and lodge that also features information on Native American history, cross-country skiing, a Hummingbird Festival in the summer, and weekly indoor and outdoor education programs.

18. Go Camping: There are many great places to camp in the Southland, including in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Forest Preserve District of Will CountyIndiana Dunes National Park (IDNP), and Indiana Dunes State Park (IDSP). (Note: IDNP and IDSP are not on Chicago’s South Side or south suburbs, but are worth the hour drive.) Camping with kids? If so, check out my article, 18 Tips for Camping With Kids.

  • Forest Preserves of Cook County: Click here for more info.
  • Forest Preserve District of Will County: Click here for more info.
  • Indiana Dunes National Park: Click here for more info.
  • Indiana Dunes State Park: Click here for more info.

19. South Shore Natural Area (SSNA, 7059 S. South Shore Drive): The SSNA features 6 acres of dunes, wetlands, a woodland, prairie, savanna and shrubland habitats. 

20. The Outerbelt Trail Beckons. 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 in spring 2018, 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.

21. Indiana Dunes National Park (50 miles from downtown Chicago): Our nation’s newest national park! 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 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 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. (Note: Be aware of periodic parking lot and beach closures due to overcrowding. But if you plan to hike, rather than sunbathe, you will be fine.)

22. Indiana Dunes State Park (50 miles from downtown Chicago): A wild and beautiful place that features nearly 200-foot sand dunes rising above 3 miles of beautiful Lake Michigan beach, as well as black oak forests, bogs, creeks, marshes, and other natural wonders filled with more than 1,000 plant and animal species. Indiana Dunes State Park (1600 N. 25 E. Chesterton, IN 46304, 219/926-1952) offers 7 hiking trails (16 miles in all), and the 9.2-mile Calumet Trail travels along its southern edge. Also: wildflower viewing, fishing (smelt only), birding, camping, and the J.D. Marshall Preserve, which is based around the J.D. Marshall shipwreck site (the ship sank on June 11, 1911). (Note: Be aware of periodic parking lot and beach closures due to overcrowding. But if you plan to hike, rather than sunbathe, you will be fine.)

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes/Nature in Chicagoland

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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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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES

I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides 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. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. 

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies. I’ve written and edited many books for Infobase including the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series.

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