14 Amazing Nature Spots I Visited This Year That Should be on Your Chicagoland “Nature Bucket List”

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

It’s been a challenging year in many ways as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the contentious presidential campaign, and other factors. But amidst the stressful conditions, there have been two constants: my great family and nature.

My family has provided support, solace, companionship, fun, and much more, and I thank God and the fates every day that I have been lucky enough to have been given a great wife and a son. My son has constantly amazed and amused me as I’ve watched him grow from an infant to now a 10-year-old.

Nature has provided me with solace and peace during the pandemic. The forests, prairies, wetlands, grasslands, lakes, rivers, and streams of Chicagoland (including northwest Indiana) have been a lifesaver to me and my family durintg this restrictive time in which we have had to follow shelter-at-home edicts, have been separated from loved ones, and have had limited recreational opportunities.

In the last 10 months, I’ve visited nearly 20 nature destinations in Chicagoland and Indiana. Some—such as Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve and North Park Village Nature Center—have been part of my life for years and even decades, while others, such as Kankakee Sands and Indian Ridge Marsh Park, are new discoveries. Despite living in Chicagoland for 50 years, I’m constantly amazed at the vast array of ecosystems and destinations that are available in the area.  

Here are 14 great destinations to check out this year and beyond. I visited many of these as a sole hiker, while others I enjoyed with family and friends. I love how nature brings us both solitude (when we need to recharge) and great memories with family and friends. My father introduced me as a child to nature in Chicagoland, and now I cherish my chance to do the same for my son. I hope that he continues the tradition with his own children. And I hope that you love these spots as much as I did. Links to my articles about each destination are provided so that you can get more information.

Kankakee Sands

Kankakee Sands, which is located in northwest Indiana in Newton County, is a great place for bison and bird watching, hiking, and solitude. My favorite hikes: Conrad Station Savannah Trail and especially the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail. I loved the absence of human voices, car horns, loud music being played from cars, and other “city noises” as I hiked on a warm summer day. Kankakee Sands (which is managed by The Nature Conservancy) and adjoining nature areas feature more than 85 rare threatened and endangered species. I did not see the bison during my visit, but I hope you’re luck is better than mine.  

Nippersink Creek/Glacial Park

If you’re looking for a kayak or canoe adventure just an hour northwest from Chicago, you should paddle Nippersink Creek, which is the largest tributary to the Fox River. As you float Nippersink—birds singing, bright sun shining down, wildflowers adorning its banks—you’ll feel as if you are in the middle of a vast wilderness rather than only 55 miles from the third-largest city in the United States. My son and I kayaked a 7-mile stretch last year, and we did it again this year with my friend Dave and his son. A fun time. Great memories for both kids and adults.

If you’re not up for a paddle, you can head to Glacial Park (6705 Route 31, Ringwood, IL), which Nippersink Creek traverses. The McHenry County Conservation District describes 3,439-acre Glacial Park as its “most treasured open space holding, characterized by its rolling prairie, delta kames, oak savanna, and the tranquil presence of the meandering Nippersink Creek.” The kames at Glacial Park are large hills of sand and gravel that were deposited by glaciers about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. They reminded me of massive brontosauri crouched over the lush landscape having lunch. After being surrounded by skyscrapers and neighborhoods of bungalows and two-flats in Chicago, the green uncluttered expanse of Glacial Park was a welcome sight during my visit. Glacial Park is perfect for hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities.

North Park Village Nature Center

North Park Village Nature Center (5801 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago, IL 60646) is a nature preserve and educational facility that offers easy walking trails through woodlands, wetlands, prairie, and savanna; a hands-on exploratory room of natural objects (antlers, shells, pine cones, fossils, etc.); and public programs for preschoolers, school age children, families, and adults. It’s a perfect place to spend a few hours hiking, picnicking, and learning about nature.

Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve

You won’t find a nature center or interpretive trail signs at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve in Palos Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago. But you will find beautiful oak forests, prairies, savannahs, cattail marshes, sedge meadows, ravines, hills, and wetlands. Walking the gravel trails and footpaths in this sprawling 1,520-acre preserve is probably the closest one can get to wilderness in Chicagoland. This Illinois Nature Preserve is the largest roadless area in Cook County. Illinois Nature Preserves protect the highest quality natural lands in the state. “These lands are the last remnants of the Illinois wilderness,” according to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Cap Sauers is my favorite hiking destination in Chicagoland. I’ve hiked there for more than 25 years—sometimes twice a week when I was in my 20s and fancy free. Sights to see include Visitation Prairie and the Esker Trail. 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 Forest Preserve District of Cook County says that the esker at Cap Sauers is “one of the best examples of this rare feature in Illinois.”

Orland Grassland

Orland Grassland (167th Street & South LaGrange Road, Cook County, IL 60467) is a large, restored grassland complex with prairie, oak savannas, shrublands, ponds, wetlands, and woodlands. Perfect for hiking and birdwatching. There’s a lot of room to roam here in this south suburban gem. Orland Grassland features the biggest sky you’ll find in Cook County—no buildings allowed! (Note: All Orland Grassland Photos ©️ Andy Morkes)

Indian Ridge Marsh Park

Indian Ridge Marsh Park (11740 S. Torrence Avenue, Chicago, IL 60617) features 154 acres of native marsh and wet prairie habitat. The park has north and a south sections; both have parking lots and walking trails. I visited a few days ago, and I loved the views of the marsh ponds and the migrating waterfowl and year-round Chicago avian residents. The park is surrounded by typical Southland heavy industry and roads and railroad tracks, but once you walk for a few minutes on the wood-chip trails, you’ll be transported into a surprisingly peaceful place. I’ll write more about Indian Ridge Marsh Park at Nature in Chicagoland in the future.

Messenger Woods

Messenger Woods Nature Preserve (13800 W. Bruce Road, Homer Glen, IL 60491) offers what many consider to be the most beautiful and impressive display of Virginia bluebells in the Chicagoland area. On a trip last spring, these beautiful flowers went on for as far as my eyes could see. So, now that I’m done rhapsodizing about the fantastic display of spring flowers, here are some other things I like about Messenger Woods:

  • Lots of land: The 441-acre preserve features forest (including ravines and massive oaks), prairie, savanna, wetlands, and a portion of Spring Creek).
  • Pristine: Environmental organizations report that Messenger Woods is one of the few forests in northeastern Illinois that has never been grazed, cut, farmed, or developed.
  • Birds galore: More than 60 bird species are found at the preserve.
  • There is great hiking. The preserve features nearly two miles of natural surface trail. You can also connect to other trails in nearby preserves.
  • There’s camping. The preserve has four primitive campsites for family or group rental. Campers have access to fire pits and latrines.
  • You can picnic. The preserve offers nice stretches of flat, grassy areas for picnicking. You can also rent one of two picnic shelters if you want to have a large get-together.

Sand Ridge Nature Preserve

If you’re looking for a good hiking destination in the south suburbs, the 235-acre Sand Ridge Nature Center (15891 Paxton Avenue, South Holland, IL 60473, 708/868-0606) 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.

©️ Andy Morkes

McKinley Woods

McKinley Woods in Channahon, IL,  is a beautiful, hilly preserve along the Des Plaines River and I&M Canal. Nearly 100 bird species—including cedar waxwings, purple martins, and bald eagles—have been sighted at the preserve. Head to McKinley Woods to hike, view wildflowers and fall colors, picnic, and cross-country ski and snowshoe. At the preserve, you can also access the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ 61.5-mile, crushed limestone I&M Canal State Trail. I’ll write about McKinley Woods at Nature in Chicagoland in the future.

Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve

Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve is an Illinois Nature Preserve that is a great destination for a short hike (0.27-mile trail) and wildflower viewing (wild geraniums, mayapples, blue-eyed Marys, and Virginia bluebells). You can also 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. Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve is located on Pauling Road, east of Route 50/Governors Highway in Monee Township.

Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve

There is much natural beauty at Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve (East 139th Street & South Manistee Avenue, Burnham, IL 60633). It is a birding hotspot, including many migratory visitors in the spring and fall. Burnham Prairie, which contains some of the highest quality wet prairie habitat in Illinois, is a small area that you will probably spend an hour or two at—unless you’re a dedicated birder. This is a beautiful place, but there is also some urban mess. As I walked the shore on a recent visit, I occasionally glimpsed discarded plastic bottles and an old tire. When I hiked the savannah, I encountered remnant slag from steel mills, but that comes with the territory when visiting many nature areas in Chicago’s Southland. The area is currently being restored and, despite the occasional garbage, it’s still a beautiful place to visit—especially during spring and fall bird migration seasons.

Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake

Powderhorn Lake, Marsh, and Prairie (Chicago and Burnham, IL) is a nature gem tucked amongst rail yards, industry, and city and suburban neighborhoods on the far South Side of Chicago. There are two main Powderhorn properties: a 48-acre human-made lake with 7,000 feet of shoreline (which is located in Burnham, IL) and Powderhorn Prairie and Marsh Nature Preserve, which is the only state-dedicated nature preserve within Chicago city limits. The preserve protects a rare dune and swale landscape (parallel sandy ridges alternating with low wetlands that were formed by the retreat of glaciers and other processes 10,000 to 15,000 years ago; they often contain rare plants and animals). Powderhorn is home to 250 plant species, 2,500 insect species, and 400 to 100 bird species. Two state-endangered species—Franklin’s ground squirrel and Blanding’s turtle—have been sighted at the preserve. As you hike, you might also see prickly pear cactus. It might surprise you to learn that prickly pear cactus can be found in the Chicago area, but areas near the lake used to be covered with cacti before the area was developed. Portions of Powderhorn have been declared an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods

Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods is a small forest preserve just off Central Avenue and just north of Elston Avenue on the far North Side of Chicago. It’s another example of a remnant ecosystem that’s hanging on for life in the asphalt jungle that makes up much of Chicagoland. While humble in size, it’s a pretty place that features some interesting topography along the North Branch of the Chicago River. In spring, the forest and hills near the river are covered in exuberant gatherings of Virginia bluebells and lesser celandine (which is a beautiful, but very damaging, invasive species). “The Ted” is good for hiking, photography, biking, running, strolling, and picnicking. Let’s be honest. It’s not a Chicagoland bucket list item, but it’s a pretty place for city dwellers to get out and enjoy the outdoors.

Big Marsh Park

Big Marsh Park (enter only at 103rd Street and Doty Road, or at 122nd Street and Torrence Avenue) on Chicago’s far Southeast Side has:

  • An amazing and still partly-under-construction bike park: 5 unique bike tracks to ride, including a paved pump track and both beginner and expert jump lines
  • More than 150 bird species; some call it Chicago’s Hidden Birding Mecca
  • A variety of formal and informal hiking trails that will take you along its many ponds, marshes, and other natural areas.  

Big Marsh Park is located on reclaimed industrial land. This area has so much promise, and it’s already pretty amazing. An environmental education center is currently under construction. When I visited Big Marsh a few days ago, there were migrating birds galore, kids (and a few 20-somethings) happily enjoying the bike park, and a lot of wonderful solitude off the beaten path. I’m really excited about what the future holds for Big Marsh Park.   

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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