Toto, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Chicago Anymore: 10 Nature Destinations Where You’ll Swear That You’re Not in the City

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

Chicago has a population of nearly 2.7 million people, more than 4,000 miles of streets, and large industrial areas with factories spewing pollution into the air, the Chicago River, and Lake Michigan. Like most U.S. cities, it also has problems with crime, racial inequity, poverty, lack of affordable housing (in safe neighborhoods), corruption, and other issues.

But one thing that Chicago is not is a “hellhole,” as Republic gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey deemed my hometown during a recent debate. As a lifelong Chicagoan who travels from one end of the city to another regularly, I know that Bailey is wrong. I can’t take his criticism seriously because he has never lived here. I doubt he has visited many of our diverse neighborhoods, enjoyed our vibrant theater and music scenes, savored the international cuisine being served daily in our restaurants, enjoyed the beautiful Riverwalk, or soaked up the sun and sand at one of Chicago’s 22 free beaches. Plus, Bailey seems out of touch with Chicago, the economic and cultural powerhouse of the Prairie State—a place, along with its collar counties, where the majority of Illinois voters reside. His Illinois hometown is closer to Louisville, Kentucky, than Chicago. (Louisville is a beautiful place, but so is Chicago.) I don’t think someone who has such a negative view of the city and its people can be a good governor of Illinois.

Amidst the bumper-to bumper expressway traffic, swarms of people, and the general bustle of our high-tech metropolis, it might be hard to imagine that there are beautiful natural areas in the city. These areas offer the opportunity for visitors to savor leafy forests; enjoy excellent birdwatching, including piping plovers, and even views of deer, coyotes, and foxes; hike on trails where they might not see anyone for a half-hour or for their entire hike; and even get the chance to experience solitary moments on the shores of Lake Michigan that are more apt to remind them of Wisconsin or Michigan than a city of skyscrapers. But it’s a fact. There are some truly great places in the Windy City where you can immerse yourself in nature. And I’m not talking about typical city parks, which are also a blessing to Chicagoans.

Here are 10 of my favorite nature spots within the Chicago city limits. Many are accessible via public transportation. For many of these destinations, I’ve provided a link to a longer article I’ve written about the location.

Big Marsh Park on Chicago’s far Southeast Side has:

  • An amazing and still partly-under-construction bike park: five 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, and environmental planners aim to increase the number of trails (including adding a boardwalk) in the next few years. Click here for my article on Big Marsh Park (which you can enter only at 103rd Street and Doty Road, or at 122nd Street and Torrence Avenue).

Dan Ryan Woods is a 257-acre urban preserve on the South Side with sledding and snowboarding hills, historic aqueducts, fitness stairs, picnic groves, and a mile-long paved loop that connects to the Major Taylor Trail (good for biking and walking). Dogs are allowed (on leashes). The 91st Street Stop on the Metra Rock Island line takes visitors right to the southeast corner of the woods. There are also multiple entry points on Western Avenue and 87th Street.

Indian Ridge Marsh Park (11740 S. Torrence Avenue, 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. During my visit, I loved the views of the marsh ponds and the migrating waterfowl and year-round Chicago avian residents. During your visit, you might also see deer (I saw some prints as I hiked), coyotes, muskrats, frogs, turtles (including the state endangered Blanding’s turtle), snakes, and dinosaurs (not!…just checking if you’re still paying attention). 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. This is one of my favorite off-the-beaten paths in the city.

Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary (4400 N. Simonds Drive, 60640). When people think of Chicago’s beaches, they conjure up images of sunbathers, volleyball players, runners, walkers, and cyclists all vying for space on the beaches and the Lakefront Trail. You can do all these activities on Chicago’s beautiful lakeshore, but did you know that there is great birdwatching along the lake at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary? Birders have recorded more than 300 bird species—including the federally endangered Great Lakes piping plover (including Monty & Rose; may Monty rest in peace) and only the second inland recording of the black-tailed gull in the United States—at this nearly 16-acre site. Migratory birds flock to this area due to “The Magic Hedge,” a collection of shrubs, bushes, and small trees that provide cover and a food source as they refuel on their journey to the north or south. A nearby fishing pier (that is a good place for waterfowl), a large butterfly meadow, dunes (known as the Montrose Beach Dunes Natural Area), and sandy beaches, among other factors, also play a role in making this area attractive to birds. Dogs are only allowed in the canine area at the west end of Montrose Beach.

North Park Village Nature Center (5801 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago 60646) is a kid-friendly 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. A perfect place to spend a few hours hiking, picnicking, and learning about nature.

Palmisano Park (2700 S. Halsted Street, 60608) is a hidden gem in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. 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, that’s 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 winter, and great views of the Chicago skyline.

Powderhorn Lake, Marsh, and Prairie (entrances in both Chicago and Burnham, Illinois) 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). The preserve is home to approximately 250 plant species, 2,500 insect species, and 40 to 100 bird species. Two state-endangered species—Franklin’s ground squirrel and Blanding’s turtle—have been sighted at the preserve. Portions of this area have been declared an Illinois Nature Preserve.

South Shore Natural Area (7059 S. South Shore Drive, 60649) at the South Shore Cultural Center features 6 acres of dunes, wetlands, a woodland, prairie, savanna and shrubland habitats. There is also a small, sandy beach. 

Steelworkers Park (87th Street at South Lake Shore Drive, 60617) is a 16.56-acre site on the shores of Lake Michigan. It features a towering rock climbing wall that is built on a historic ore wall that remains from the South Works steel plant, hiking trails with beautiful views of the lake and prairie, and opportunities for shore fishing and birdwatching. Two massive blast furnace bells and an ingot mould pattern from SouthWorks now serve as public art at the park. There are lots of parking and good opportunities for biking (a Divvy site is located at the parking lot).

West Ridge Nature Preserve (5601 N. Western Avenue, 60659) on the North Side features nearly 22 acres of restored woodlands, wetlands, and a pond. A perfect place for a short hike or contemplation. Beautiful hiking trails, fishing access points, a kids’ outdoor play area, and much more. There is also good birdwatching. Some of the birds spotted at the preserve include ring-billed gulls, great blue herons, northern flickers, American goldfinches, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, herring gulls, eastern kingbirds, red-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees, yellow warblers, cedar waxwings, double-crested cormorants, blue gray gnatcatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, spotted sandpipers, and scarlet tanagers.

Finally, I’d like to add one spot that is located just over the Chicago border. Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve (East 139th Street & South Manistee Avenue, Burnham, IL 60633) is a small Illinois Nature Preserve that is a birdwatching hotspot. On my last visit, I was wowed by the views of about 10 great blue herons fishing in the preserve’s shallow ponds. I’m not a birding expert, but visitors report having seen the following birds at the preserve: bald eagle, barred owl, Bell’s vireo, black-billed cuckoo, blue-winged warbler, blue grosbeak, bobolink, broad-winged hawk, cackling goose, Carolina wren, cerulean warbler, common redpoll, dickcissel, Forster’s tern grasshopper sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, hooded warbler, Iceland gull, Kentucky warbler, least bittern, lesser black-backed gull, Louisiana waterthrush, Nelson’s sparrow, northern harrier, northern parula, orchard oriole, pied-billed grebe, pileated woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, red-shouldered hawk, red crossbill, savannah sparrow, sedge wren, short-eared owl, snowy egret, sora summer tanager, Thayer’s gull, Virginia rail, white-eyed vireo, willow flycatcher, wood duck, wood thrush, yellow-billed cuckoo, and yellow-breasted chat.

Pair a trip to Burnham Prairie with a visit to Sand Ridge Nature Center, Indian Ridge Marsh Park, Hegewisch Marsh Park, or Big Marsh Park

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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Looking for some 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. The book has 306 pages and 210+ photos and is only $18.99. Click here to learn more and purchase the book.

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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES

I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 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. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as 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) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

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