This Weekend

Looking for some nature, hiking, history, camping, and/or activities for kids or for yourself in the Chicagoland area and beyond? If so, here are more than 100 popular and off-the-beaten path destinations to check out. Quick summaries are provided for many of the destinations. Click on the links for more information.

Please note that in this time of COVID-19, not every destination below is open. Be sure to check with the forest preserve, museum, nature center, or other destinations before you head out. And be sure to engage in social distancing as you enjoy your outing. I look forward to a time when we can enjoy nature in Chicagoland without any closures and worries.

These are the main sections in this guide:

  • Things to Do in Multiple Counties
  • Cook County (Including Chicago)
  • DuPage County
  • Lake County
  • LaSalle County
  • McHenry County
  • Will County
  • Indiana
  • Weekend Trips from Chicagoland
  • Longer Trips from Chicagoland

things to do in multiple counties

8 Places to See Bison in the Midwest: See bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Wilmington, IL); Fermilab (Batavia, IL); Nachusa Grasslands (​Franklin Grove, IL); Kankakee Sands (Newton County, IN); Blue Mounds State Park (near Luverne, MN); Minneopa State Park (near Mankato, MN); Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve (near Sioux City, IA); Sandhill Wildlife Area (near Wisconsin Rapids, WI).

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.

Camping: There are many great places to camp in Chicagoland, including in the Forest Preserves of Cook CountyForest Preserve District of Will County, McHenry County Conservation District, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Forest Preserve District of Kendall County; at Kohler-Andrae State Park in Wisconsin just 2 hours from Chicago); and at other destinations. Camping with kids? If so, check out my article, 18 Tips for Camping With Kids. Looking for an experience that’s much wilder than you can find in Chicagoland? If so, check out the National Park Service’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At this NPS gem, you can camp on the bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, near Beaver Lake, or close to Hurricane River. Pictured Rocks is one of my favorite camping spots. It’s about 7.5 hours from Chicago by car.

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.

Hiking: This page is full of hiking destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan and beyond in all seasons. Click here to read my article, “12 Tips for a Successful Winter Hike.”

Historic Cemeteries: Visit Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois, to see the graves of three pioneering female, African American aviatrixes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and other African American luminaries. Click here to read my article about the African American aviatrixes. Another option: Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, which is located near Midlothian, Illinois. It’s considered the most-haunted cemetery in Illinois and possibly the United States. Click here to read my article about the alledged hauntings, but also about the pioneer history of this cemetery.  

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.

Sitting on the Couch: Don’t do it! The Real Housewives of Boringville can wait. Get out and enjoy nature in any season!

Snowshoeing: It’s the fad that’s sweeping the nation. It’s more popular than Fortnite, Facebook, and flame-broiled, double-dipped teriyaki chicken fingers. Ok, maybe not, but you’ll “get a kick” out of donning some snowshoes and enjoying this long-popular sport. Check out my articles on snowshoeing: “First-Time Snowshoer Tells All: 10 Tips for Success and My Son’s Thank You” and “Ditch the Winter Blahs and Go Snowshoeing in the Cook County Forest Preserves.”

Tallgrass Prairies: Take a hike and see lots of nature at a tallgrass prairie. 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, will help you to learn more about tallgrass prairies and prairie destinations in Chicagoland.

Try Something New: Kayaking, canoeing, hiking, zip-lining (try Treetop Adventure at Bemis Woods-South in Western Springs), horseback riding, geocaching, fishing, etc. It’s never too late to learn a new skill and discover a new passion.

Zip-lining: Try Treetop Adventure at Bemis Woods-South in Western Springs.

cook county (including Chicago)

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: 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. An environmental education center is currently under construction. I’m really excited about what the future holds for Big Marsh Park. Click here for my article on Big Marsh Park.

Black Partridge Woods (southwest suburbs): Ravines and streams. Prehistoric-looking fish and endangered dragonflies. Challenging hiking. Early spring flowers. 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.

Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve (Burnham, IL): A small Illinois Nature Preserve that is a birdwatching hotspot. Pair it with a visit to Sand Ridge Nature Center or Big Marsh Park. 

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.

The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, is a popular destination in the spring, summer, and fall. If you love nature and hikes and strolls through flower-filled meadows, English and Japanese gardens, forests, and much more, you could easily spend an entire day touring 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 CBG’s website: There are 2,587,596 plants representing 9,694 plant varieties of 232 plant families onsite. There is also a lot to do in the winter, including its Wonderland Express, other holiday events, and its three beautiful greenhouses. Click here for my article about the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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

Chicago’s RiverwalkThis 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.

The Field Museum (Chicago): Great historical and nature-oriented exhibits. Permanent exhibits and features such as Inside Ancient Egypt; Evolving Planet; The Crown Family PlayLab; Fossil Preparation Laboratory; Meteorites; and Pawnee Earth Lodge.

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. During my visit, 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.

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. 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.

Lake Michigan: 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 or in Indiana.

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.

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.

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.

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).

North Park Village Nature Center (northwest side of Chicago): 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. A perfect place to spend a few hours hiking, picnicking, and learning about nature.

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 (click here for a birding checklist). 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!

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 winter, and great views of the Chicago skyline.

Powderhorn Lake, Marsh, and Prairie (Chicago and Burnham, IL): A pretty lake and a dune and swale landscape that is home to about 250 plant species, 2,500 insect species, and 400 to 100 bird species. Portions of this area have been declared an Illinois Nature Preserve.

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.

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.

River Trail Nature Center (northwest suburbs): A nature center that features beautiful views of the meandering Des Plaines River; great birdwatching; three easy-to-hike trails through forest and wetlands; friendly and helpful staff; and 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.). It also features 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.

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:

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.

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.

Santa Fe Prairie Nature Preserve (7300 River Road, Hodgkins, IL 60525, Facebook) is a rare mesic (wet) gravel prairie tucked between noisy Interstate 55, railroad tracks, warehouses, LaGrange Road, and the Des Plaines River. More than 225 species of native plants (including Indian grass, Joe Pye weed, shooting star, milkweed, Turk’s cap lily, and purple coneflower) grow on the prairie. A red caboose serves as the preserve’s visitor center. After your visit, walk across the street to the Des Plaines River, where you can picnic, fish, and launch your canoe or kayak.

Steelworkers Park (87th Street at South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 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).

Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods (just off Central Avenue and just north of Elston Avenue on Chicago’s northwest side): While humble in size, this pretty place features some interesting topography along the North Branch of the Chicago River; wildflowers in the spring (although some are invasive species); and opportunities for hiking, photography, biking, cross-country skiing, running, strolling, and picnicking. Lechowicz Woods links up with several other preserves and the North Branch Trail System. (You can actually walk or bike the trail all the way to the Chicago Botanic Garden). Click here for a map to learn more.

West Ridge Nature Preserve [5601 N. Western Avenue (Intersection of Ardmore & Western), Chicago, IL 60659]: 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.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve (Westchester, Illinois) is a stunning 82-acre preserve that will overwhelm you with its colorful native wildflowers; acres and acres of big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, and prairie dropseed; a cattail-filled wetland; and a bur oak savannah that features a 250-year-old oak. More than 370 species of native plants and over 140 species of birds have been documented at the preserve. A must-see destination in high-summer and early fall.

dupage county

Belmont Prairie (Downers Grove, IL): A neighborhood prairie that is a place of peace, beauty, and birdsong. It supports more than 300 species of plant and animal wildlife, including many bird species, fox, raccoons, toads, meadow voles, opossums, ground squirrels, garter snakes and, occasionally, coyote and white-tailed deer. Belmont Prairie is an Illinois Nature Preserve. “These lands are the last remnants of the Illinois wilderness,” according to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Check out my article, Belmont Prairie and More Than 25 Other Prairies in Chicagoland to Visit and Enjoy.

Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center (Oak Brook, IL): 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 eight-year-old 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, river views, and much more. Click here for my article on the nature center.

Graue Mill and Museum (3800 York Road, Oak Brook, IL 60523-2738, 630/655-2090 or 630/920-9720, info@grauemill.org): Step back in history during a visit to this underappreciated local gem, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and is the only operating waterwheel gristmill in the Chicago area. The museum features a variety of rooms that depict life in the mid-to-late 1800s; an exhibit on the Underground Railroad (Frederick Graue sheltered African slaves who had escaped from southern plantations as they made their way north to freedom); milling, spinning, weaving, and living history presentations by docents; and special events such as the museum’s annual Fine Arts Festival, Craft Beer Tasting Event, Civil War Encampment, and Christmas at the Mill Holiday Boutique. The mill and museum are kid-friendly, and picnic tables are available with a nice view of the mill and Salt Creek. The mill and museum are open from mid-April through mid-November. Museum Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.; closed Monday, except for holidays. Contact the museum for the most current information on museum hours and events.

Morton Arboretum: Check out the beautiful forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural areas of the 1,700-acre arboretum (4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL 60532, 630/968-0074). Noteworthy features include a four-acre Children’s Garden, one-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. Click here for the arboretum’s weekly Fall Color Report. Hundreds of events, classes, and other activities are available at the arboretum. Click here to learn more.

lake county (IL)

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, plus many outdoor exhibits. 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 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.

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). You’ll have a quake, rattle, and roll weekend!

lasalle county

Matthiessen State Park (95 miles southwest of Chicago). This stunning park features awe-inspiring waterfalls, a colorful sandstone canyon, excellent (and sometimes challenging) hiking trails, towering ice formations in the winter, and much more. Click here for my article about this nature “bucket list” spot.

mchenry county

Glacial Park (6705 Route 31, Ringwood, IL): 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. Glacial Park is perfect for hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities.

Moraine Hills State Park (1510 S. River Road, McHenry, IL 60051): 2,200 acres of hills, ridges, wetlands, marshes, and lakes. Ten miles of beautiful and diverse trails for hikers, cyclists, and skiers. A perfect short road trip from Chicago. Dogs are allowed (on leashes).

Nippersink Creek: 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 seven-mile stretch last year, and we did it again this year with friends. A fun time. Great memories for both kids and adults.

will county

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, Website, 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. Be sure to also attend the museum’s annual “Island Rendezvous” celebration. According to the museum, “rendezvous was a time when fur traders met to celebrate a successful season.”…[Visitors will] “experience the connection between the past and present with activities, games, and crafts. Feel what it’s like to pull back a bow and shoot an arrow. Try to start a fire with nothing but wood. See live birds of prey and celebrate historic farms with a petting zoo.”

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.

Lake Renwick Preserve/Heron Rookery Nature Preserve (Plainfield, IL): An excellent spot for birdwatching (geese and ducks—as well as the occasional bald eagles, American white pelicans, and other waterfowl—in the fall/winter, and black-crowned night-herons, great blue herons, great egrets, and double-crested cormorants from early spring to late summer), short hikes, fishing, snowshoeing, bicycling, cross-country skiing, and other outdoor activities. 

McKinley Woods (Channahon, IL): 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.

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.

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. Check out the visitor’s center for kids activities, a small museum, and the current location of the bison in this vast preserve.

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.

Rock Run Rookery Preserve (23065 S. Youngs Road, Joliet, IL 60436): An excellent spot for birdwatching (bald eagles, great blue herons, great egrets, cormorants, and other birds ), short hikes, fishing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor activities. This 224-acre preserve features 84-acre and 13-acre lakes (which were originally created and used for quarrying), as well breeding areas (including islands) for birds and wetland and forest ecosystems.

Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve (247 Monee Road, Park Forest, IL 60466) is a 997-acre gem that has a nature center (open on Fridays) that’s located in a historic 1862 church, 3.5 miles of trails that traverse rolling hills and overlook 50-foot ravines, and forests of 150-year-old red and white oaks and their younger siblings, sugar and black maples, and basswoods; prairies; savannas; and wetlands. One of my favorite places in Chicago’s Southland.

indiana

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 one to two hours, a half day, or an entire weekend to spend at the lakeshore.

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 seven 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).

Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (5822 Fish and Wildlife Lane, Medaryville, IN 47957 219-843-4841: THE place to see the fall and spring eastern sandhill crane migration. At it’s peak in November and December, there are 10,000 to 30,000 cranes and other migrating birds on site.

Kankakee Sands (northwest Indiana in Newton County). A great place for bison and bird watching, hiking, and solitude. My favorite hikes: Conrad Station Savannah Trail and esecially the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail. 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.

Weekend Trips From Chicagoland

4 National Park Service Destinations Within 0 to 220 Miles of Chicago

Driftless Region (northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, and southwest and central Wisconsin): A visit to the Driftless Area will have you saying, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the flat Midwest anymore.” The Driftless Region features limestone bluffs, rolling hills, wooded valleys, waterfalls, creeks, wetlands, rivers, caves, Native American Effigy Mounds, and rare ecosystems and plant and animal species.

Effigy Mounds National Monument (220 miles from downtown Chicago): More than 1,200 years ago, a culture known today as the Effigy Moundbuilders began building mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, bison, bear, lynx, turtle, deer, and other animals along the Upper Mississippi River and in other areas in what is now Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Some were burial mounds. Archaeologists speculate that others were used to mark celestial events or serve as boundaries between tribes. Effigy Mounds National Monument, which is located three miles north of Marquette, Iowa, features more than 200 mounds in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful areas of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

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.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site (200 miles from downtown Chicago in Springfield): Surveys of presidential historians and the general public typically rank Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president. So why not tour his Springfield, Illinois, 12-room, Greek Revival house, in which he lived for 17 years before becoming president? While in Springfield, also consider checking out The Lincoln Depot, where the president-elect gave a farewell speech before heading to Washington, D.C. in 1861; the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site. If you’re on a presidential site kick, also check out the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa (about 211 miles from Chicago), and the Ulysses S. Grant Home in Galena, Illinois (about 170 miles from Chicago).

Mississippi Palisades State Park (Galena, Illinois, area): The region where the park is located in what is called the Driftless Area, which was untouched by glaciers during the Ice Ages—so expect rugged hikes. In fact, the park features 2,500 acres of rolling hills and towering cliffs above the confluence of the great Mississippi and Apple Rivers. Great views, yet sometimes steep and slippery trails. Excellent bird watching. Hang on to your young kids on those precipitous cliff-top trails. Recommended as either a short-day trip from Galena or a one- or two-night camping destination in the summer (although I hear the nearby train tracks make camping a bit loud). Best as an add-on to a visit to Galena, Dubuque, or nearby state parks and recreational areas. There are many good trails but, in the North Trail System, try the High Point Trail (3.5 miles) and Aspen (1.9 miles) Trails. In the South Trail System, try the Sentinel Trail (1.2 miles, including spurs) for a challenging hiking experience.

LONGER Trips From Chicagoland

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): More than 120 caves. The park features the largest colony (estimated at about 400,000) of Brazilian Free-tailed bats in the world. You’ll be awestruck as you watch them emerge en mass from the caves at sunset.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico): This UNESCO World Heritage site features approximately 4,000 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites. It’s best known for its massive ruins from the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area from 850 to 1250 A.D. Great starwatching, camping, and hiking.

Isle Royale National Park (Michigan): This is the place to go if you want solitude. The park had only 28,329 visits in 2017, according to the NPS. You’ll need to take a ferry to get to the island, and accommodations are Spartan. But the payoff is well worth it: rugged, but stunning, scenery; moose and wolves; the Northern Lights; and as much as hiking, kayaking, canoeing, camping, and scuba diving that you can fit into your schedule.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana): This is a fascinating place to immerse yourself in Native American and U.S. history and the clash of civilizations that occurred on June 25 and 26, 1876. Reading The Last Stand, by Nathaniel Philbrick, or Lakota Noon, The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat, by Gregory F. Michno, beforehand or as you walk the sprawling battlefield will make you feel as if you were actually there during the epic battle.

Knife River Indian Villages Historic Site (North Dakota): Visit Knife River to see the location of a major trading center for Native Americans and European traders, where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. At this spot, the explorers Lewis and Clark hired French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter. He brought along his young Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who played an integral role in their journey to the Pacific. Despite their significant role in Native American and American history, the Knife River Indian Villages are a quiet and contemplative destination. The wind blows through the cottonwoods, and the river gently flows where earth lodges once stood, men traded, and children played. Other than the imprints of the Mandan earth lodges, which are still visible from the air, little remains of the villages. But a visitor center brings the story of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, Sacagawea, and European traders to life. There were only 10,750 visits to this NPS unit in 2014. A trip to the Knife River Indian Villages is a nice one-day stop as you head to or from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): This breathtaking park features some of the best preserved cliff dwellings (more than 600) of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here from AD 600 to 1300.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Arizona): This International Biosphere Reserve on the Mexican border offers stunning views, towering and diverse types of cacti, and excellent hiking. And with an average winter high of 72 degrees, it’s the perfect destination for winter-sick Midwesterners.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan): A beautiful natural spot on the shores of Lake Superior in  the wild and wonderful Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Waterfalls, beautifully-colored cliffs, miles and miles of beach, camping, hiking, kayaking, and much more.  Check out my article on this Midwestern gem by clicking here.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): An absolute hidden gem. TRNP is wild and beautiful—buttes, badlands, buffalo, and grassland…elk, rattlesnake, wild horses, and the occasional mountain lion. It’s big sky country (sorry Montana, but North Dakota has you beat).

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho): The best of the best (with the acknowledgment that some people love Yosemite National Park just as much). A few highlights: 10,000 hydrothermal features, including more than 300 geysers such as the well-known Old Faithful; Grand Prismatic Spring, a massive and colorful hot spring; herds of buffalo and elk; grizzly bear; epic battles between wolves and their prey in the Lamar Valley; and solitude and adventure if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path

Copyright Andrew Morkes