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Chicago offers plenty of natural wonders that provide a respite from the hustle and the heat, like Northerly Island pictured above.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

The wilds of Chicago: 10 places to bask in nature without leaving home

Looking for a retreat in or near the city? Here are 10 trails, parks, forest preserves, urban gardens and lesser-known spots to escape the hustle and hurry.

Yes, summer visitors will marvel about our city’s architectural gems, bustling eateries and cultural array. But Chicago also offers plenty of natural wonders that provide a respite from the hustle and the heat, from well-considered city parks to tree-lined hiking paths.

Here are 10 in the city and nearby suburbs to retreat for an afternoon or more.

1. Palmisano Park in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood

When you see a hill in Chicago, “former garbage dump” is a good first guess.

But Henry Palmisano Park, AKA “Mount Bridgeport,” was more than a lowly landfill. Today, the park emerges from 50 feet below ground to two stories in the air alongside S. Halsted Street, revealing breathtaking views of the downtown skyline. But up until 1960, the site was a gaping hole in the ground, where 200-year-old Stearns Quarry, mere feet from the sidewalk between 26th and 29th streets, plunged 380 feet straight down.

Today the park, named after the Bridgeport bait shop owner who supplied fishermen for decades, is perhaps the city’s finest example of inventive reclamation for public use. It is the most unusual park in Chicago, one that successfully grapples with the city’s clash between the natural and man-made spaces. There’s fishing in the quarry, hiking, picnicking and lawn sports such as frisbee. Importantly, it’s a spot for contemplation and relaxation in the middle of the city.

Visitors can descend an angular metal ramp to a corner of the water-filled quarry, surrounded on two sides by 450 million-year-old fossil-pocked walls. They can then ascend limestone blocks two stories up the side of a former landfill covered with native prairie wildflowers to find a commanding view that comes out of nowhere.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW Henry Palmisano Park is managed by the Chicago Park District and is open from 6 a.m.-11 p.m. It is a short walk from the Halsted Orange Line CTA stop. Free street parking is adjacent. The main paths are ADA.

NEARBY Next door, McGuane Park has sports and bathroom facilities. A short distance away is the small Canal Origins Park where a branch of the Chicago River once connected Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. On the canal, the park district offers rowing and other activities at the beautifully designed Eleanor Street Boathouse. Further down the south branch of the river, kayak rentals from Wateriders can be found at the Bridgeport Arts Center.

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Northerly Island has a nature area that features prairie and savanna habitats, a 5-acre pond and paths that bring visitors close to nature.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

2. Northerly Island

Northerly Island is one of the most unusual and attractive refuges in the city, with an incredible backstory of doings and undoings — audaciously creating land where none existed, hosting and razing a world’s fair worth of buildings and paving airplane runways only to later carve them up.

Northerly Island now stars as a place almost no one goes to, its location circuitously remote and hidden and its status uncertain. That’s part of what makes it so intriguing — and so satisfying to the urban explorer. Get there by bicycle on the Lakefront Trail, and ride out to the south end of the island. Once there, visitors can fish, birdwatch or just enjoy the view from a hilltop

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW Northerly Island Park is managed by the Chicago Park District and is open from 6 a.m.-11 p.m. It is located past the planetarium and concert venue. There is pay parking near the old terminal, and at the planetarium parking lot, but the easiest access is by bike along the Lakefront Trail.There is no longer a full loop, but hikers can pick their way across the eastern shoreline. The path is ADA throughout.

NEARBY The secrets of Northerly Island don’t end at the southern wilds. A short walk from the terminal is 12th Street Beach, which is blocked from public view by the museums, secluded, usually uncrowded and quiet, and features the usual park district bathhouse, lifeguard and snack bar/restaurant in season. A small natural dunes area is adjacent. A little further south on the mainland is the McCormick Bird Sanctuary, part of the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, a 100-acre ribbon of urban wilderness along the lakefront.

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Birds and other wildlife can be found in and around the Orland Grassland and other nearby forest preserves. Here, a red-bellied woodpecker searches for insects in the Palos forest preserve.

Courtesy of Kenneth Pangburn III

3. Orland Grassland Land and Water Reserve, Orland Park, south suburban Cook County

After traveling through what seems like an endless commercial strip featuring a bacchanalia of chain restaurants and retail, the “ahhh” factor arriving at Orland Grasslands Land and Water Reserve is palpable. Dozens of robins and blackbirds circulate through the air, singly and in flocks. Large flocks of starlings move in unison, from trees to ground and back again. Birdsong floods the damp spring air: whistles, squawks, cherrios and toodleoos.

The grassland is like an avian airport in size and scope but completely undeveloped over its 16-block length and nearly 1,000 acres. This is how much of Illinois looked after the Ice Age, when humans first arrived.Today, you can ride or walk or circumnavigate the paved path around the perimeter, or get an inside look at plants and wildlife by trekking through the mowed paths that take you past wetlands and groves of small oaks. Volunteers can get their hands dirty adding and removing plants with an organized group.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW Orland Grassland is a managed, protected area open from sunrise to sunset. From the Loop, it is one hour by car, or 90 minutes by a combination of CTA/Metra and rideshare/bicycle. The main entrance is located at W. 167th St. and LaGrange Road, near Orland Park.

NEARBY South and southwest Cook County contains some of the largest, most remote and prized forest preserve locations. High-quality nature reserves and preserves in the vicinity include: Bartel Grasslands, Sagawau Canyon (and its environmental learning center), McMahon Woods and Fen, Cap Sauers and Cranberry Slough. Adults and children can visit the Little Red Schoolhouse, which is centrally located at the center of the extensive Sag Valley and Palos trail systems.

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“The Bathtub” near Joliet provides an idyllic setting for swimming.

Courtesy of Zachary Nauth

4. “The Bathtub” at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area, and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet

At the end of a long drive, there is no better swimming hole on a hot summer day for wading in the cool waters cascading off dolomite limestone slabs.

This is a “secret” swimming hole in a creek near the Kankakee River that can get crowded on summer weekends, according to local residents. The spot is an almost idyllic setting, especially after a rain when the almost-clear waters of Prairie Creek flow steadily over the three levels of waterfalls, creating hypnotic sounds and views.

The “bathtub” gets its name from a human-sized cutout in one of the slabs, where a person can plop down amid the falling water.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW The Bathtub is part of the Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area at Milliken Lake, north of Wilmington, Ill. From the Loop, it is 90 minutes by car. From I-55 South, take River Road exit #241, and after crossing the bridge over Prairie Creek, turn right at the sign to the Des Plaines wildlife area Milliken Lake, where there is parking and bathroom facilities. Turn right again to find parking near the creek access path. It is open from sunrise to sunset.

Cautions include a slippery surface (bring water shoes with a rubber sole), nonvenomous water snakes and dry periods when the water can become stagnant with algae. Stay out of the Kankakee River, where the flows are much stronger.

NEARBY Before reaching the Bathtub, Prairie Creek flows through the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie just across the highway, where visitors can ride or hike, birdwatch and view rare prairie plants and a bison herd. Midewin, site of a former army ammunition plant, is now the largest protected area in the Chicago wilderness at 20,000 acres. The area is being restored to tallgrass prairie, complete with munching bison doing their part. Visitors can try to find the bison, visit the remaining munition storage bunkers and learn more at the indoor exhibit. The trails are open year round from 4 a.m.-10 p.m., and the visitors center on U.S. 53 (old Route 66) is open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Check the website for special programming.

Two very high-quality nature spots in the area are McKinley Woods and the impressive Four Rivers Environmental Center along the Des Plaines River. Both are part of the Will County Forest Preserves and have hiking and/or biking paths through the woods. For hardcore bikers, the Wauponsee Glacial Trail of crushed limestone runs on abandoned railway lines 22 miles from the Kankakee River, north alongside Midewin, through the town of Manhattan, into Joliet. The trail connects to several others, including the I&M Canal Heritage Trail and Old Plank Road trail.

5. Illinois Prairie Path, Great Western Trail and linked forest preserves in the western suburbs

The Illinois Prairie Path follows the route of the former Chicago, Elgin and Aurora Electric Rail Line and was the inspiration for the Rails-to-Trails movement. The path was the brainchild of May Theilgaard Watts, a nature advocate who envisioned an alternate use for the track corridor after the rails were torn up and before the space was grabbed for commercial purposes. The 60-mile off-road path, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, is mostly limestone and goes all the way to the Fox River in Aurora. Along with the 17-mile Great Western Trail, it provides unrivaled access to a series of diverse forest preserves offering a wide variety of activities for adults and children. There are many nature stops, including a 6-acre remnant prairie in Elmhurst undeveloped for 10,000 years.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW Take the Blue Line from the Loop 40 minutes to the last stop in Forest Park, and find the trail on the west side of the station. The trail skirts neighborhoods in Maywood and several small towns before entering the preserves near Glen Ellyn at Churchill Woods. Maps are available at ipp.org.

NEARBY The path connects to the Great Western Trail in Villa Park and several other spurs along the way. Kline Creek Farm, Danada Equestrian Center and St. James Farm in DuPage county offer views into the history of life, culture and nature in the region. All have various activities and programs, and trails that traverse and connect them. Together, they make up an uninterrupted swath of several thousand acres of undeveloped woodlands and prairie. Many of these lands were sold or donated to the public by longtime farm families. Danada is a working horse farm with equestrian programs, riding lessons, wagon rides, barn tours and summer camps. Kline Creek is a living history farm where visitors engage in old-fashioned farm activities from the 1890s. St. James Farm is the former country retreat of the McCormick family that hosts nature activities, wagon rides and summer camps. Fishing (including rentals) is available at nearby Herrick Lake, and an archery range is located at Blackwell Forest Preserve. The West Branch of the DuPage River offers fishing and kayaking access.

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There are a few high-adrenaline destinations in Chicago, including ziplines in the western Cook County Forest Preserves and The Forge outdoor adventure park, pictured here.

Nichole Shaw/Chicago Sun-Times

6. Douglass Park miniature golf course in Chicago, and GoApe Zipline and Adventure Park in Cook County

Whose family doesn’t love putt-putt golf? There is one in the heart of the city that was designed by youth with nature as their guide. For a higher-adrenaline family outing, travel to the western Cook County Forest Preserves, where partnering vendor GoApe built a zipline and net course high in the white oak forest in Bemis Woods.

The Douglass Park miniature golf course is 18 holes designed by local youth in cooperation with the Chicago Park District. Obstacles and sculptures for the golf course were inspired by the 205 species of migratory birds that pass through the park each year. The course opens for the season on May 1 for public play on Friday-Saturday-Sunday.

“GoApe” offers three levels of zipline and treetop adventures suitable for everyone from kindergartners to adults, a “forest escape” game and ax-throwing for adults. Bemis Woods has pavilions, bathrooms and trails around Salt Creek.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW Douglass Park is on the Near West Side at Western and Roosevelt, a 10-minute walk from the California Pink Line. The course is behind the community center off Ogden Avenue; a round is $5. GoApe is further west on Ogden Avenue, in Western Springs, near the I-294 tollway. It can be reached by Metra and rideshare in an hour-plus from the Loop. For ziplining, register on the GoApe website, dress for outdoor sports and wear garden gloves and good tennis shoes. Tickets start at $33.

NEARBY There is more ziplining and axe-throwing at The Forge: Lemont Quarries, along with kayak rentals and gemstone panning. Zipline tickets start at $50 for children. Just on the other side of I-294 from GoApe is the Fullersburg Nature Center and Forest Preserve, the site of the Graue Mill and Museum, a former 1850s gristmill on the National Register of Historic Places; admission is free. Frederick Graue was an abolitionist and harbored escaped slaves using the Underground Railroad.

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Big Marsh Park has a multi-use “eco-recreation” center that was modeled after a famous Colorado bicycle park.

Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times

7. Big Marsh Park, Chicago, South Side

This South Deering park, a multi-use “eco-recreation” center, is the first of its kind in the Midwest and one of the newest in the city. It is built on the remediated site of a former slag dump and modeled on a famous Colorado bicycle park with several types of tracks for BMX, mountain biking and cyclo-cross. Outdoors there are 300 acres of wide-open spaces for bird and wildlife viewing; indoor displays are located within the exquisitely designed Ford Calumet Environmental Center.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW From the Loop, the park is 30 minutes by car. It is open dawn to dusk on weekdays, and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekends. Check the website for special programs such as fort-building and bug-catching. Admission is free, but parking is $1 per hour. More information is at Friends of Big Marsh Park. The park is ADA accessible; dogs are not allowed due to the migratory bird habitat.

NEARBY Another former industrial site, the legendary U.S. Steel “South Works,” has been converted for recreation at the 16-acre Steelworkers Park, which features a climbing wall on one of the giant ore dock walls. To the east on the Indiana border is Eggers Grove, a natural area under careful restoration.

8. Independence Grove, Lake County

Renting kayaks, canoes or pedal boats at the 130-acre lake at Independence Grove in Lake County is a breeze, and the facilities and grounds are top notch. The lake, a former gravel quarry, is stocked with fish. Paddlers with their own kayaks can launch onto the Des Plaines River and paddle downstream to other access points at Oak Springs Road, Wright Woods and into Cook County.

The large venue also offers a “children’s grove” playground, a beer garden and cafe, an off-leash dog area, concerts and many programs.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW The grove is one hour, or 42 miles, from the Loop by car on I-94 to Libertyville. It is open from 6:30 am to sunset. Entrance is $6 per car for nonresidents Monday through Thursday, and $12 Friday-Saturday-Sunday. Kayak rentals start at $12 for the first hour.

NEARBY The Fort Sheridan Lakeshore Preserve and Illinois Beach State Park, are two of the most attractive and extensive natural areas on the lakefront. The 4,000-acre state park is the only remaining beach ridge shoreline left in the state, with dunes and swales. From Independence, find a connection to the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway, a well-maintained gravel route that mostly shadows the river for 31 miles through 12 forest preserves.

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The North Shore Channel Trail and the nearby the North Branch Chicago River Trail offer 33 miles of combined trails.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

9. North Branch Chicago River trail, Chicago, North Side and suburbs

The premier nature trail in the city is almost all off-road for its 20 miles. The whole family can follow the river and travel on the paved surface from the North Side up to the Skokie Lagoons and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. The North Branch of the river is in mostly natural condition and is being restored in places by the preserve and volunteers. The trail goes through several nature preserves, including Harms Woods and Harms Flatwoods, with views of the river, bur oak forests and meadows. There are numerous places to stop for food and drink along the route.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW For an uninterrupted section, start at the birdwatching paradise of LaBagh Woods (Foster/Edens) and go north. More adventurous riders can start at Belmont Avenue and navigate some on-road crossings up to LaBagh. A great ride begins at Bunker Hill, a preserve with plenty of parking. From there it’s approximately 15 miles north to the botanical gardens, where trail users can enter for free.

NEARBY The Chicago Botanic Garden is a plant lover’s dream. Kayak rentals are available at the Skokie Lagoons. A connected trail is the 13-mile North Shore Channel Trail at Lawrence Avenue.

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The South Shore Nature Sanctuary and Beach is a sweet getaway best accessed by the Lakefront Trail.

Colin Boyle/Chicago Sun-Times

10. South Shore Nature Sanctuary and Beach, Chicago

This tiny peninsula was one of the first lakefront natural areas, replacing a dumping ground. The park district and volunteers planted native plants, installed fire rings and benches, and introduced a boardwalk, making this area a sweet little getaway. The 6-acre sanctuary is adjacent to the South Shore Beach and behind the cultural center. The views of the skyline are arresting from this pocket beach with all the usual park district facilities.

WHAT ELSE TO KNOW The best way to get to the beach is by bike on the Lakefront Trail. Additionally, there are bus and Metra stops within a block. If driving, pay parking at the center goes for $2 per hour and $7 for up to four hours. The beach is open from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. beginning Memorial Day. The beach and path are ADA, and the beach has a bathhouse. Dogs are not allowed

NEARBY Promontory Point is a great place to contemplate the lake and watch the anglers. On cool evenings, fires burn in the ring pits.


Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Park.

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