Illinois didn’t earn the nickname ‘the Prairie State’ for nothing, but it is no secret that our namesake has virtually disappeared from the natural landscape. Once home to over 20 million acres of prairie, Illinois now holds less than 2,500 acres of remnant virgin prairie. Yet if you are looking to experience the enormity of the prairie and glimpse the natural history of our state, look no further than Midewin.
As the largest open space in the Chicago region, the 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first such protected tallgrass prairie in the country and it is managed today by the U.S. Forest Service. Midewin sits just an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago and began its journey to federal protection in the early 1990s when the U.S. Army announced plans to close the Joliet Arsenal.
The importance of Midewin cannot be overstated. Its expansiveness makes it ideal habitat for grassland birds; in addition to native prairie, it contains a variety of ecologically-significant habitats and natural areas; and in 2015 it became a new home for a herd of American bison. But Midewin was also envisioned as a place to connect the residents of Illinois to the nature that surrounds them.
Foresight and planning over the last 20 years coupled the restoration of a unique prairie ecosystem with unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, wildlife viewing, environmental education, research, and volunteerism, which made Midewin a contemporary model process for the expansion of public open space. Here are a few options for you to enjoy these public lands, but certainly take a chance to discover Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in your own way.
Just north of the City of Chicago sits a mile of lakefront beach and a series of unique ecosystems, which are home to a rich array of plants and wildlife. After 10 years of restoration work, the site has become a natural treasure, earning distinctions as a registered Illinois Nature Preserve and an International Dark-sky Preserve. This is the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.
During the fall, this preserve is a beauty to behold. The changing leaves paint the bluffs and ravines in deep reds and vibrant yellows, accompanied by the more muted yellows, whites, and purples of goldenrods and asters. Birds hop around the trails and land in the trees, taking a break from their long fall migration. Small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks are also particularly active, gathering up nuts and seeds as they prepare for winter.
In spring and summer you can walk the beach, bring your binoculars to glimpse some rare birds, or take time to explore the rare ravines. The steep ravines were formed by erratic lake levels and glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago! Even in winter the Lakeshore Preserve offers some unique perspectives to appreciate nature.
Then, of course, there is the lake. Visible from all points along the various trails, Lake Michigan provides a gorgeous backdrop for all of this land-based activity. You can walk along the shore, or you can walk the trails on top of the bluffs, almost 70 feet in the air.
Whether you’re looking for a nice place to go for a walk, a place to spend the day outside with your entire family, or wanting to step back in time and feel what it’s like to wander the prairies, you can find it at the beautiful Deer Grove Forest Preserve.
Located in suburban Palatine and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Deer Grove Forest Preserve is split into to units, East and West. Deer Grove West is a heavily wooded area and supports over 300 unique species of native woodland plants along with a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Deer Grove East, pictured above, is home to an open prairie along with shaded savannas. Together they are a jaw-dropping display of what Illinois’ landscapes resembled prior to European settlement, and at 1,800 acres, you’ll have no trouble finding a spot to enjoy the peace and quiet without the busy bustling of the city.
A paved mixed-use trail wraps around Deer Grove East and some dirt trails meander through the wooded areas. Deer Grove West is home to many more dirt trails winding through the woodlands. Take the time to explore them all, it’s worth it, we promise. You can cross between the two on Quentin Rd, which bisects the preserve, but know that it can be a busy street.
Deer Grove is great for a day outside: the trails are relatively flat and there’s enough variety in the landscapes that you can easily spend a day there hiking. Picnic areas and restrooms are availabe on-site, and bring plenty of water.
Hadley Valley Preserve is located just outside Chicago, and it includes over 700 acres of trails, picnic groves, and restored natural habitat and wide open spaces.
Since 2007, the Forest Preserves of Will County have restored more than 180 acres of native habitat, working in collaboration with Openlands, the US Army Corp of Engineers, the Illinois Tollway (I-355 Extension project), the City of Joliet, the Illinois DNR, and local development. Altogether, about 148,000 individual plants have been planted to restore the wetland areas.
The quality of restoration at Hadley Valley has earned it numerous awards and accolades. Native plants and animals thrive in vast prairie, open savannas, and shaded woodland.
Hadley Valley is a remarkable resource for outdoor recreation as well as for birding and wildlife viewing. Come for day in the sun, soak up some vitamin D, and take in the sweet smell of native wildflowers as they bloom. With just a short trip from Chicago, it’s a great discovery for all nature lovers!
We at Openlands love that so many of you are getting outside to #DiscoverYourPlace. The social media campaign puts a spotlight on special outdoor and natural areas in northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana.
Many of you have gotten out to explore natural areas you didn’t know existed, while others are highlighting species and habitat that make our region special! These include many of the places Openlands helps to protect, restore, and create for people to connect to. So far, there have been over 300 photos of unique landscapes, vast open space, and special green areas in the Chicago region!
As the weather warms, we’d love to know, “Where are you enjoying the outdoors and discovering new and restored natural areas nearby?” Get involved by tagging your photos of parks, gardens, trails, preserves, native species, restored landscapes and more with #DiscoverYourPlace! Share your photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Check out this interactive map of some of our favorite #DiscoverYourPlace photos on Instagram so far! Do you see a place you haven’t heard of? How many of these places have you been to? Or maybe you’d like to highlight one of your favorite natural areas not represented below! Join us!
Founded in 1963, Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives.