Discover places and ways to enjoy nature in the region with the Get Outside Map! Use the interactive map and list to search over 400 parks, preserves, and natural areas open to the public. Each site includes a list of benefits and activities, a link for directions through Google Maps, and links to event calendars and other information.
Have You Discovered the Palos Forest Preserves?
Whether it’s hiking or biking, camping, kayaking, picnicing, or more, the Palos Forest Preserves have something for everyone and are one of our region’s best recreational amenities. The expansive network of lakes, trails, and scenic vistas can be enjoyed at any pace and make the Palos Forest Preserves an excellent place to visit.
At 15,000 acres, the Palos Preserves in southwest Cook County are the largest concentration of preserved land in the Forest Preserves. Thanks to more than three decades of habitat restoration, they also hold some of the highest-quality natural areas in Cook County. These trails join many popular sites, such as the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Pulaski Woods, Saganashkee Slough, and Maple Lake.
We’ve highlighted some of the best activities in the Forest Preserves below, and you can check out all the places to visit and things to try using the Openlands Get Outside Map.
If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find in the Forest Preserves! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.
Have You Discovered Rollins Savanna?
Take a walk under open skies and through sweeping grasslands at Lake County’s Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve!
Rollins Savanna is managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves and is an excellent option for your daily walk or an entire day spent outside. At over 1,200 acres, it is one of Lake County’s largest forest preserves and it is teeming with birds and wildlife you can see as you explore the site’s trails. Be sure to check out the bird viewing area, which offers a great overlook of the site as well as installed telescopes so you can get a close-up view of some of the rare birds that call Rollins Savanna home.
The trail system at Rollins Savanna includes over 5 miles of crushed limestone trails, which are approachable and pretty flat. The main loop at Rollins Savanna is 3.5 miles — perfect for walking or practicing for a 5K. Lake County’s regional Millennium Trail also incorporates the northern section of trails at the preserve. An additional 1.2-mile loop connects to both the main trail system and Fourth Lake Forest Preserve via the Millennium Trail. It’s worth adding on to your trip as you’re likely too see some wildlife on this trail segment. Plan for a two-hour trip for the main trail system and three hours if you’re adding the short loop. You can also enjoy shorter walks (approximately one mile) from the Washington Street parking lot along a boardwalk or from the Drury Lane entrance to the bird viewing area.
Rollins Savanna is well worth a visit next time you’re in Lake County and it makes for an excellent day trip from the city. Bring your family, friends, and your dog, and enjoy a day exploring this spectacular preserve. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure!
Have You Discovered Waterfall Glen?
Hikers, runners, and bikers will want to consider visiting DuPage County’s Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. This gorgeous setting is a great choice for a day spent outdoors exploring the site’s extensive trail system, vibrant habitats, and most of all, scenic views. Waterfall Glen is a short trip from downtown Chicago and a family-friendly destination in suburban Darien.
Waterfall Glen is managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and open to the public year-round. The site is home to a 9.5-mile gravel trail system that winds through a hilly, wooded landscape, offering educational signage and opportunities to explore nature up close. If you’re not looking for a nearly 10-mile trip, however, don’t let the longer trail intimidate you. Waterfall Glen not only offers shorter trails throughout the preserve, but you can also make a nice trip out of the short walk from a parking area to two of the site’s most scenic areas, Rocky Glen Waterfall (pictured above) and Sawcreek Mill Bluff.
The main trail at Waterfall Glen is an approachable 9.5-mile gravel path and makes for a great workout whether you’re hiking, biking, walking, or trail-running. The main trail is mixed-use for pedestrians, bikes, and horseback riding, so be sure to share the path. The trails are also open in the winter for snowshoeing, walking, and cross-country skiing.
For the site’s natural beauty and recreation opportunities, Waterfall Glen is well worth your visit! Consider adding it to your trip this summer or check out all our recommendations for where to get outside in the region.
Photo: Patrick Williams
Have You Discovered Goose Lake Prairie?
Take a trip to Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area and enjoy a day outside exploring sweeping grasslands home to a wide variety of wildlife. Located in Grundy County, Goose Lake Prairie is managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and is the largest remnant of prairie left in Illinois.
Goose Lake Prairie offers a great trail system that lets visitors enjoy the site in their own way. There are multiple looping trails, each of different lengths, that make for a pleasant short walk outside or a longer day hiking through the prairie. The trails are mowed grass and wander through different habitats, so you’ll get plenty of opportunities to see some of the wildlife.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources have developed an education center, which offers year-round programs such as guided hikes and lectures, and there’s a small library in the center. You can also enjoy a picnic at some of the site’s picnic areas or learn a little about the region’s history by visiting some of the site’s interpretative elements.
At Goose Lake, over 1,700 acres of prairie and marsh communities, containing a large and diverse array of plant and animal life, are present. Many birds, including Henslow’s sparrows, Virginia rails, least bitterns, northern harriers, and upland sandpipers, are known to nest or inhabit the marshes and prairies. It’s one of the best sites in the state for viewing grassland birds, so it’s an accessible place for beginner-birders and a pleasure for seasoned experts.
Goose Lake Prairie is a bit of drive from the Chicago area, but it’s a trip worth making, particularly for birders, nature buffs, and wildlife photographers. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure!
Indiana Dunes: America’s Newest National Park
On February 15, 2019, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was upgraded to a National Park, the country’s 61st. The greater Chicago region now has a National Park. Members of the Indiana and Illinois conservation communities have worked for decades to bring about this important designation, and we send our congratulations to them for all their hard work.
The “upgrade” was included in a large spending bill and formally changed the name of Indiana Dunes and as well as a visitor center. But hard work remains in front of us: Indiana Dunes National Park deserves more just than a new name. It deserves to be part of a restored natural and cultural landscape that attracts visitors from throughout the world and the millions of people who live within a few hours drive.
To host such an internationally acclaimed attraction, we need to treat the Dunes like the treasure they are. We must hold industry accountable when it irresponsibly dumps toxic chemicals into surrounding waterways. We must piece back together the mosaic of dunes and swales, oak savannas and prairies, lakes and rivers that once covered this region. In doing so, we must recognize the importance of this area plays in the lives of residents – past and present – who have made their homes here.
All that takes more than a name change. It merits significantly increased and sustained funding for the Park itself by Federal, state, local, and private stakeholders. It also merits Congressional designation of the Calumet National Heritage Area – the region between Hyde Park and Michigan City, Indiana – where extraordinary natural areas and technological innovation co-evolved for generations.
We extend a big ‘thank you’ to our representatives in Congress and ask they do more to make Indiana Dunes National Park a place worthy of mention next to Yellowstone, Isle Royale, and America’s other “Greatest Places.”
Conservation efforts surrounding the Indiana Dunes and its unique ecosystems date back to 1899. The First World War halted protection due to a shift in national priorities, but in 1926 the site was designated as Indiana Dunes State Park. In 1966, the site was officially authorized as a National Lakeshore and Openlands played an integral role in this designation. We strongly encourage you to visit.
Photos from a Birds in my Neighborhood field trip to Indiana Dunes, June 2018.
Have You Discovered Ryerson Woods?
Wandering the trails at Ryerson Woods you may feel as if you’re exploring forests far from the Chicago suburbs. This oak woodland is home to some remnants of our region’s ecological past and it’s a great place to spend the day outside.
Located on the banks of the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area is 565-acre preserve managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves. Ryerson Woods supports some of Illinois’ most pristine woodlands and several state threatened and endangered species. Two rare ecosystems — flatwoods and a floodplain forest — can be found here. Much of Ryerson Woods has been protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Ryerson Woods makes a great day-trip for outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are well maintained and the area is pretty flat, so it won’t be your most strenuous hike, but there’s plenty to enjoy. And part of the beauty of Ryerson comes from its year-round accessibility: the trails are open to cross-country skiing in the winter (when there’s at least 4″ of snow) and it’s treasure to see in late October as the leaves turn. If you’re looking for somewhere new to explore or even if you’ve been before, make sure it’s on your list of places to get outside in our region.
Look for Bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Saturday, November 3 is National Bison Day and you can celebrate the holiday by visiting Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie! In honor of the holiday, Midewin is throwing a party and volunteers and staff will be on hand to visit with people while they look for the bison herd. Spend the day wandering the prairie, learning about Midewin’s history, and join a guided hike with the US Forest Service.
In 2015, a herd of American bison were introduced to Midewin as part of a 20-year ecological restoration experiment, and the herd has since grown in size. In 2016, President Obama declared the American bison as the national mammal due to its historic, cultural, and ecological ties to North America.
The US Forest Service, who manages Midewin, and the Forest Preserve District of Will County are co-hosting a community-wide bison outreach with events across Will County, so you can couple your trip to Midewin with a visit in downtown Wilmington.
This is a great opportunity to enjoy Midewin, the largest open space in the Chicago region. You can view some of the scheduled activities for the day here or spend the day exploring Midewin for yourself. Check out our recommended hikes here or rent canoes and enjoy a trip on the Kankakee River Water Trail.
Photo: Rick Short, USDA
The 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first national tallgrass prairie in our nation’s history. Established in 1996, it is considered one of the most important conservation initiatives in Illinois of the 20th century and was established as a direct result of leadership and advocacy by Openlands. In addition to advocating for the former Joliet Arsenal to become Midewin, Openlands worked in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations to develop The Prairie Plan for the restoration of a unique prairie ecosystem. In 1997, Openlands helped organize the conference, “From Bison to Buffalo Grass,” which envisioned the return of bison as an integral part of prairie restoration efforts. Learn more at Openlands.org/Midewin.
Have You Discovered Busse Woods?
Head out to the northwest suburbs and explore one of the largest forest preserves in Cook County! With over 3,500 acres of conserved open space, winding mixed-use trails, open pastures and picnic areas, paddling opportunities, wildlife viewing, and more, Busse Woods is one of the region’s best outdoor recreation destinations. Whether you’re an experienced kayaker, a trail runner, a family looking for a great picnic, or a nature lover, this place has something for everyone.
Busse Woods is pretty huge, and there’s so much to unpack and explore within the forest preserve, which makes it quite a fun time. With so much to do there, you’ll probably want to spend a whole day there. And while Busse Woods is great year-round, know that you’ll get some excellent views of fall colors as you explore this massive forest.
If you’re intrigued, be sure to plan ahead for your day. The main trail loop is nearly eight miles roundtrip, but it is definitely doable. The trail is pretty flat, paved throughout, and shaded for about half of the trip. There are a number of places to rest along the way. Plan three to four hours, depending on your pace, and bring plenty of snacks and water. If you’re thinking of a shorter trip, consider the portions of the trail surrounding Busse Lake as it’ll provide some excellent views — not to mention a cool breeze on a warm day.
Busse Woods is also home to the unique Busse Forest Nature Preserve, one of the richest and most diverse natural areas in the Cook County forest preserves, and has been designated an National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.
FYI: if you’re trying to figure it out, it’s pronounced “bus-see”.
The Old Plank Road Trail
In 1992, Openlands purchased just over 20 miles of abandoned railroad lines for the development of the Old Plank Road Trail, which stretches from Chicago Heights to Joliet. The land acquisition was made on behalf of six local and state agencies that had each agreed to develop portions of the trail. Openlands’ involvement (at the time through our affiliated non-profit, CorLands) provided a jump-start to the decade-long grassroots effort to create the trail, and ultimately saved over $1 million in taxpayer dollars.
When Openlands officially became involved in the trail, the project had been stalled for years for a variety of reasons, and we began an outreach effort to local communities to build support for this visionary trail. Local opposition was eventually addressed by inviting residents to participate in the trail planning process, and by agreeing to reroute the trail around certain areas, plant trees and shrubs, install fences, and grade the trail to ensure residents’ privacy and security.
Another obstacle was reluctance from the Penn Central Railroad — the original land owner — to engage in separate negotiations with the six local governments and agencies interested in purchasing its land. These local entities included the Village of Park Forest, the Village of Matteson, the Village of Frankfort, Rich Township, the Forest Preserve District of Will County, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. And in a way, their reluctance made sense: securing only five of the six trail segments would have left the entire route fractured. They needed a single entity to manage the acquisition as one purchase. They needed a land trust.
This problem was solved when the Illinois Department of Transportation, which was coordinating the purchase from Penn Central, asked Openlands to move from its advisory role to assume control over the entire project. Two years of intensive negotiations then began, with Openlands acting as an intermediary between Penn Central and the six local entities.
This arrangement was a win-win situation for all parties involved. With Openlands in charge of the negotiations, the local entities gained specialized real estate expertise while avoiding individual negotiations with Penn Central. The process was also simplified for Penn Central by giving the corporation a single entity to work with, and by standardizing procedures.
Openlands was able to negotiate a purchase price down, a savings of over $1 million in taxpayer dollars. Half of the purchase price was funded by the governmental entities that will develop the trail, with the remaining funding paid by a matching grant from the State of Illinois’ Bikeways Fund.
Immediately upon buying the property, Openlands placed deed restrictions on each of the parcels to ensure that the land will be permanently used as a recreational trail, regardless of a change in owners. Openlands then subdivided the property into six parcels and transferred ownership to the governmental bodies that had provided funding.
The creation of the Old Plank Road Trail proved the power of partnerships: by working with a land trust and with each other, the local governments were able to secure matching grants from Illinois and the Federal Government to complete one of the finest rails-to-trails conversions.
This article is from the Openlands archives and was originally published on behalf of CorLands. As a non-profit affiliated corporation, CorLands managed land acquisition, technical assistance, and conservation easements for Openlands between 1977 and 2010 when it merged back into Openlands. Learn more about some of the projects in our history.