Step in to Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory and step back in time and to a whole different world. Between the towering trees, tropical plants, vibrant flowers, the gorgeous displays, and stunning architecture, it almost feels more like an immersive art experience than a walk through the garden.
The Conservatory is truly one of Chicago’s greatest treasures: it houses one of the country’s best horticultural collections and gorgeous landscaping, it is an architectural wonder with elements designed by the famous landscape architect Jens Jensen, and it is an excellent community asset. You can spend your day wandering among the collections of plants, enjoying a free guided tour or educational program, or letting your kids explore nature in their own way, making it a great spot for visitors of all ages.
The Garfield Park Conservatory is owned and operated by the Chicago Park District and is home to thousands of plant species, spread through eight different indoor gardens. In the warmer months, visitors can spend some extra time wandering the 10-acres of outdoor gardens.
There are definitely some spectacular spots in the Conservatory to snap a photo, so be sure to bring your camera or phone and share what you find. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure! And something to keep in mind: the Conservatory is a pretty great spot for a date.
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.
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”.
Pack a lunch and take a trip back in time, exploring the landscapes, habitats, and views found in our region long ago! Located in the south suburbs and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Grassland is an exceptional display of the expansive prairies that used to stretch across the region. More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers left behind this rolling landscape and made Orland Grassland one of the higher elevation points in Cook County. On a clear day you can even spot the Chicago Skyline!
Orland Grassland is one of the largest grassland habitats in all of Cook County. Starting in 2002, this 960-acre preserve has been transformed from farmland back into a grassland complex with prairies, wetlands, open ponds, oak savannas, and woodlands. Openlands helped restore the landscape at Orland Grassland and today, much of the preserve is enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve system and it is a designated important bird area by Audubon Society.
A five-mile paved trail rings Orland Grassland with several unpaved trails winding through the restoration areas. The south unit of Orland Grassland also featured a 1.6-mile paved trail if you’re looking for a shorter trail (or a longer extension of the main trail). The unpaved trails are marked with handmade signs created by Cub Scout Troop #372 of Orland Park. Be sure to check out the interactive trail map from Forest Preserves of Cook County before your visit.
No matter your feelings on city life, we can all appreciate a quiet moment with nature in the heart of the city. You can find one of the most sublime retreats into nature at Chicago’s South Shore Nature Sanctuary. Maintained by the Chicago Park District, the South Shore Nature Sanctuary is six acres of dunes, wetlands, woodlands, and prairies within South Shore Beach Park.
This small nature preserve sits peacefully on the shores of Lake Michigan, home to a short boardwalk and some magnificent views of the lake and the skyline. It is a great location for a short walk in the city or to make part of a larger day in the community. There are two rest areas within the nature sanctuary if you want to bring a picnic.
The nature sanctuary is one of more than 50 natural areas found across Chicago parks. The Park District has committed to protecting and expanding these natural areas to allow residents richer experiences with the nature around us, to provide habitat, and to preserve some of the landscapes that existed in our region before European settlement. The nature sanctuary is also one of the city’s best locations to spy an amazing array of migrating bird life. Our location along the shores of Lake Michigan makes Chicago an important intersection for birds as they make seasonal migrations along the Mississippi region and across the Great Lakes. Spots of green along the lake here or at places like Montrose Point are just beckoning to them!
In the west of Lake County lies one of Illinois’ unique natural communities, Volo Bog. Managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Volo Bog State Natural Area contains a few trails for you to explore including a half-mile interpretative boardwalk and an approximately three-mile trail with views of the tamarck forests. In 1970, Volo Bog was designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve and in 1972 as a National Natural Landmark.
Over 10,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age, a chuck of retreating glacial ice lodged itself deep in the ground at what is now Volo Bog. Several thousand years later the remnant lake began to fill with salt and vegetation, creating the wetlands present today. Volo Bog is technically known as a quaking bog because vegetation floats atop the open water. Yes, all the surrounding plant life and trees in the picture above are floating. Over time, the absence of waves will allow the plant life to slowly expand further onto the water, eventually covering the entire site.
As you explore this natural area, you’ll quickly transition between several types of habitats, including tamarack forests, marshlands, and shrublands. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Volo Bog! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.
When was the last time you wandered through an ancient grove of oak trees and stumbled upon a hidden pond tucked away quietly in the woods? At Oak Openings Nature Preserve, you can do just that, while exploring a conservation community in the heart of Lake County, Illinois.
Oak Openings Nature Preserve is 73 acres of protected open space in Grayslake providing year-round recreation opportunities, local trail connections, chances to explore a variety of native landscapes, and a central location to start a day enjoying the Liberty Prairie Reserve — the larger conservation community and network of protected lands surrounding Oak Openings.
Liberty Prairie Reserve encompasses nearly 6,000 acres in Lake County, over half of which have been permanently protected as conserved open space through a network of natural landscapes and farmland. It is community of advocates and stewards, passionate about conserving land and wildlife, that has come together to live with a sensitivity towards nature, create a sense of place with the land, and enhance habitat for wildlife on the scale needed to thrive.
There are several ways to discover and enjoy the mosaic of sites comprising the Liberty Prairie Reserve, and we encourage you to explore the entire area for yourself during your trip to Oak Openings.
If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Oak Openings! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.
Starved Rock State Park is a trek from downtown Chicago, but one that’s worth making. Recently voted as the top tourist attraction in Illinois, Starved Rock is a pleasure to visit year-round, with scenic waterfalls in the warmer months and stunning icefalls in the winter. The park boasts an extensive 13-mile trail system, it’s home to hundreds of old oak trees, and it is one of the best places in the Midwest to see the bald eagle population which overwinters along the Illinois River.
Starved Rock takes its name from a Native American legend: in the 1760s, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa Tribe was killed by an Illiniwek while attending an inter-tribal council in southern Illinois. In a series of battles following the event, a band of Illiniwek sought refuge from a band of Potawatomi warriors (themselves allies of the Ottawa) atop a 125-foot sandstone butte overlooking the Illinois River. The Ottawa and Potawatomi laid seige to the rock, starving the Illiniwek above.
Stories like these are reminders that the lands protected today in our country are lands taken from the indigenous nations that lived here before us. We recognize that indigenous peoples across North America have looked to correct centuries of historical injustices by permanently protecting land through conservation – and that work extends to our home in the Midwest. Today we work to restore the land to health, to respect the land and the water, and to share these places with all people.
Enjoy your trip to Starved Rock, take some time to learn about the history of these lands, and respect that land wherever you go.
Situated in the heart of Chicago’s north side is a peaceful retreat from the bustle of city life. North Park Village Nature Center is a 46-acre natural area and education resource, offering multiple recreation opportunities and a variety of programming from the Chicago Park District.
The nature center is a great snapshot of Illinois’ native landscapes. Here you can wander through wetlands and tallgrass, forests, prairies, and even an oak savanna. The change in ecosystems is plainly apparent as you follow the trail, and the interpretive signage throughout makes North Park Village Nature Center a superb educational resource. Check it out for hiking and walking, birding, or a short field trip with your family!
North Park Village Nature Center is open seven days a week from 10am-4pm.
Have you tried enjoying the outdoors along a long-distance trail yet? Our region’s recreation trails are among the easiest ways to enjoy the area’s natural landscapes. Find peace and solitude or share an experience with family and friends while you run, walk, bike, or hike in natural serenity!
One of the region’s best known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail, the latter of which is featured in our Paddle Illinois Water Trails guide. Both trails connect through the Forest Preserves of Cook County as well as the DuPage Forest Preserves.
Whether by land or on the water, you will pass under shaded canopies, through open prairies and savanna, and through protected Illinois nature preserves along the Salt Creek Greenway Trail.