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.
Just an hour’s drive from the heart of Chicago, Illinois Beach State Park is home to six and a half miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. This 4,160-acre, two-unit natural area offers abundant and scenic recreational opportunities, with hiking and biking trails replete with wildlife, access to Illinois’ largest marina, swimming beaches, picnic shelters, and campsites. With expansive dunes and swales, marshes, prairie, and black oak forests, Illinois Beach State Park’s diverse ecosystems contain over 650 plant species, shoreline birds, and rich aquatic wildlife.
The park’s northern unit is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, and offers lengthy biking and hiking trails, fishing at Sand Pond, and public access to Lake Michigan via North Point Marina. The southern unit contains extensive camping and picnic areas, nature trails along mixed wetlands and dunes, and a scenic overlook along the Dead River, a perfect spot for birding.
The Lake Michigan dunes area was originally part of the “Three Fires” of the Algonquin Nation. In 1836, the area was incorporated into Lake County as the result of a treaty with local indigenous peoples. Preservation efforts have been in place since 1888, with southern unit established in 1964 as the first Illinois Nature Preserve. Nature Preserves like Illinois Beach represent the highest quality habitat in Illinois. The northern unit was acquired between 1971 and 1982. For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for and helped to protect the shoreline ecosystems of Lake Michigan.
Located across Winthrop Harbor, Zion, and Benton Township, Illinois Beach State Park is owned and operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Just over an hour from the Chicago Loop lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (IDNL). IDNL spans over 15,000 total acres, which include 15 miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline, and 50 miles of trails. The landscape of this area was shaped over 14,000 years ago by the last great continental glacier, and today includes dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, rivers, and forests. The biological diversity within Indiana Dunes is among the highest per unit of any site in the National Parks system. Over 350 species of birds have been observed, 113 of which are considered to be regular nesters, along with more than 1,100 native plant species. In addition to these plant and bird species, Indiana Dunes is home to 46 mammals species, 18 amphibians, 23 different reptiles, 71 species of fish, 60 butterflies, 60 dragonflies/damselflies, and countless other vital species.
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 Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Openlands played an integral role in this designation. Today, extensive conservation work continues at Indiana Dunes in the forms of water quality monitoring, wetlands restoration, invasive species removal, and preventing shoreline erosion.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is owned and operated by the National Park Service. Entrance and permit fees apply.
Just under an hour and a half from the Chicago Loop lies Glacial Park, encompassing 3,400 acres of restored open space including prairie, wetlands, oak savanna, and delta kames. Over 400 of these acres are dedicated nature preserve and home to 40 state-endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Additionally, Glacial Park is ranked as one of the top five locations in the region to view migratory birds.
The Nippersink Creek also runs through Glacial Park, providing excellent opportunities for both fishing and paddling. As McHenry County Conservation District’s most popular land holding, Glacial Park attracts over 64,000 annual visitors. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities from horseback riding to outdoor concerts near the visitor center.
Currently, Glacial Park is the best way to experience Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hackmatack was designated as a refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 and will span over 11,200 acres once complete. Hackmatack will be built around existing conservation lands such as Glacial Park. This park is a prime example of the habitat and wildlife Hackmatack aims to protect.
Sitting just over 15 miles from the heart of the Loop and straddling the Illinois-Indiana border, Wolf Lake is part of a network of recreation areas on Chicago’s south side. Over the years, Openlands has worked to expand the area’s trail system, which connects communities such as Hegewisch, South Deering and Whiting, and we encourage you to discover Wolf Lake for yourself!
The origin of the lake’s name is unknown, but local residents have offered a few theories: some believe that “Wolf” was a Native American chief while others contend that years ago the surrounding area was teeming with wolves. Neither of these claims have been verified, but they still offer an interesting look into the lake’s history.
Wolf Lake also lies in the heart of the Calumet region, a natural area of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna. Openlands has focused on empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources. As we promote a regional culture of conservation, Openlands has helped to develop an interconnected network of protected greenways and trails and to restore public access to the region’s natural treasures.
The area around Wolf Lake is home to numerous open spaces, recreational opportunities, and cultural institutions, including two sites managed by the National Park Service. The area is easy to reach no matter where you’re coming from, and there is plenty to enjoy for an entire weekend.
Sitting quietly on the shores of Lake Michigan, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary – the Magic Hedge – is home to a vast array of bird species. As of January 2017 over 320 species of birds have been identified at Montrose Point. Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts recently voted the sanctuary as the best place for birding in Illinois, and one could argue that this is one of the top birding locations in the entire Great Lakes region.
Situated along the border of the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway, the Great Lakes region is immensely important for migratory birds. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water provide stopover points for these birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents. There are many of these stop-over points within Chicago’s city limits – Jackson Park, Humboldt Park, Lake Calumet and Labagh Woods are especially active during spring and fall migration – but Montrose Point is one that stands above the rest.
A bird sanctuary that jets out into Lake Michigan serves is a funnel for birds as they travel over Lake Michigan, looking for green space that is somewhat sparse in our area. Bird lovers were the ones who gave Montrose Point the Magic Hedge nickname and for good reason. This sanctuary truly is a gem and worth discovering for yourself.
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.