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.


Old plank map

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.

Have You Discovered Volo Bog?

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.

Have You Discovered Oak Openings Nature Preserve?

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.

Have You Discovered Starved Rock State Park?

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.

Have You Discovered North Park Village Nature Center?

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 Discovered the Salt Creek Greenway Trail?

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.