The open spaces of the Midwestern landscape have always been crucial to the quality of life in our region. The Chicago Wilderness Region boasts many different and superb ways for people to be connected with nature. Openlands believes these spaces ought to be protected and enjoyed by all.
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.
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.
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 2016, TreeKeeper Ed Zimkus noticed something peculiar happening to the trees on his block. Ed lives in West Edgewater, a typical Chicago neighborhood with countless tree-lined streets, but even when Ed became a certified TreeKeeper, he never expected to find himself in a fight to save all 13 trees on one side of the block. The following was written by TreeKeeper Ed.
It started in 2016, when I discovered spray-painted magenta dots at the base of many of our block’s parkway trees. The dots continued for a couple of blocks and around the corner. I had no luck in getting answers from the ward office about who sprayed the dots or what they meant. No one seemed to know. I let it ride until this March, when I became alarmed at the spray-painted green stripe running down the middle of our parkway the length of the block. A couple of trees – both of them healthy – had big green X’s on the trunks. It didn’t look good.
Eventually I learned that the Chicago Department of Water Management is in the midst of a 10-year program to replace century-old water mains all across the city. Their goal is to replace 30 miles of water mains a year. It’s a huge, expensive undertaking, and who can argue with updating the city infrastructure? If a couple of our parkway trees were going to be collateral damage, my main concern was minimizing the root damage to the remaining trees on the block. I emailed the Ward Office asking that someone from the Bureau of Forestry be consulted to help protect the remaining trees, as I had learned from the TreeKeepers training. Yet I heard nothing back until the Department of Water Management returned to our block a few weeks later. This time they marked a big green X on every single parkway tree. The supposed final word is that the devastating result of a new water main is going to be zero trees on our side of the block. No shade. No birds. No beauty.
As a home-owner and tree lover, I couldn’t give up so easily. The more I talked to neighbors and my Openlands connections, the more I got swept up in an activist role. I’m learning as I go, with the outcome still in question, but if trees in your neighborhood become threatened, this much I can share:
There’s Strength in Numbers: Rally your neighbors to email or phone your Alderman. You can’t stop the construction, but say you want them to explore every option to save as many trees as possible. I dropped off flyers on porches and posted on our neighborhood website, and the response was quite positive. This prompted our alderman to forward a letter from the water department commissioner to everyone who expressed concern.
The water commissioner said there was nothing to be done, and unfortunately the trees had to go. However, I knew enough from talking to my contacts that there are options. This led to me drafting a petition asking for a meeting with the alderman, representatives from the Chicago Department of Water Management, the Bureau of Forestry, and residents all present – preferably on site. With so much to lose, we wanted to have all our questions answered before the trees are taken down.
Start gathering knowledge and taking pictures: Document whatever helps your case. Many neighbors take their parkway trees for granted, so be sure to remind them what they stand to lose unless they speak up. Your neighborhood trees have real value as property assets. Trees sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, they soak up rainwater to reduce flooding, and reduce the “heat island” effect in neighborhoods, and mature trees won’t be replaced for decades. Learn whatever you can about the options. (For instance, I’m trying to find out how wide a water main trench has to be.)
Understand it’s all about money: The water main upgrade is so big, subcontractors outside of the city are being contracted, with low bids getting the job. The faster they make it go, the more money they make. They’re not really worried about our parkway trees. Make a monetary case for the value of the trees as property assets. Removing and replacing decades-old trees is expensive. Imagine the change in cooling costs to your home. Ask about the cost of any construction options that might save the trees. (In our case, I want to know why the new water main can’t be in the street instead of the parkway, like it is throughout most of the city. Aren’t they just perpetuating the planting and removal of parkway trees with every future pipe issue?) Let them come back to you with costs. Don’t be inflexible or angry, or you risk alienating your alderman, who may want to find a solution for all. But make noise. The city departments and contractors are all counting on apathy to make their jobs easier.
Finally, know that there is a chance we may not win, but losing is certain if we don’t speak up.
Openlands Forestry team has planted more than 4,500 trees across the Chicago region since 2013. With the help of our TreeKeepers volunteers, we are the active stewards of Chicago’s urban forest. If you are concerned about tree removals in your neighborhood, please contact TreeKeepers@Openlands.org.
Openlands’ popular Explore Your Lakes and Rivers paddling series is back this summer! Explore Your Lakes and Rivers is designed to acquaint local residents with the water trails surrounding them in the Chicago and Calumet areas. Whether for river cleanups, educational opportunities, or just for fun, these paddling events have brought families out on the water across the area.
Openlands facilitates paddling events and workshops around the region at local parks, along the region’s water trails, or in county forest preserves. These workshops are open to the public, free of charge, and are often coupled with volunteer and stewardship opportunities such as a park cleanup or river cleanup. With the assistance of several partners, canoes and kayaks are provided and first-time paddlers are encouraged to join us!
Openlands has a series of workshops and paddling events set for summer 2018! Mark your calendars with the dates below and be sure to email firstname.lastname@example.org so we can keep you up-to-date as we finalize plans for these trips.
Join us on Saturday, June 2 for our first event of the year, our annual cleanup of the Little Calumet River launching from Kickapoo Woods! We will be removing trash and debris from the Little Calumet River from our canoes, and free canoe and kayak lessons will be offered to volunteers. The section of the Little Calumet that flows through Kickapoo Woods is a shallow stream, great for beginners and families with children. It is also a great place to see wildlife such as turtles and great blue herons.
This summer we will also host a series of paddling events on Lake Michigan! Enjoy the trail by paddling on Lake Michigan in large, guided, beginner-appropriate voyageur canoes, and learn about opportunities for recreation, education, and stewardship along Illinois’ northern Lake Michigan coast! All events include beginner-friendly paddling experiences and other family friendly activities. People of all ages, skill levels, and abilities are welcome – bring your family and connect to Lake Michigan! Learn more…
- Saturday, June 30, 11am – 4pm, North Point Marina, 701 North Point Drive, Winthrop Harbor, IL 60096
- Sunday, July 1, 11am – 4pm, Illinois Beach State Park, enter on Wadsworth Road, 1/5 mile east of Sheridan Road, Zion, IL 60099
- Friday, August 3, 1 – 7pm, Waukegan Harbor, 55 S. Harbor Place, Waukegan, IL 60085
Be sure to sign up to receive Openlands’ newsletter for information on upcoming paddling events!
Ready to explore the Water Trails of Northeastern Illinois for yourself? Visit Openlands’ online paddling guide and start exploring these waterways this weekend! Like Explore Your Lakes and Rivers events, the guide is designed to be inclusive for first-time paddlers, and is a free and open resource for the public.
The online guide contains step-by-step trip descriptions for non-motorized boating on over 500 miles of trails on 10 of the region’s waterways. The website can help you plan your next paddling trip by providing information on important features of each waterway, locations of water trail put-ins and take-outs, trip length and difficulty, and equipment rental locations.
The website also provides easy-to-use, interactive maps for each trail, indicating launch sites, dams, and skill levels along the trail. To make your trip as enjoyable as possible, the guide also notes trail extensions, shorter alternative trips, and opportunities to view wildlife and landmarks. Paddlers may also leave comments on each waterway page to share their paddling tips.
With the guide’s help, you’ll be prepared to visit some of the highest quality aquatic habitat along the Kishwaukee River, paddle on Little Calumet River through Kickapoo Woods, and take the Fox River to Silver Springs State Park. Openlands’ guide has detailed resources and trips for everyone, even if you’ve never paddled before.
With trails on Nippersink Creek winding through Glacial Park, to trips on the Chicago River in the heart of the city, northeastern Illinois’ Water Trails are waiting to be explored.
Paddling events are all open to the public and we encourage you to join us at the next paddling day, even if you are a first-time paddler! For more information on Explore Your Lakes and Rivers, please contact email@example.com.
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.
On September 16, the Openlands Advisory Council hosted a guided hike through the parks and community gardens of Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. The hike highlighted our interwoven efforts to connect people to nature where they live by exploring green space in urban areas. “Hiking” typically triggers images of winding trails, quiet forests, and unexpected vistas. But nature surrounds us, even in the heart of the city, and is just as compelling.
The 2017 #ChiUrbanHike began at Mitchell Elementary School, where hikers learned about our Building School Gardens program, Openlands’ long-standing partnership with Chicago Public Schools to create spaces for students to learn and opportunities to engage with communities. The stop at Mitchell Elementary included a bird walk exemplary of Openlands’ Birds in my Neighborhood® program, one of our environmental education efforts designed to facilitate students’ daily interactions with nature. From there, groups headed out along parkways, through gardens, and under tree canopies.
“Our goal with the first-ever ChiUrbanHike was to demonstrate to Chicago’s residents how close at-hand nature is to any urban dweller, and how important it is for all of us,” explained Advisory Council member Dinesh Goburdhun.
The next stop on the hike was the Monarch Community Garden, where we shared stories of our work through the years to create and support community gardens throughout Chicago. We discussed the importance of pollinators in everyday life and learned about ways to support local pollinator conservation. Finally, we made our way to Chicago’s Humboldt Park where TreeKeepers shared information on our TreePlanters Grants program and led a short tree ID walk.
The 2017 #ChiUrbanHike then ended, as all good hikes do, with local beer and snacks at the Boathouse. “The inaugural ChiUrbanHike was a huge success,” continued Dinesh. “By the end of the afternoon, nearly 70 people had experienced the benefits of the trees, gardens, parks, and wildlife throughout the West Town and Humboldt Park neighborhoods. We all came away excited to discover more and to share that excitement with other Chicagoans.”
You can check out our best photos from the day above and see what hikers shared on Instagram.
Openlands is currently exploring different ways we can share the route of the hike as well as the information shared by our guides with the public so that everyone can explore the nature around them in Chicago.
Many thanks to our sponsors Boxed Water, KIND Snacks, and Goose Island Brewery for their support along the way and at the post-hike happy hour, and to both Mitchell Elementary and the Monarch Community Garden for sharing their spaces. Openlands thanks our Advisory Council members for their leadership in planning and hosting the inaugural #ChiUrbanHike.
If you are interested in learning more about the programs discussed along the way, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention the hike!
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.
The following entry was written by Openlands Education Programs Coordinator, John Cawood. In his position, John helps to manage our Birds in my Neighborhood® program.
Want to go on a self-guided bird walk? Here are some tips!
Recently I had the joy of leading a bird walk with fourth grade students in Ms. Coleman’s class at Lavizzo Elementary, as a part of Openlands Birds in my Neighborhood Program. Lavizzo is in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on the south side, just west of Lake Calumet, and there is a high level of bird activity year-round. How do I know? The kids told me! They told me of the sparrows, blue jays, robins, cardinals, hawks, ducks, and geese that they had seen in their neighborhood. They told me that sometimes the birds are building nests, looking for food, singing in the trees, or soaring high in the sky. Then each student researched a bird and told me all about what they had learned.
Before we went out on a bird walk around the schoolyard, they also told me what you need to do in order to see birds. Here are their suggestions:
- Be quiet, so that you don’t scare the birds away. Also, if you are quiet then you might even be able to hear them sing.
- Try not to shout when you see a bird; just point so that other people can see the bird too.
- Be sneaky. Move slowly and quietly so you don’t scare the birds away.
- Be observant. Birds could be on the ground, behind a bush, in a tree, or in the sky, so look everywhere!
- If you are using binoculars, be very careful with them. Make sure they are focused so that you can see through them clearly.
- If the others in your group don’t seem to be doing the things you need to do to see birds, quietly remind them. That if they are observant, quiet, and slow moving, everyone has a better chance of seeing more birds.
This is a great list! Ms. Coleman has a lot of smart kids in her class. If you decide to go on a bird walk in your neighborhood, using their list will definitely help you to see more birds.
If you are looking for suggestions for binoculars (you don’t need binoculars to see birds, but they do help with Rule #4 on the Lavizzo List), Birds in my Neighborhood uses the Leupold BX-1 Yosemite 8×30 model. They cost around $100, and are very sturdy and easy to hold on to. You can also hit Rule #4 by going birding with multiple people. Having a larger group presumably means that there are more eyes looking around for birds, but don’t forget Rule #6!
If you need a guide to help you along the way, Forest Preserves of Cook County offer a printable bird ID checklist. Our friends at the Field Museum offer some excellent guides to ID common Chicagoland birds including common sparrows, common winter birds, and common summer birds.
Lastly, don’t let these lists intimidate you – one of the best parts of birding is that anyone can do it!
Where to Go
During migratory season in the spring (April-June) and in the fall (September-October), there is no better birding spot in the Chicago area, and arguably the entire Great Lakes region, than Chicago’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. If you travel further north, Illinois Beach State Park provides great birding opportunities along Lake Michigan, as well as in its expansive wetlands. 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 like at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, or Deer Grove East are great locations to find birds. But you can even witness an impressive array of birds in a local park or in your neighborhood. Be sure to post the list of everything you see on www.ebird.org, and check out their hotspot map, which shows what everyone else is seeing in your area.
Bird life in the Chicago region is breathtaking at this time of year, so have a wonderful time on your trip – be it in your own neighborhood, at your local park or forest preserve, or at a larger natural area.
Finally, if you’re a photographer or avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and show the world the birds you spot! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on Openlands’ stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.
Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.
For more information, please contact email@example.com.