A common blow to the Chicago area is that “real” nature seems far away. Aside from Lake Michigan — arguably the region’s best natural feature — there are sprawling suburbs and monotonous cornfields in every direction. I’ve been following this idea for years.
But it’s not really true. If you’re looking for nature just a short drive from the city, I recently discovered you can put together a nature-centric itinerary through the north-south suburbs, running from the Wisconsin border to the Indiana border. It’s certainly not an outback, but I was surprised at how much nature we found. There was also a major benefit: plentiful restaurant options. It was a weekend that scratched nature’s itch without the work of camp cooking.
Forty-five miles northwest of town, our first stop, the Volo Bog State Natural Area features “the only open-water quake bog in Illinois,” according to its website. In short, this means that it is a body of acidic water, mostly covered by a floating mat of vegetation. In some places, the mat is thick enough to support trees like Tamarack, a species of larch. In the middle of this floating forest is a small open-water pond, the last remnant of a much larger lake before the bog took over. It’s called Tremor Bog because that’s what happens to vegetation when you step on it.
We were able to hike through this unique ecosystem thanks to the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail, a floating boardwalk that meandered through the park. I liked the Open Water Center the best. It took me to a different place. For at least a few minutes, swamp birch, peat moss, highbush blueberry, and water lilies replaced traffic, power lines, agricultural fields, and settlements. It was like a little outpost of Canada’s boreal forests in the suburbs of Chicago. In fact, the paths were so long that my kids started complaining about the nature they had to walk through.
After removing the ticks, we drove a few minutes to Fratello’s Hot Dogs in the town of Volo, where we enjoyed Chicago-style hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and fries that were perfect examples of the genre. And my strawberry milkshake—with chopped strawberry chunks so big they clogged my straw—was the perfect accompaniment to our family’s leisurely drive to another wetland, this time a bog closely related to a bog.
Covering 43.1 acres, the Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve was a piece of bird-rich wilderness tucked away along the Des Plaines River. Perhaps because of its small size and the fact that it was truly a nature reserve (no playgrounds, grills, water fountains, or bathrooms), it was almost empty. It turns out that was where I finally understood the difference between a bog and a bog – a bog is essentially self-contained, but a bog is a wetland that has at least semi-regular water flows into it.
Of all the places we visited on our weekend getaway, Ferson Creek Fen was a great example of the kind of discovery you make on a road trip. It was just a pretty stretch of wilderness along the river, with tall cottonwood trees standing protectively over the wetland, hidden within sight of the Chicago suburbs.
By the end of our stop at Ferson Creek, we’d migrated and ready to relax at a campsite. A few days earlier I had reserved a site at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve near Crete, which is part of the Forest Preserves in the southern suburb of Will County. Just a stone’s throw from the Indiana border, Goodenow was about 20 miles from the city limits. I have never camped so close to the city. I figured we’d check it out and if it’s not the nature experience we were hoping for, we’ll just go to a motel.
As it turned out, our campground in Goodenow was one of the best I’ve stayed at in years, even compared to campgrounds many hours away. It was well maintained, well wooded, and not crowded at all, even on Memorial Day weekend – the perfect place to play soccer with my kids and lounge in a hammock under a canopy of oak trees.
We skipped campfire cooking for dinner at Smokey Jo’s, a lively Crete restaurant/bar where every TV was tuned to the Chicago White Sox game. When I squinted while eating my Bada Bing Italian Sausage Sandwich, I thought I could see downtown Chicago’s skyscrapers in the distance.
The next morning we were back in Crete for breakfast at Wood’s Corner. Pancakes were the standout. There was tough negotiation with my daughters as I tried to convince them to give me extra helpings of Dee’s Delight — a mix of pancakes, chocolate chips, and chocolate syrup — and best of all, pancakes with cinnamon rolls that really tasted like cinnamon buns in flapjack -Shape.
It’s a good thing we ate so much breakfast at Wood’s Corner because we needed it in Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a vast prairie reserve managed by the US Forest Service. Just 45 miles from the city, it is the largest stretch of prairie in the area and one that exemplifies the Chicago area’s efforts to reclaim some of the lost wilderness. Midewin was formerly a munitions manufacturing area and is slowly being restored to what it was before it became part of Chicagoland, a metropolitan area of 10 million people.
There are still signs of Midewin’s former life as a TNT producer, such as roads and bunkers, but they are increasingly being taken over by nature. This transition gives the country a deserted feel. At the same time, you can see the vibrancy of the restoration in the dense prairie fields, the roaming bison, and the vibrant colors of the orchard oriole and the blue hawfinch, two birds I’ve never seen in my backyard in the city.
A heat wave rolled through on the day of our visit and our pleasant 70 degree field trips at Volo Bog and Ferson Creek Fen the day before were replaced by 90 degree hikes through tall grass prairie nowhere near high enough to accommodate us shade The sun. It didn’t help that we ran out of water. But although it had been hot, thirsty and sore, it was clear that Midewin was worth the return journey.
Our final stop was a classic of the road trip experience: the local ice cream shop. Located in farmland near Midewin, Minooka Creamery was the perfect stop after two days of hiking.
As we ate ice cream on a picnic bench under a shady tree, home felt very far away. I felt satisfied exhausted. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do next and couldn’t exactly remember what we had been doing just hours before. In other words, it was a classic disconnect—the kind of vacation experience that usually happens after days of travel. As it turned out, “real” nature wasn’t that far away. Once our ice cream was ready, we piled into our dirty minivan and got home within an hour.