A common knock against the Chicago area is that ‘real’ nature seems far away. Aside from Lake Michigan — arguably the region’s best natural feature — it’s sprawling suburbs and monotonous cornfields in every direction. I have subscribed to this idea for years.
But it’s not really true. If you’re looking for nature a short drive from town, as I recently discovered, it’s possible to put together a wildlife-focused route through the suburbs from north to south, from the Wisconsin border to the Wisconsin border. Indiana. It’s certainly not backcountry, but I was amazed at how much of the natural world we found. There was also one big advantage: abundant restaurant options. It made for a weekend that tickled nature without the work of camp cooking.
Forty-five miles northwest of town, our first stop, Natural Area of the State of Volo Bog features “the only open water trembling swamp in Illinois,” according to the website. Basically, this means it is a body of acidic water largely covered with a floating mat of vegetation. In some places the mat is so thick that it can support trees such as tamarack, a type of larch. At the center of this floating forest is a small pond of open water, the last remnant of what was a much larger lake before the swamp took over. It’s called a trembling swamp because that’s what happens to vegetation when you step on it.
We were able to walk through this unique ecosystem thanks to the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail, a floating boardwalk that snaked through the park. I enjoyed the open water center the most. It took me to another place. For at least a few minutes, swamp birch, sphagnum moss, blueberries, and water lilies replaced traffic, power lines, agricultural fields, and subdivisions. It was like a small outpost of the Canadian boreal forest in the suburbs of Chicago. In fact, the trails were long enough that my kids started complaining about all the wildlife they had to walk through.
After brushing off the ticks, we drove for a few minutes to Fratello hot dogs in the town of Volo, where we feasted on Chicago-style hot dogs, cheeseburgers and fries, perfect examples of the genre. And my strawberry milkshake—with chunks of sliced strawberry so big they clogged my straw—was the perfect complement to our family’s leisurely drive to another wetland, this time a swamp, closely related to a swamp.
Clocking in at 43.1 acres, Ferson Creek Fen Nature Reserve was a patch of bird-filled wilderness tucked along the Fox River. Perhaps because of its small size and the fact that it was really a reserve (no playgrounds, barbecue grills, water fountains or bathrooms), it was almost empty. It turned out to be the place where I finally understood the difference between a swamp and a swamp – a swamp is essentially self-contained, but a swamp is a wetland in which water flows at least semi-regularly.
Of all the places we visited on our weekend trip, Ferson Creek Fen was a great example of the kind of discovery you make on a road trip. It was just a nice patch of wildlife along the river, with tall cottonwood trees protecting the wetland, hidden in plain sight of the Chicago suburbs.
By the end of our stop at Ferson Creek we were out and ready to relax at a campground. A few days earlier I had reserved a spot at Goodenow Grove . Nature Reserve near Crete, which is part of the southern suburb Will County’s Forest Reserves† Just steps from the Indiana border, Goodenow was about 20 miles from the city limits. I had never camped so close to the city. Thought we’d check it out and if it wasn’t the wildlife experience we were hoping for, we’d just go to a motel.
It turned out that our campsite in Goodenow was one of the best I’ve been to in years, even compared to campsites 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 an oak canopy.
We skipped the campfire cooking for dinner at Smokey Jo’s, a hopping restaurant/bar in Crete where every TV was tuned to the Chicago White Sox game. Squeezing my eyes shut as I ate my Bada Bing Italian Sausage sandwich, I felt like I could make out the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago in the distance.
The next morning we were back in Crete for breakfast at Wood’s Corner† Pancakes were the highlight. There was some tough bargaining with my daughters when I tried to convince them to give me extra servings of Dee’s Delight—a mix of pancakes, chocolate chips, and chocolate syrup—and best of all, cinnamon roll pancakes, which actually tasted like cinnamon rolls in flapjack shape.
It’s a good thing we had breakfast at Wood’s Corner so much as we needed it at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a huge prairie preserve managed by the US Forest Service. Just 45 miles from the city, it’s the largest stretch of prairie in the area, and an example of the Chicago area’s efforts to restore some of its lost wilderness. Formerly a munitions production area, Midewin is slowly being restored to what it was before becoming part of Chicagoland, a metropolitan area of 10 million people.
There are still traces of Midewin’s former life production TNT, such as roads and bunkers, but they are steadily being taken over by nature. This transition leaves the country feeling abandoned. At the same time, you can see the vibrancy of the restoration in the dense fields of the prairie, the roaming bison and the bright colors of the oriole in the orchard and the blue beak, two birds I have never seen in my urban garden.
On the day of our visit a heat wave rolled through and our pleasant 70 degree excursions at Volo Bog and Ferson Creek Fen the day before were replaced by 90 degree walks through tallgrass prairie that was not nearly high enough to protect us from the sun . It didn’t help that we ran out of water. But despite it being hot, thirsty and painful, it was clear that Midewin was worth a return trip.
Our last stop was a classic of the road trip experience: the local ice cream parlor. Located in agricultural land near Midewin, Minooka Creamery was the perfect stop after two days of hiking.
As we ate an ice cream on a picnic bench under a shade tree, home felt very far away. I felt content exhausted. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do now and couldn’t quite remember what we’d been doing a few hours earlier. In other words, it was a classic disconnect from everyday life – the kind of vacation experience that usually takes place after days of travel. It turned out that the ‘real’ nature was not far away at all. When we ran out of ice cream, we got into our dirty minibus and got home within the hour.