One frequent knock in opposition to the Chicago space is that “real” nature appears far-off. Apart from Lake Michigan — arguably the area’s greatest pure attribute — it’s sprawling suburbs and monotone fields of corn in each path. I’ve subscribed to this concept for years.
But it’s not truly true. If you’re searching for nature inside a brief drive of town, as I not too long ago found, it’s attainable to piece collectively a nature-focused itinerary by means of the suburbs north to south, touring from the border with Wisconsin to the border with Indiana. It is definitely not backcountry, however I used to be stunned at how a lot of the pure world we discovered. There was additionally a giant benefit: bountiful restaurant choices. It made for a weekend that scratched the character itch with out the labor of camp cooking.
Forty-five miles northwest of town, our first cease, Volo Bog State Natural Area options “the only open-water quaking bog in Illinois,” in accordance to its web site. Briefly, because of this it’s a physique of acidic water principally coated by a floating mat of vegetation. In some locations, the mat is so thick it will probably help bushes like tamarack, a sort of larch. In the center of this floating forest is a small pond of open water, the final remnant of what was a a lot bigger lake earlier than the bathroom took over. It’s referred to as a quaking bathroom as a result of that’s what occurs to the vegetation while you step on it.
We have been ready to stroll by means of this distinctive ecosystem thanks to the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail, a floating boardwalk that wound by means of the park. I loved the open water heart essentially the most. It transported me to a distinct place. For a couple of minutes at the very least, bathroom birch, sphagnum moss, highbush blueberry and water lilies changed visitors, electrical strains, agricultural fields and subdivisions. It was like a little bit outpost of Canada’s boreal forests within the Chicago suburbs. The trails have been even lengthy sufficient that my kids began complaining about all the character that they had to stroll by means of.
After disregarding ticks, we drove a couple of minutes to Fratello’s Hot Dogs within the city of Volo, the place we feasted on Chicago-style sizzling canine, cheeseburgers and fries that have been excellent examples of the style. And my strawberry milkshake — with items of minimize up strawberry so large they clogged my straw — was the right accompaniment to our household’s relaxed drive to one other wetland, this time a fen, which is a detailed relation to a bathroom.
Clocking in at 43.1 acres, Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve was a sliver of bird-filled wilderness tucked alongside the Fox River. Perhaps due to its diminutive dimension and the truth that it was actually a protect (no playgrounds, barbecue grills, water fountains or bogs), it was almost empty. It turned out to be the place the place I lastly understood the distinction between a bathroom and a fen — a bathroom is basically self-contained, however a fen is a wetland into which water flows on at the very least a semiregular foundation.
Out of all of the locations we visited on our weekend journey, Ferson Creek Fen was an incredible instance of the form of discovery you make whereas on a street journey. It was only a fairly slice of untamed alongside the river, with tall cottonwood bushes standing protectively over the wetland, hidden within the plain sight of Chicago’s suburbs.
By the top of our cease in Ferson Creek, we have been hiked-out and prepared to calm down at a campsite. Just a few days earlier than, I had reserved a spot at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve close to Crete, which is a part of south suburban Will County’s Forest Preserves. Just a stone’s throw from the border with Indiana, Goodenow was about 20 miles from town limits. I had by no means camped this shut to town. I figured we’d test it out and if it wasn’t the character expertise we have been hoping for, we’d simply go to a motel.
As it turned out, our campsite at Goodenow was among the finest I’ve been to in years, even as compared with campsites many hours farther away. It was well-maintained, well-treed and not crowded in any respect, even on Memorial Day weekend — the right place for pickup soccer with my kids and for lounging in a hammock beneath a cover of oak bushes.
We skipped campfire cooking for dinner at Smokey Jo’s, a hopping restaurant/bar in Crete the place each TV was tuned to the Chicago White Sox recreation. If I squinted whereas consuming my Bada Bing Italian Sausage sandwich, it felt like I may make out the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago within the distance.
The subsequent morning, we have been again in Crete for breakfast at Wood’s Corner. Pancakes have been the standout. There have been robust negotiations with my daughters as I attempted to persuade them to give me extra parts of Dee’s Delight — a mash-up of pancakes, chocolate chips and chocolate syrup — and better of all, cinnamon rolls pancakes, which actually did style like cinnamon rolls in flapjack type.
It’s a very good factor we ate a lot breakfast at Wood’s Corner, as a result of we wanted it at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a large prairie protect managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Only 45 miles from town, it’s the largest parcel of prairie within the space, and one which exemplifies the Chicago area’s makes an attempt to get better a number of the wilderness it has misplaced. Formerly a munitions manufacturing space, Midewin is slowly being restored to what it was earlier than it grew to become a part of Chicagoland, a metropolitan space of 10 million individuals.
There are nonetheless indicators of Midewin’s former life manufacturing TNT, corresponding to roads and bunkers, however they’re steadily being taken over by nature. This transition provides the land an deserted really feel. At the identical time, you may see the vibrancy of the restoration within the thick fields of prairie, the roaming bison and the intense coloring of the orchard oriole and the blue grosbeak, two birds I’ve by no means seen in my metropolis yard.
On the day of our go to, a warmth wave rolled by means of and our nice, 70-degree excursions at Volo Bog and Ferson Creek Fen the day earlier than have been changed by 90-degree hikes by means of tallgrass prairie that was nowhere close to tall sufficient to shade us from the solar. It didn’t assist that we ran out of water. But regardless of being sizzling, thirsty and footsore, it was clear that Midewin was worthy of a return journey.
Our ultimate cease was a basic of the street journey expertise: the native ice cream parlor. Located in farming nation close to Midewin, Minooka Creamery was the right cease after two days of mountain climbing.
As we ate ice cream on a picnic bench underneath a shade tree, house felt very far-off. I felt contentedly exhausted. I wasn’t certain what we’d do subsequent and couldn’t fairly bear in mind what we had been doing solely hours earlier than. In different phrases, it was a basic disconnect from every day life — the form of trip expertise that often occurs after days of journey. As it turned out, “real” nature wasn’t far-off in any respect. Once our ice cream was completed, we piled into our road-trip dirtied minivan and arrived house inside the hour.