The official user's manual for sunshine

Urban Jungles: Sampling Chicago’s natural and manmade wonders by the dozen

Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips, User's Guide to Summer Add comments

By Shelly Ridenour

The hunter, weary from hacking through the road-rage safari that is Lake Shore Drive, scans the familiar terrain of the concrete jungle. Towering above and blocking out all traces of sunlight  are not trees but the massive monoliths he has come to know as “skyscrapers.” The natives scurry along, careful never to make eye contact lest they are accosted–not for their scalps, but for spare change. It is a sensory overload: the sound of honking cabs, the smell of bus exhaust, the occasional sight of a disarmingly domesticated pigeon. From tiny speakers hanging above the store windows of Marshall Field’s, the call of the wild blares forth; today it’s Toni Braxton, mooning over a broken heart. Donning his bravest gameface, our modern Hemingway takes a deep breath and reinforces his resolve. Today’s holy grail: to bag a restaurant wait time of less than thirty minutes.

Just another day in the Chicago “wilderness.”

The term may seem about as relevant as “jumbo shrimp,” but there actually is such a thing—at least according to the Chicago Wilderness consortium. Recently, the granola league came up with what it calls the Twelve Natural Wonders of the Chicago Wilderness. No, we’re not talking Sears, Hancock, Monadnock, et al; this is a serious collection of classic Midwest landscape–prairies, savannas and woodlands. Since we love dirt and plants as much as the next person, we couldn’t resist the temptation to check out this list. We even came up with some wonders of our own.

So, whether you’re itching to get back to nature or whether the very thought of purple loosestrife makes you itch; whether you’d rather hike a trail or a sidewalk; whether you’re into the song of the dunes or some honest-to-God Chicago blues, we’ve got the perfect summer day escapes—a combination of Chicago’s twelve natural wonders and their dozen man-made, citified parallels.

Climb every mountain
Physically fit over-achievers will experience an adrenaline rush at the very sights of Waterfall Glen, (630)942-6075, and Palos Preserves, (708)366-0420, a nearly 17,000-acre preserve southwest of Chicago that is a favorite of hikers, bikers and canoers. Best of all, you can perform superhuman acts of triathleticism along the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, admiring (or dodging) the overhead splendor of herons, egrets and flying squirrels—all while a chorus of frogs cheers you on.


Armchair athletes can make the ascent to the Museum of Science and Industry’s Omnimax Theater, 5700 Lake Shore Drive, (773)684-1414, for a showing of “Everest,” the new mammoth-screen extravaganza that takes viewers through ice falls, gaping crevasses and waist-deep snow. Better than being there? Hmmm… $11 for a ticket vs. thousands for the real thing; kicking back with popcorn and a Coke vs. laboring to breathe; air conditioning vs. numbing ice. And, chances are you’ll live through the film version.

Color riot
Flower lovers will go wild for Illinois Beach State Park, (847)662-4811, a stretch of dune and swale topography that is home to such celebrated floral and fauna as the white wild indigo, ragged fringed orchid, prairie lily and button blazing star. Bring your camera—and your antihistamine.


Spend the day absorbing the colorful sights of Chinatown and Pilsen, including the larger-than-life murals by local artists, featuring a palette of colors not found in nature. The Chicago Office of Tourism, (312)742-1190, offers a tour that includes a guided walk through the neighborhoods (stop off at an authentic Chinese bakery for a scrumptious almond biscuit) and a visit to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, the nation’s largest Mexican museum.

Nature buffs

Besides boasting  a National Natural Landmark (Volo Bog State Natural Area) and a Department of Natural Resources treasure (Chain O’ Lakes State Park), the Chain O’ Lakes region, (847)587-5512, Illinois’ largest concentration of natural lakes, is a damn fine place to escape the hectic race of urban life.


Why not take the day off and hang out at Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park? Just don’t get too romantic and attempt a fountain frolic;  the Chicago Police Department will slap cuffs on you quicker than you can say “Slip ’n’ Slide.” “That’s why there’s a fence around it. It looks like it would be a fun thing to do, and people are certainly tempted, but that’s a restricted area,” says Officer Patrick Camden. And that goes double for cavorting in the buff. “The nude thing would get you arrested even before you got in the fountain.”

Prairie style
The self-proclaimed “Prairie Capital of the Prairie State,” the 300-acre cluster of land known as Indian Boundary Prairies, (312)346-8166, proves why the Depression was a good thing. Were it not for the stifled economy of the thirties, this globally significant natural asset–with its eastern tallgrass, regal fritillary, bunch grass skipper and dreamy dusk wing–would surely have been plowed down to make room for yet another suburban subdivision.


Tour a prairie of a different kind–namely the Prairie Avenue Historic District, the Near South Side neighborhood that underwent a remarkable cycle of growth, decay and subsequent rebirth around the turn of the century. An eclectically diverse walking tour, sponsored by the Chicago Office of Tourism, (312)742-1190, visits the oldest building in Chicago (Clarke House), the “crown jewel of the Arts and Crafts movement in the Midwest” (Second Presbyterian Church, with its Tiffany-designed stained glass), the National Vietnam Veterans Arts Museum, and the area once known as “Record Row”—a vital part of the original Chicago blues scene.

Watch this

Animal lovers turned off by the caged confines of a zoo will feel right at home at Ryerson Conservation Area, (847)948-7750, a sprawling Lake County Forest Preserve in northeastern Illinois. More than sixty-four types of nesting birds, sixteen mammal varieties, nine kinds of reptile and seven amphibian species make their home by the Des Plaines River. Don’t know a red-shouldered hawk from a red-headed stepchild? Stop by the visitor center and check out the exhibits.


Grab a cup of joe and a window table at the second-floor cafe of Borders Books on the corner of  Michigan and Pearson, 830 North Michigan Avenue, for the city’s ultimate people-watching experience.

Untouched beauty
A favorite with nature photographers for its overwhelming carpet of wildflowers, Messenger Woods, (815)727-8700, a 947-acre bottomland rolling along glacial hill terrain in Lockport, is one of the few remaining forests in northeastern Illinois untouched by grazing, cutting or development.


A favorite with blues purists, the Fish Market open-jam sessions are untouched by ego, commercialism or boundaries—the crowd’s as interesting a cross-section of the city as you’ll find anywhere. Every Friday and Saturday summer night, old-school musicians and young turks from all over the city gather in a barren lot at Kedzie Street and Jackson Boulevard, across from the Delta Fish Market, 228 South Kedzie, (773)722-0588, to wail on the blues. It’s all free, but be sure to show your appreciation when the hat gets passed.

Back to nature

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, (219)926-7561, may be best known for its stretches of uncrowded beach, but it is the crazy quilt of colliding ecosystems—dunes meet woodlands meet bogs meet savannas meet forests meet prairies—that intrigues nature lovers. Tree huggers will be happy to know that projects are underway to preserve the IDNL’s nature processes, despite the human alterations of harbors and industry.


Where industry meets nature… sounds like a play on Louis Sullivan’s transcendentalist idea of architecture as nature. Pay respects to—and fawn over the works of—the godfather of the skyscraper, when the Chicago Architectural Foundation, (312)922-3432, offers in-depth tours of two of Sullivan’s most famous design creations: Carson Pirie Scott (July 11) and the Auditorium Building (July 18).

What in the world?

What the hell’s a glacial kettlehole anyway? Nelson Lake Marsh, (847)741-8350, near Batavia, had its beginnings more than 10,000 years ago as just that; since then the area has developed into a peaceful and rare living marsh—nature’s way of cleaning the water and wildlife.


What the hell is that fifty-three-foot-tall pink thing on Federal Plaza? The Chicago Architectural Foundation, (312)922-3432, offers a Loop Sculpture Tour, from Calder’s  “Flamingo” to the famously untitled Picasso to Chagall’s “Four Seasons” to “Miro’s Chicago.” (Call for dates.) You’ve lived here HOW long, and you’ve never actually seen the Miro?

Horsing around
North Branch Woodlands & Prairies offers a chance to be at one with nature within the city limits. From Chicago’s North Side to Northbrook, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, (708)366-9420, encompasses a rich diversity of vanishing ecosystems. How rich? In a single square-meter sample plot (about the size of a hula hoop) thirty types of flowers were found.


Nature in the city? Get outta here. No, really. Head west (where else but Cicero?) to the Sporstman’s Park Race Track–3301 South Laramie, (773)242-1121; open March-June—and Hawthorne Race Course—3501 South Laramie, (708)780-3708; open July-November—for a day of bets, beer and ’breds—and the longest homestretch (Sportsman’s) in America. Giddyap!

Serenity players
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, (815)423-6370, the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie, may not be the most exciting place in the world (it’s a preservation, not a park), but it is pure serenity.


Make the serene pilgrimage to Oak Park and River Forest, home of the highest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world,  to trace the evolution of architecture’s Prairie Style. The Chicago Architectural Foundation, (312)922-3432, offers a bus and walking tour focusing on the exteriors of more than twenty-five houses designed between 1892 and 1913, when Wright’s concepts were changing the face of the American family home. (Offered one Saturday a month. Call for dates and times. CAF also offers walking tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park every Sunday. Call for times.)

The past reborn

Poplar Creek Forest Preserve, (708)366-9420, pocketed in the northwest corner of Cook County, is a popular “rustic” picnic site; behind the scenes, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County is working hard at habitat restoration of remnant oak savanna and prairie that was farmed for 100 years. Look for the first visible results, a rehabbed wet prairie and sedge meadow area at the heart of the preserve, later this year.


Too bad such fancified habitat restoration wasn’t afforded Maxwell Street Market (Canal and Roosevelt, every Sunday from 7am-3pm), the vibrant flea market-cum-street fair that overran the South Side corner of Maxwell and Halsted for eighty years and inspired everyone from Carl Sandburg to Benny Goodman to a plethora of bluesmen. Even though the University of Illinois, Chicago, shoved the market out of its old location, the new (though smaller) Maxwell Street Market hasn’t lost all of its colorful character or attitude. Amazing Mexican chilies, dirt-cheap folk art and religious icons, tube socks, used bikes, authentic Chicago blues, and shoppers of every shape, color and size make for a waking Fellini dream.

Top-flight fun
Where else can you trek your way though oak savanna, restored prairie, and marsh and bog ecosystems in one day, all while the Nippersink Creek winds it way alongside the trail? A hiker’s heaven, Glacial Park, (815)678-4431, spans 2,800 acres of the McHenry County Conservation District near Richmond. But the real highlights are those crazy glacial kames. The ancient sand-and-gravel geologic formations are the ultimate narcissistic temptation; you know you want to climb to the top and shout out: “I’m the king of the world!”


The Hancock Tower, 875 North Michigan Avenue, (312)751-3681, offers a fresh reason to zoom up to the 94th floor and shout from the rooftop—the observatory was renovated last year, adding an open-air Skywalk. If you haven’t been to the top since your Aunt Martha came to visit from Waukegan, it’s time to clear out the winter cobwebs with a God’s-eye view of landmarks from Soldier Field to the Sears Tower to remind yourself, “Wow. I live here.”

For information on the Natural Wonders Nature Walks, call (708)485-0263, ext. 396.

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