Nature and Camping Trips from Chicago

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.

Indiana. But it’s not 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. 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, Volo Bog State Natural Area, features “the only open water vibrating swamp in Illinois,” according to the website. This means it is a body of acidic water largely covered with a floating mat of vegetation. In some places, the carpet 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 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 could 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. Swamp birches, sphagnum moss, blueberries, and water lilies replaced traffic, power lines, agricultural fields, and subdivisions for a few minutes. It was like a small outpost of the Canadian boreal forest in the suburbs of Chicago. 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 a few minutes to Fratello’s Hot Dogs in the town of Volo, where we feasted on Chicago-style hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and fries that were perfect examples of the genre. And my strawberry milkshake—with chunks of sliced ​​strawberry so big they clogged my straw—was the ideal complement to our family’s leisurely drive to another wetland, this time a swamp, closely related to a swamp.

Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, spanning 43.1 acres, was a patch of bird-filled wilderness along the Fox River. Perhaps because of its small size and the fact that it was a reserve (no playgrounds, barbecue grills, water fountains, or bathrooms), it was almost empty. It turned out to be 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 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 Preserve near Crete, part of the Forest Preserves in the southern suburbs of Will County. Just steps from the Indiana border, Goodenow was about 20 miles from the city limits. I had never camped so close to the city. I thought we’d check it out, and if it weren’t the wildlife experience we were hoping for, we’d go to a motel.

Our campsite in Goodenow was one of the best I’ve been to in years, even compared to camps many hours away. It was well kept, well wooded, and not crowded, 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 tasted like cinnamon rolls in flapjack shape.

It’s a good thing we had breakfast so much in Wood’s Corner because we needed it in Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a huge prairie preserve managed by the US Forest Service. 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. Just 75 miles from the city, it’s the largest stretch of prairie and an example of the Chicago area’s efforts to restore some of its lost wilderness.

There are 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 see the restoration’s vibrancy in the dense prairie fields, the roaming bison, and the bright colors of the oriole in the orchard and the blue grosbeak, 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 farmland near Midewin, Minooka Creamery was the perfect stop after two days of hiking.

Home felt very far away as we ate ice cream on a picnic bench under a shade tree. I felt content and exhausted. I wasn’t sure what we would 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 an hour.

Dorothy R. Barrett

I’m a full-time blogger by passion. This is my first blog, and I'm excited to share everything that I love about technology, business, and lifestyle with you. I’m a writer by trade, and I can be found writing about tech, business, and lifestyle on my personal blog.

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