Chicagoans have been stuck inside since November because of our infamous winters, but the forecast highs are finally reaching past 50 and the sun is setting past 7 p.m., which means it’s time to start getting back outside.
Living in Chicago has its advantages when it comes to outdoor activities: the Lake Michigan lakefront, the 606 trail, plenty of neighborhood parks, Lincoln Park Zoo, and just getting out there and exploring the city. But I crave more than just sneak peeks of nature: I need forests filled to the brim with trees, a dirt hiking trail underneath my feet, and the elimination of the sounds of sirens and car horns.
It can be tough to find secluded nature near Chicago, but I have been able to find a few places to retreat to when I need to get back to nature.
About a 20-minute drive north of Chicago is a little known secret, LaBagh Woods. The north branch of the Chicago River runs through it, and there are trails that you can walk to take in some fresh air.
What I love about LaBagh Woods is that it’s easy to get to, and while it is a forest preserve, it’s where nature meets urban, because of the cool graffiti that dons the bridge (which also proves to be an excellent photo op).
I usually set up a hammock by the river and relax to the sounds of the water. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll run into some wildlife. I ran into a deer there once while on a trail and got as close to five feet from it…city deer are not afraid!
Garfield Park Conservatory
For chillier days that don’t reach above 50 or for rainy days where you can’t stand to be inside of the house any longer, I love the Garfield Park Conservatory. Located in East Garfield Park, it is one of the largest botanical conservatories in the country. Inside a giant glass dome, you are removed from the concrete jungle and taken into an actual jungle.
Huge palm trees, lush ferns, indoor lagoons, leafy plants, and prickly cacti make up some of the over 2,000 plants that grow both inside and outside. You can practice meditation around the plants, or simply wander aimlessly through the different plant-themed rooms. It’s easy to get lost in the narrow, shadowed walkways of the conservatory, and it’s refreshing to be able to get up close and personal with nature, no matter what the weather is like outside.
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary
You’ve probably heard or have been to Montrose Beach and its famous dog beach, but just southeast of the sandy beach itself is a bird sanctuary that truly is a sanctuary from the rest of the city. The entrance can be a bit hidden, but you can enter the sanctuary past where the dock ends into a densely wooded area.
The grass-lined trails lead you through the sanctuary that’s full of wildflowers and songbirds in the spring and summer, but it’s easy to get turned around because the trails break off frequently. However, I’ve found that getting lost in nature is never a bad thing.
This is a great secluded spot to get away from the beach goers and crowded families, and there’s even a little grassy peninsula you can get to so you can feel extra privacy.
Chicago River North Branch Kayaking
You can rent kayaks on the Chicago River downtown and take in the scenes of the Loop, but to get a more remote and natural taste of the Chicago River, head to Clark Park in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood where you can rent single kayaks for $15 an hour or tandem kayaks for $20 an hour.
From Avondale, you’ll paddle north, into the more secluded and wooded parts of the Chicago River that pass through neighborhoods like North Center, Ravenswood Manor, and Albany Park. You’ll pass under bridges and get to experience rare nature in Chicago including wildlife like turtles, ducks, and even the occasional beaver.
Canoe and kayak rentals in Chicago are open May through October, and there are even special scheduled sunset trips!
Of course, if you crave expansive forests and hiking trails that run for miles, you’ll need to travel about an hour and a half to Starved Rock State Park. But for those days where you just need to reconnect with Mother Nature, these Chicago nature spots do the trick.