Chicago’s Best Nature Preserves
Full List of Mike MacDonald’s Favorite Chicago-Area Preserves
Why These Preserves?
The nature preserves presented here represent what I’ve determined from years of experience to be the finest examples of the natural history of the region known as Chicago Wilderness. It is an area formed by glaciers that receded about 13,000 years ago and is defined by its unique geology and habitats that extend around the lake from southeast Wisconsin into northwest Indiana.
There are hundreds of nature preserves within the Chicago region, and I encourage you to visit them. However, many are under attack by weedy invaders from other regions and continents, and only a few remaining native plants remain—species that represent Chicago’s natural history. Over my many years photographing for Chicago Wilderness magazine, I have fallen in love with a special handful of sites that are not only exceptional in terms native biological diversity, but they are especially beautiful and provide an escape from urban life. They’ve stolen my heart, and my hope is that they’ll steal yours, as well.
As the battle to remove the invaders continues, and ecological restoration breathes new life and beauty into an increasing number of degraded sites, I will continue to explore and to add more high-quality nature preserves to this website.
Chiwaukee State Prairie Natural Area (Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin)
This rare remnant prairie overlooking Lake Michigan is of great biological significance and sensory satisfaction. Starting in May, wander amongst the vast array of plants that bloom in sublime profusion.
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve (Zion, Illinois)
Vast, unpredictable, and wild: Owls, turtles, coyotes, and swarms of bees. Endless flowers and black oak trees. By a lake called Michigan and a river named Dead, come to this place if only one choice you have.
Middlefork Savanna (Lake Forest, Illinois)
Wide trails navigable by foot or by bike guide you past open stretches of wetland, prairie, and savanna. See frogs and turtles, egrets and herons, elusive mink, and birds that perch on tall flowers and make them dance.
Somme Prairie Grove (Northbrook, Illinois)
This black soil savanna is among the rarest places on Earth. Almost lost to the ages, it was rediscovered and restored to health. Now abounding with life, this preserve proves in one visit the benefits of saving places like this.
Bluff Spring Fen (Elgin, Illinois)
Hidden behind a quiet cemetery, this peaceful place is wild and brimming with life: ever-changing worlds of savanna, prairie, and fen that bring enjoyment throughout the seasons.
Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve (Lake in the Hills, Illinois)
Experience the wide-open space of the vast prairie and fen. Hike the rolling terrain and disappear into the horizon.
Shoe Factory Road Prairie (Hoffman Estates, Illinois)
Atop a small, gravelly hill sits a gem of a prairie that puts on summer-long flower shows and provides a fabulous view of the tallgrass prairie below.
Belmont Prairie (Downers Grove, Illinois)
Nestled within a quiet neighborhood, this remnant prairie is intimate and unusually colorful. In June, pink and purple erupt in every direction. From July through September, the landscape is showered in gold.
Fermilab Prairie (Batavia, Illinois)
Wide-open space where you can lose yourself in the towering grasses and flowering plants. Watch coyotes, scare up deer, and marvel in the wonder of this prairie reconstruction.
Wolf Road Prairie (Westchester, Illinois)
Hike the sidewalks left behind from a construction project halted by the Great Depression and experience nature’s comfort while in the embrace of the savanna, the wetland, and the prairie.
Black Partridge Woods (Lemont, Illinois)
Hidden beneath the bluffs, a sparkling stream curls through an emerald woodland lush with spring flowers. Maples immerse you in autumn gold. And winter turns a pewter panorama into an expanse of shining silver.
Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve (Lockport, Illinois)
This rare and expansive prairie is built upon a base of dolomite limestone. Buffered by river and wetland, the prairie comes to life with squadrons of water-loving dragonflies and fields of pink nodding wild onion.
McGinnis Slough (Orland Park, Illinois)
A grand, peaceful wetland with an expanse of open water that goes to the horizon. Come for the birds and stay for the sunset.
Messenger Woods Nature Preserve (Homer Glen, Illinois)
Springtime finds me wandering the woodland. Mesmerized by hypnotic fields of bluebells and white trilliums, I cross the same stream for the fifth time. Disoriented, I wonder where I am. It’s easy to lose yourself here.
O’Hara Woods Preserve (Romeoville, Illinois)
With an invigorating jolt of green and an eye-popping carpet of spring ephemerals, this intimate woodland is a springtime paradise and a visually explosive place to visit.
Pilcher Park (Joliet, Illinois)
Spring is the time to visit. Under a leafless woodland in the blackest of muck, skunk cabbage emerges, initiating a chain reaction of sparkling wildflowers that spreads across the forest floor.
Saganashkee Slough (Palos Park, Illinois)
This is a place to relax: to fish, to photograph, to watch the birds, and to marvel at the sunsets. You can even paddle your canoe or rowboat.
Sagawau Canyon (Lemont, Illinois)
A lush and intimate canyon with verdant fern-lined walls; curving, carving stream; and modest, yet picturesque, waterfall.
Spears Woods (Willow Springs, Illinois)
A daydream come true. Discover the beauty and drama of the seasons as you make your way around wetlands, through open woodlands, and over rolling panoramas of prairie.
Theodore Stone Preserve (Hodgkins, Illinois))
Here lies a tale of two prairies: one, a tallgrass prairie, dense and looming, soft in soil; the other, rare and rocky, where stunted plants rooted in dolomite limestone grow few and far between.
Waterfall Glen (Darien, Illinois)
This vast nature preserve offers a variety of habitats and miles of trails that will wind you through woodland and wetland, prairie and savanna, and along the splendid banks of Sawmill Creek.
Gensburg-Markham Prairie (Markham, Illinois)
Conveniently located amidst the urban sprawl is a large, luscious prairie. Just exit the tollway, enter the magical gate, and leave your worries behind.
Kickapoo Woods and Prairie (Riverdale, Illinois)
In an urban locale where there is little nature exists, the prairie here provides a wonderful oasis where peace can be found.
Pembroke Savanna Nature Preserve (Hopkins Park, Illinois)
Life abounds under the dome of black oaks of this rare sand savanna. From glass lizards and six-foot snakes to enigmatic gophers and their omnipresent mounds, to flowers of all fashions, this is not a refuge—this is paradise.
Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie (Chicago, Illinois)
A beautiful gem hidden within Chicago’s city limits with a unique topography formed by the forces of Lake Michigan. Once inside and surrounded by nature, you may very well forget that you’re in the city at all.
Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve (Monee, Illinois)
A springtime woodland adventure: Listen for rapid, hollow percussions of woodpeckers. Watch wary warblers as they flash about and perch only for an instant. And inhale the essences of bluebell and leek along the winding creek.
Cowles Bog (Chesterton, Indiana)
The best outdoor experience in the park. Under the open canopy of the black oak savanna, experience acrobatic ferns, picturesque wetlands, and over high dunes that lead to the wonderful expanse of shoreline.
Heron Rookery Trail (Michigan City, Indiana)
Follows the banks of the Little Calumet River for, quite possibly, the best place in the park for spring wildflowers.
Hoosier Prairie State Nature Preserve (Schererville, Indiana)
In this vast preserve, you hardly notice the surrounding industry and urbanization. Follow the quiet interpretive trail into an intimate oak savanna, lush with fanning flourishes of ferns.
Miller Woods (Gary, Indiana)
In this black oak savanna, wildflowers blossom from spring into fall. Hike past rolling dunes and flooded swales, where beavers startle with slaps from their tails, then over high dunes to reach the Lake Michigan shore.