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Chicago: Where urban nature runs wild

Looking for a city that’s full of wildlife, urban trails, and green space? Chicago’s your spot.

By: Erica Zazo + Save to a List

I moved to Chicago 10 years ago not knowing exactly how deeply I’d fall in love with the city.

It’s a place that’s grown near and dear to my heart for many reasons. For starters, I love hot dogs. And I love that Chicago has so many places to eat them (Shout out 35th Street Red Hots). I also love that Chicago has an amazing music scene (Schubas Tavern for the win); that it’s culturally diverse and has an eclectic mix of neighborhoods (77 to be exact); that it’s full of craft breweries and amazing restaurants; and that Chicagoans embrace the winter weather despite it being as cold as [fill in the blank].

But above all, I love Chicago because it’s one of the greatest cities to explore urban nature.

That’s because Chicago has no shortage of forest land, lakefront, and trails to enjoy. The Chicago Park District, one of the largest municipal park systems in the nation, spans 8,800 acres of green space and includes 600 city-based parks, 28 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, and 300 miles of bike lanes.

Chicago is also home to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC), a culmination of over 70,000 acres of parks, wildlife areas, and protected greenspace in and around the city. The FPDCC includes a total of 22 nature preserves, six nature centers, and one wildlife research facility – all within city limits. It also includes over 300 picnic areas, 40 lakes and ponds, two campgrounds, and 300 miles of marked and accessible trails.

8 Urban nature spots to explore in Chicago

Whether you’re visiting for a long weekend or living in the city full-time, add these eight outdoor gems to your Chicago urban nature bucket list.

1. North Park Village Nature Center

    Take a 1-mile urban hike through this 46-acre nature preserve through native woodland, wetland, prairie, and savannah habitats, or stop by for the park’s family-friendly nature programming.

    2. West Ridge Nature Park

      Explore this 21-acre natural space featuring a 1-mile loop trail that winds through wooded areas, across boardwalks, and alongside a 4.5-acre pond (a perfect urban fishing spot).

      3. Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

        Spot over 300 species of migratory birds (and take in an amazing view of the Chicago skyline) at this 15-acre wildlife sanctuary next to Montrose Beach Dunes Natural Area on the edge of Lake Michigan.

        4. South Shore Nature Sanctuary

          Visit this hidden gem within the South Shore Cultural Center Park area. It winds through a microcosm of native habitat, has a secret fire pit for public use, and an expansive prairie meadow full of butterflies during warm months.

          5. Burnham Wildlife Corridor

            Wander the largest stretch of natural area along Chicago’s lakefront at the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, a 100-acre ribbon of greenspace made up of three unique wildlife areas: the Burnham Centennial Prairie, the Burnham Nature Sanctuary, and the McCormick Bird Sanctuary.

            6. Jackson Park

              Escape to over 550 acres of greenspace at Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, an enormous swath of green space with hidden nature spots like the park’s Wooded Island, a birdwatcher’s paradise, the Phoenix or the Osaka Garden, an intimate Japanese garden, and Bobolink Meadows, a mulched trail system that winds through the park.

              7. Henry C. Palmisano Nature Park

                Check out this 26-acre park that features a 380-foot-deep limestone quarry (great for fishing), 1.7 miles of surrounding paved, crushed limestone, and boardwalk trail, and an unmatched view of the city.

                8. Horner Park

                  Get lost in this 57-acre green space on Chicago’s North Side that includes a 0.5-mile wood chip path along the North Branch of the Chicago River and the popular Horner Park Play Space, a nature-inspired kids' play area with logs, stumps, and a handmade stick fort.

                  We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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