One frequent knock in opposition to the Chicago space is that “actual” nature appears distant. Other than Lake Michigan — arguably the area’s finest pure attribute — it’s sprawling suburbs and monotone fields of corn in each route. I’ve subscribed to this concept for years.

But it surely’s not truly true. In case you’re in search of nature inside a brief drive of the town, as I not too long ago found, it’s attainable to piece collectively a nature-focused itinerary by way of the suburbs north to south, touring from the border with Wisconsin to the border with Indiana. It’s actually not backcountry, however I used to be shocked at how a lot of the pure world we discovered. There was additionally a giant benefit: bountiful restaurant choices. It made for a weekend that scratched the character itch with out the labor of camp cooking.

Forty-five miles northwest of the town, our first cease, Volo Bog State Natural Area options “the one open-water quaking lavatory in Illinois,” based on its web site. Briefly, because of this it’s a physique of acidic water largely coated by a floating mat of vegetation. In some locations, the mat is so thick it might probably assist bushes like tamarack, a sort of larch. In the course of this floating forest is a small pond of open water, the final remnant of what was a a lot bigger lake earlier than the lavatory took over. It’s known as a quaking lavatory as a result of that’s what occurs to the vegetation once you step on it.

We have been in a position to stroll by way of this distinctive ecosystem because of the Volo Bathroom Interpretive Path, a floating boardwalk that wound by way of the park. I loved the open water middle probably the most. It transported me to a unique place. For a couple of minutes at the very least, lavatory birch, sphagnum moss, highbush blueberry and water lilies changed site visitors, electrical strains, agricultural fields and subdivisions. It was like somewhat outpost of Canada’s boreal forests within the Chicago suburbs. The paths have been even lengthy sufficient that my kids began complaining about all the character they needed to stroll by way of.

After disregarding ticks, we drove a couple of minutes to Fratello’s Hot Dogs within the city of Volo, the place we feasted on Chicago-style scorching canine, cheeseburgers and fries that have been excellent examples of the style. And my strawberry milkshake — with items of reduce up strawberry so huge they clogged my straw — was the proper accompaniment to our household’s relaxed drive to a different wetland, this time a fen, which is an in depth relation to a lavatory.

Clocking in at 43.1 acres, Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve was a sliver of bird-filled wilderness tucked alongside the Fox River. Maybe due to its diminutive dimension and the truth that it was really a protect (no playgrounds, barbecue grills, water fountains or bogs), it was practically empty. It turned out to be the place the place I lastly understood the distinction between a lavatory and a fen — a lavatory is actually self-contained, however a fen is a wetland into which water flows on at the very least a semiregular foundation.

Out of all of the locations we visited on our weekend journey, Ferson Creek Fen was a fantastic instance of the form of discovery you make whereas on a highway journey. It was only a fairly slice of untamed alongside the river, with tall cottonwood bushes standing protectively over the wetland, hidden within the plain sight of Chicago’s suburbs.

By the tip of our cease in Ferson Creek, we have been hiked-out and able to calm down at a campsite. A number of days earlier than, I had reserved a spot at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve close to Crete, which is a part of south suburban Will County’s Forest Preserves. Only a stone’s throw from the border with Indiana, Goodenow was about 20 miles from the town limits. I had by no means camped this near the town. I figured we’d test it out and if it wasn’t the character expertise we have been hoping for, we’d simply go to a motel.

Because it turned out, our campsite at Goodenow was among the best I’ve been to in years, even as compared with campsites many hours farther away. It was well-maintained, well-treed and never crowded in any respect, even on Memorial Day weekend — the proper place for pickup soccer with my kids and for lounging in a hammock beneath a cover of oak bushes.

We skipped campfire cooking for dinner at Smokey Jo’s, a hopping restaurant/bar in Crete the place each TV was tuned to the Chicago White Sox sport. If I squinted whereas consuming my Bada Bing Italian Sausage sandwich, it felt like I might make out the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago within the distance.

The following morning, we have been again in Crete for breakfast at Wood’s Corner. Pancakes have been the standout. There have been robust negotiations with my daughters as I attempted to persuade them to provide me extra parts of Dee’s Delight — a mash-up of pancakes, chocolate chips and chocolate syrup — and better of all, cinnamon rolls pancakes, which actually did style like cinnamon rolls in flapjack kind.

It’s an excellent factor we ate a lot breakfast at Wooden’s Nook, as a result of we would have liked it at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a large prairie protect managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Solely 45 miles from the town, it’s the largest parcel of prairie within the space, and one which exemplifies the Chicago area’s makes an attempt to get better a few of the wilderness it has misplaced. Previously a munitions manufacturing space, Midewin is slowly being restored to what it was earlier than it grew to become a part of Chicagoland, a metropolitan space of 10 million folks.

There are nonetheless indicators of Midewin’s former life manufacturing TNT, equivalent to roads and bunkers, however they’re steadily being taken over by nature. This transition offers the land an deserted really feel. On the similar time, you possibly can see the vibrancy of the restoration within the thick fields of prairie, the roaming bison and the intense coloring of the orchard oriole and the blue grosbeak, two birds I’ve by no means seen in my metropolis yard.

On the day of our go to, a warmth wave rolled by way of and our nice, 70-degree excursions at Volo Bathroom and Ferson Creek Fen the day earlier than have been changed by 90-degree hikes by way of tallgrass prairie that was nowhere close to tall sufficient to shade us from the solar. It didn’t assist that we ran out of water. However regardless of being scorching, thirsty and footsore, it was clear that Midewin was worthy of a return journey.

Our last cease was a basic of the highway journey expertise: the native ice cream parlor. Positioned in farming nation close to Midewin, Minooka Creamery was the proper cease after two days of climbing.

As we ate ice cream on a picnic bench below a shade tree, house felt very distant. I felt contentedly exhausted. I wasn’t certain what we’d do subsequent and couldn’t fairly keep in mind what we had been doing solely hours earlier than. In different phrases, it was a basic disconnect from each day life — the form of trip expertise that normally occurs after days of journey. Because it turned out, “actual” nature wasn’t distant in any respect. As soon as our ice cream was completed, we piled into our road-trip dirtied minivan and arrived house throughout the hour.