Chicago may be called the Second City, but locals are adamant that it’s second to none. But even the most die-hard Windy City resident needs an escape from time to time. While Chicago itself actually boasts an impressive number of parks and attractions to help you relax, a change of scenery is always good for reviving the soul, recharging the batteries, and reigniting your sense of adventure. Here are the best day trips from Chicago.
MIDEWIN NATIONAL TALLGRASS PRARIE
Midewin was America’s first designated tallgrass prairie. Before the increase in population, Illinois used to be filled with rolling hills of colorful wildflowers being grazed by buffalo, as tranquil rivers rambled nearby.
The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was formed to bring back the original glory of Illinois’ prairies, and now protects over 18,000 acres of land, encompassing grasslands, prairies, marshes, forests, and savannas. Hiking trails take you past yellow and purple wildflowers, shaded creeks filled with turtles, and of course, buffalo. In fact, it’s one of the only places to see a wild herd of buffalo in all of the Great Lakes states. The hope is that this herd can help reintroduce the animal back to the region. In total, there are about 20 endangered species that live in Midewin, many of which are almost impossible to see anywhere else in the state.
Looking for a taste of Europe without having to hop on an international flight? Well, the name should give you a hint as to what you can expect in this Southwestern Michigan city. Holland has Dutch origins, and the settlers brought much of their culture over along with them.
One of the most exciting attractions is the Windmill Island Farm, where you can hike through acres of Dutch gardens, complete with tulips and windmills. In fact, one windmill in the park, named De Zwaan, was built in 1761 and is currently the oldest Dutch windmill in the country.
Holland sits right on the shore of Lake Michigan, so if strolling through gardens isn’t quite your thing, head over to Holland State Park where you can hike through the forest, straight onto the sandy beaches of the Great Lakes. The beach is complete with a pier, campground, and the “Big Red” lighthouse, which dates back to 1872. Holland is also home to a quaint main street filled with local bakeries, cafes, and artisan shops.
STARVED ROCK STATE PARK
Starved Rock State Park, located southwest of Chicago along the Illinois River, was once a large sandstone bluff. However, as the glaciers of the Great Lakes melted, titanic floods spilled through the region. Slowly, the floodwaters carved away at the bluff, creating canyons – 18 in total. Nowadays, an oak forest has grown up around the mossy cliffs, and waterfalls dazzle visitors as they drop into cave-like openings.
The park is also steeped in history. Native tribes have inhabited the area since 8,000 BC, and artifacts are regularly discovered to this day. Aside from hiking, biking, and canyoneering, the park also offers guided river tours in a covered boat, the perfect relaxing break from your day of exploring. If you want to turn your day trip into a weekend escape, the park also houses the absolutely stunning Starved Rock Lodge, which offers rooms, suites, and private cabins. If you’re not staying for the weekend, the lodge is still a great place to pop in for lunch or an iced tea.
The small communities of Southwest Michigan are a lot more progressive than many would think. Start off with a visit to Oval Beach, which has its own gay and lesbian area (and has the reputation of being one of the best beaches in all of the Great Lakes). The crashing blue waves of Lake Michigan will have you convinced that you’re looking out at the Atlantic Ocean.
Later, be sure to grab some cider (and hard cider) at nearby Virtue Cider. Wander through the orchards, take a cidery tour, and then sit down for an outdoor tasting of some of their popular concoctions. They’re also dedicated to the environment, using farm animals to help keep the cidery looking spotless. A hard of Icelandic sheep roam the grounds, acting as a natural lawnmower as they graze the orchards. Gloucestershire pigs help out by eating any apples not deemed quality enough for the cider process, and roaming chickens do their part by eating insects, creating a natural form of pest control.
Before making the two-hour drive back to Chicago, fuel up on some caffeine at Uncommon Coffee Roasters. The coffeeshop is an LGBTQ staple of the region, being a meeting place for the queer community. It’s even a certified LGBTQ+ business. But the roastery is more than just a gay hangout, they’ve also been voted as having some of the best coffee in all of Michigan.
Just over the border in Wisconsin is the famous resort area of Lake Geneva. The lake is 7.5 miles long and is dotted with resorts, spas, parks, B&Bs, harbors, al fresco dining, and giant vacation homes.
Visitors can rent boats, jet skis, kayaks, and canoes, or go swimming. On land, trails fill the parks surrounding the lake, and there are many shopping avenues to take a leisurely stroll down. For a full day, be sure to hike or bike the Lake Geneva Shore Path, which is a whopping 26 miles long. The path weaves you in through wooded parklands, alongside manicured gardens, and even right past some of the lake’s most stunning mansions, all while giving you phenomenal views of the lake.
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