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Chicago area offers plenty of places to get back out into nature

A byproduct of the pandemic was residents’ renewed connection to nature. Check out these Chicago-area spots for your outdoor fix.

Sitting on a picnic blanket scattered with snacks and art supplies, three teens chatted in the shade at Churchill Field Park.

“Since the pandemic started, I’ve just been walking here all the time. It’s this home away from home,” said Natalee Hapaniewski, 18, from Wicker Park. “I like how open it is in the middle of the city.”

Churchill is one of many parks just off the 606, the 2.7-mile elevated trail on the North Side.

“It’s a common space for us to hang out and not be cooped up in each other’s houses,” said Gabbie Cannon, 17, from Logan Square.

It’s a common feeling these days, and the Chicago area has plenty of places where that urge can be indulged.

Three girls sit on a picnic blanket at Churchill Field Park in Wicker Park.
Natalee Hapaniewski, Gabbie Cannon and Madelaine Steffen have been meeting up at Churchill Field Park since the pandemic began.
Nina Molina/Sun-Times

The Morton Arboretum

Art and nature often coexist at this sprawling green haven in Lisle. For its new exhibit, “Human+Nature,” five of South African artist Daniel Popper’s sculptures of touchable human faces are scattered around the grounds for a scavenger hunt.

“It’s about a 3-mile hike to all the sculptures,” said Sarah Sargent, manager of interpretation and exhibits. (You also can drive or ride a tram.)

“We are looking forward to seeing how it looks in all different seasons.”

A couple of visitors examine a “Human+Nature” sculpture.
Visitors can hike, drive or ride a tram to visit the sculptures of the “Human+Nature” exhibit.
The Morton Arboretum

The arboretum also has a 10-acre Children's Garden, and for adults, there are beer and wine tasting events.

“For our wine tasting in May, we sold out with nearly 800 people,” said Jenelle Hardtke, manager of special events. “People are ready to feel a bit more normal.”

The arboretum also hosts Arbor Evenings at 6 p.m. on Thursdays through Sept. 4, with activities and live music.

“From the start of the pandemic, the Morton Arboretum was considered an essential service. As people were forced inside, we were that safe haven for them to get out into nature,” Hardtke said.

The arboretum is open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset. Admission ranges from $8 to $16; children under 2 are free. Memberships are available.

Palmisano Park

On the site of a former quarry in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, visitors now can fish, climb boulders or paddle a kayak — and, in some spots, still have a view of downtown.

“The land has changed from a coral reef to a quarry to a landfill and now to a park,” said Dennis Gonzalez, the park’s manager. “It’s a beautiful thing because it’s transformed and given the community something.”

Visitors look out into the pond at Palmisano Park in Bridgeport.
The steep rock walls of Stearns Quarry have become a fishing hole at Palmisano Park.
Irene Tostado/Chicago Park District

The park, 2700 S. Halsted St., has 1.7 miles of trails across wetlands and fields and is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“It offers new and old residents an opportunity to explore nature and the city,” Gonzalez said. “They can engage in a variety of activities in a unique outdoor setting.”

Palmisano Park is home to boulders for visitors to climb.
Palmisano Park in Bridgeport has boulders for visitors to climb.
Irene Tostado/Chicago Park District

Garfield Park Conservatory

Visitors signing up to visit the Garfield Park Conservatory’s newest special exhibit may find themselves being led around by a teenager from the Urban Roots docent program.

“Artist’s Garden Still Life in Real Life: Charles Ethan Porter” pays homage to the landscape and still-life artist. Besides leading visitors through the exhibit, the teen docents will provide background information, according to Mattie Wilson, director of programs and interpretation for the conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave.

Porter’s paintings will be re-created by plants in the gardens. Admission for the exhibit is $5; visitors must make a reservation.

The Garfield Park Conservatory requires reservations, though general admission to the gardens is free. Reservations are added each day at 10 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Hours are Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
The Garfield Park Conservatory requires reservations, admission to the gardens is free.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“Imagine what the paintings would look like coming out of a vase or a planter,” said Mary Eysenbach, director of conservatories for the Chicago Park District. “It’s kind of a ‘live, still life.’”

The Garfield Park Conservatory requires reservations, though general admission to the gardens (not including special exhibits) is free. Reservations are added each day at 10 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Hours are Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Two children watch a waterfall at Garfield Park Conservatory.
Garfield Park Conservatory has Nature Play Kits for children to pick up and bring home. August’s theme is “plant mystery.”
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Chicago-area residents can also check out:

Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake-Cook Road, Glencoe.

Visitors can walk through the 385 acres of gardens that boast millions of plants and flowers.

Cost: No per-person admission, but non-members pay $10 to $30 to park, depending on the day.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area, 12949 Avenue O, Chicago

On Wolf Lake by the Illinois-Indiana state line, the 160-acre site has spots for picnics, hiking, fishing, boating and hunting waterfowl.

Admission: Free

Hours: Daily, 6 a.m. to sunset