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Guide to Chicago’s urban wilds: America’s Cup visitor or local

A May view of the Chicago downtown from the south side of Montrose Harbor.
Credit: Dale Bowman

I understand those who carry on about being too cool for Navy Pier.

However, I like the place and for more than mornings of perch fishing each winter. Once or twice a year, I end up there with my wife or family. Navy Pier is like a county fair, with tripled prices and tougher parking, dumped on one of the world’s great cities.

While the world–at least part of it–is in Chicago for the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series Chicago, centered at Navy Pier, I figure a few (hundred? thousand?) will tire of shopping, dining and sightseeing and will want to do something wild, or what passes for wild in Chicago.

With that in mind, I came up with a list (in descending order) of urban wild or natural areas that should be visited in Chicago, whether a tourist or local.

1) Montrose Harbor: Once the top fishing spot on the Great Lakes, it remains the No. 1 fishing spot in Chicago, and the epicenter for bikers, hikers, birdwatchers (Magic Hedge), joggers, charity runners and neckers in the moonlight or any light. Still my favorite view of Chicago downtown.

Northerly Island offers its own special cross between urban wilds and great views of Chicago. Credit: Dale Bowman

Northerly Island offers its own special cross between urban wilds and great views of Chicago.
Credit: Dale Bowman

2) Northerly Island: A wild space in transition, the formerly exclusive airport, now a nature park (left), is noted for bikers, walkers, birdwatchers and fishermen. Formation of the wild space was one of the great political stunts in Chicago political history by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Maybe the best views of iconic Chicago structures.

3) Palmisano Park: Another park in a space infamous for Chicago political history (Hired Truck) grown into something special. It’s not perfect, but close to a modern model for multi-use urban natural area, including a catch-and-release pond in the old quarry, hiking trails and tremendous community support. Second best view of Chicago downtown from the hill.

4) Lakefront bike path: You can bike the path from the north or south and wear yourself out in lakefront beauty. It is more fun to throw in side rides around Montrose or west to Wrigleyville. Use your imagination and Google Maps.

5) River Park area: It is by one of the key fishing spots in the city around “The Waterfall,’’ where the North Branch flows over a dam to join the North Shore Channel. Another multi-use park area.

6) Rainbow Beach area: The beach is shaped in such a way as to give a unique view of downtown and there is a small natural area next to the water purification plant, a juxtaposition of wild and urban. If you’re feeling really wild, bushwhack along the lakefront to the slip near 87th.

7) Canal Origins Park: Another wild spot with connections to history as Bubbly Creek (made infamous by “The Jungle’’) flows into the Sanitary and Ship Canal. The park represents the origins of the I&M Canal. It’s some of the best fishing on the southern parts of the Chicago River system.

8) Lurie Garden/Millennium Park: Especially for those walking around from Navy Pier or staying on Michigan Avenue, this is an easy side jaunt to enjoy the flowers, native plants and birds of Lurie Garden juxtaposed against the art and excesses of Millennium Park, ripe with its own political history of massive cost overruns.

Even the wild spaces in Chicago come with political history.