Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a surprisingly beautiful place. When one thinks of picturesque environments, prairies are pretty low on the list. Lakes, rivers, mountains, hills, forests are all natural settings that trump a prairie for those who love outdoor scenic settings.
When I visited Midewin for the first time in 2010 I was impressed with my visit and intrigued with the vistas from the prairie. Since then I have been back a handful of times during different seasons and my appreciation for this overlooked ecosystem has grown with each visit.
I think my home state of Illinois spawns a misconception of the lack of beauty of the prairie. Illinois is known as the “Prairie State.” People who drive through Illinois mostly notice it is flat and full of cornfields. They therefore come to the conclusion that prairies are ugly and boring.
The Prairie State designation is a bit of a misnomer. It refers to the way the state appeared hundreds of years ago when the settlers arrived. Back then Illinois was two-thirds tallgrass prairie. A plaque at Younghusband Prairie in suburban Chicago reads “the Prairie State, was once about two-thirds prairie – now less than one tenth of one percent remains.”
Midewin and other restoration projects are trying to restore the original prairie in pockets around the state. Thanks to places like this, people can hike through what the state once looked like before the plow converted what was once prairie into farmland. People can also discover that although a prairie is not as amazing as a mountain or a lake, it has its own kind of charm. A charm that has a haunting enticing quality that will keep you coming back for another hike.
Besides being a restoration project from invasive to native species, there is another unique aspect to Midewin. The location was once home to the Joliet Arsenal. Military bunkers and roads built to make munitions for World War II have now been turned over to the prairie.
Walking through rows of bunkers covered with tallgrass prairie gives the landscape an eerie surreal feel. You feel like you are walking through some post apocalypse terrain. This sentiment is augmented by the fact that there are very few visitors to the park. Every time I have walked these fields, I am usually alone.
Midewin has a great trail network with over 20 miles of trails which are great for hiking, biking, and running. The prairie is also well known as a birding spot with rare prairie birds who have returned thanks to the restoration work like the dickcissel, loggerhead shrike, and the upland sandpiper.
Midewin is located just south of Joliet, Illinois only a few miles from I-55 at exit 241 about 60 miles from downtown Chicago. It is a great place to get out from the big city and take a hike in a wide open quit space.
Midewin hiking tips:
- Always wear a hat as there are very few trees, so protection from the sun is sparse
- Early spring is a great time to hike Midewin as you can explore cross-country when the prairie grass is not overgrown and there is no hunting. You are also safe from ticks in the early spring.
- Consider hiking at dusk or dawn in during the summer when it is too hot to be out on the prairie all day. This is also the best time to spot deer, turkey, pheasant, and coyote
- Check out a sunset from atop a bunker, you get a great view of the prairie from atop one of these structures
- Consider volunteering and helping out the restoration project
- Come during the summer for monarch butterflies and summer wildflowers
- Be mindful of hunting season, especially in the fall. I drove down to Midewin one early Saturday morning to find the parking lot inexplicably full of cars. Each car had a pink card in on their dash, and I realized they were all deer hunters. I found a different place to hike that day.
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