About a month ago, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources closed the Illinois State Parks in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. The shelter in place order states that people should stay indoors as much as possible. Exceptions include going out for essentials and exercising outdoors as long as people are properly social distancing. It can be difficult to do that outdoors when so many parks are closed. On top of this, Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago closed the city parks along the lakefront. Fortunately, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie has remained open and is the perfect place to observe social distancing etiquette while getting some much needed outdoor time.
Related: U.S. State Parks Covid 19 response
Best option is to stay at home
First of all, it is important to note, the best option is to stay at home. This post is not to encourage people to go hiking; however, we all need a break to go out and get some sun. In order not to go crazy, it is important to get outside and get some exercise. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the perfect place to go for a hike and enjoy the outdoors after a long stay at home.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is perfect for social distancing hiking
There are three reasons why Midewin is the perfect place to practice social distancing when enjoying nature. First of all, it is not very crowded in the first place. Even with many close by state parks closed, the hiking trails and parking lot remain lightly visited. Even if there are a lot of people hiking Midewin, it is easy to spread out thanks to 30 miles of trails. Every time I hike Midewin, I always see a few people in the parking lot and then a few people during the first mile of the hike. Once I get farther away from the parking lot, I see hardly anyone. The last time I was out, I saw 11 people in the first 15 minutes and then no one for six hours.
The last reason Midewin is perfect for social distancing hiking is the option to hike cross-country in certain parts of the park. The Group 63 Loop Trail is the best place to do this. Hikers are allowed to walk any portion of the inner portion of the Group 63 Loop Trail. Spring is the perfect time to do this since the tallgrass prairie has yet to grow out.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie hiking recommendations
I recommend driving to the Iron Bridge Trailhead, which is a mile north from the visitors center on Illinois 53. The best way to get there is take exit 241 off of I-55 and take River Road to Illinois 53. Take a left on Illinois 53 and the trailhead is on the right after you pass the visitors center and right before the sign for Elwood, Illinois.
Once you park there is a trail from the trailhead to the Group 63 Loop Trail. Once you hit the Group 63 Loop Trail the bunkers begin. If you bear right on the Group 63 Loop Trail, the bison area is immediately to your right. The bison are fenced in.
Seeing the bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
In October of 2015, Midewin introduced a small herd of bison in Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The initial introduction included 27 animals. I have been to Midewin perhaps ten times since the introduction and only seen them once. In order to spike your likelihood of seeing them, you can view the bison cam on their website or follow them on social media. As a matter of fact, at the time of the writing of this post, the bison were visible and Midewin’s twitter feed announced this fact to their followers.
Exploring the bunkers
On the right are the bison, to your left begin the bunkers. Part of Midewin land was formerly the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. The bunkers remain and are being reclaimed by the prairie while the roads around the bunkers constitute the trails in some parts of the park. The Group 63 Loop is one of these places. It is great to hike through the prairie in between the trails and through the bunkers. Climbing up on top of the bunkers is also enjoyable and gives a great perspective.
If you continue to hike on the Group 63 Loop Trail, you can do the loop and come back to the parking lot, which would be about four miles. For a longer adventure, hikers can either head towards the Hoff Road Trailhead or continue south on the Twin Oaks Trail. If you continue on the the Twin Oaks Trail it eventually turns into the Bailey Bridge Trail and then dead ends at the Wauponsee Trail. It is seven miles from the trailhead to the Wauponsee Trail, so there are a lot of hiking options.
Another option is to veer west and cross over Illinois 53 on the Iron Bridge following the Henslow Trail. The Henslow Trail is 5.2 miles long and after crossing the highway goes through a scenic restored prairie section. It then goes south through some not very scenic section including a burned out area near a fertilizer plant before ending at Boathouse Road.
Midewin is in the process of restoring the whole park to natural prairie, but it is a long process. If you go on a long hike on any trail you will go through some sections of restored prairie and other areas where non-native species have taken hold. You will also go through areas that are in the process of being restored and are not that scenic. Fortunately, all trails have their good spots along with the bad.
The Henslow Trail ends and there are two other trails that start where it ends. The 1.5 mile Prairie Creek Woods Trail or the 4.2 mile Blodgett Marsh Trail. There is also a parking lot and trailhead where the Henslow Trail ends, so you do not have to hike the whole Henslow Trail to get to this side of the park.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie wildlife
Besides the bison, there are a lot of opportunities for wildlife spotting in Midewin. I have seen coyote, deer, hawks, owls, meadowlarks, pheasants, and many other different kinds of birds. It is a great place to see the spring migration, which will be peaking in the next two to three weeks. On my last hike, I saw a rufous-sided towhee singing on top of tree.
On the west side of the park there are more wetlands. I saw fresh evidence of beaver along the Henslow Trail and a muskrat swimming in Buttonbush Pond on the Prairie Creek Woods Trail. You can see the normal wetland species here including herons, ducks, geese, egrets etcetera. I have also seen a bittern in Midewin, which is one of the few places I have seen them.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie sunset
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is not the most beautiful place on earth; however, the scenery is interesting. What Midewin excels in is its skies. Due to the flat nature of the terrain, you can see the horizon for miles. It seems like every time I come to Midewin, the nature of the sky is fascinating.
This is especially true at sunset. If you come to Midewin for a day of hiking, be sure to stay late. The park stays open until 10 p.m., so there is no hurry to leave. The best place to view a Midewin sunset is on top of a bunker.