Turn On Your Away Status and Seek Out These Peaceful Outdoor Spaces in Chicago

Take a break from at it all.

Japanese Garden Jackson Park | Alejandro Reyes
Japanese Garden Jackson Park | Alejandro Reyes

One might assume that the closest thing to “nature” found in Chicago is the concrete jungle. One would be incorrect. Sure, the city is more regarded for architecture, murky politics, Italian beef, and Italian beef-themed TV shows, but the urban jungle isn’t all concrete. Throughout the sprawling metropolis, and into the surrounding suburbs, there’s plenty of pastoral refuge to be found—from lush forests and tranquil ponds to beaches that feel downright tropical. So the next time you’re feeling the call of the wild, so to speak, find sanctuary at any of these places for a nature escape in Chicagoland.

Despite the fact that the North Branch Trail System—a roughly 20-mile stretch of trails linking the city with the Chicago Botanic Garden—is literally surrounded by bustling thoroughfares, you might feel worlds away at LaBagh Woods, an 80-acre park consisting of dense forest, creeks, and more wild deer than probably anywhere else within city limits. The woods are anchored by a nearly six-mile loop trail that meanders through thickets and meadows, and along the Chicago River that carves its way through the forest. Or if you’d prefer to keep it more mellow, the Irene C. Hernandez Family Picnic Grove is an optimal place for a picnic.

South Loop
What once was an airport, and later the site of the Century of Progress World fFair, is now a 120-acre man-made peninsula masquerading as an island. Perched off the tip of Museum Campus in the South Loop, a stone’s throw from the Michigan Avenue and the city’s most iconic skyscrapers, Northerly Island is a breath of fresh air in the middle of it all. Although it shares turf with the Huntington Bank Pavilion, which occasionally inhibits access to the rest of the island, this remains the only completed man-made island as envisioned by famed architect Daniel H. Burnham, and it’s evolved into a haven of nature with its prairie and savanna landscape, 5-acre pond, and walking paths that stroll past some 20,000 trees and shrubs.

Japanese Garden | Alejandro Reyes

Hyde Park
Located within Jackson Park, itself a 550-acre slice of paradise in the Hyde Park neighborhood, the Japanese Garden feels particularly zen with its authentic flora, art, and landscaping. Otherwise known as the Osaka Garden or the Garden of the Phoenix, the peaceful garden was created as a symbol of camaraderie between the U.S. and Japan—originally consisting of the Ho-o-den temple in 1893, the Chicago Park District restored and expanded it in the 1930s, adding a full-blown Japanese Garden that feels straight out of Kyoto. Visit in the spring to witness the marvel of the blossoming cherry trees.

Indiana Dunes | Christine Livingston at Indiana Dunes Tourism

Porter, IN
When most folks think of national parks, they probably envision places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, which is why it’s so pleasantly surprising that there’s indeed a national park located at Chicago’s front door. Just over the Indiana border, Indiana Dunes National Park is an oasis of biodiversity and sandy shores so bucolic they look more like Hawaii than the Chicago suburbs. In addition to swimming and sunbathing on any of the park’s beaches, hiking trails invite visitors to ascend dunes and traverse terrain that varies from marshy boardwalks to tranquil forests—all so conveniently close to Chicago that the skyline looms in the distance.

The Morton Arboretum | Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

Lisle, IL
If you don’t have the time to trek to Starved Rock State Park, the Morton Arboretum is your next best bet for scratching that tree-hugging itch. Located in suburban Lisle, the Arboretum is a 1,700-acre sea of forests and trees from all over the world, accessible via trails and lawns aplenty. The park is famed for its holiday lights, and its rotating exhibitions (the current one is “Off the Earth,” a series of sculptures crafted from reclaimed tree branches by Polish-American artist Olga Ziemska), but it’s also a reliable reprieve for picnics and chilling with a bottle of wine on the west side of the park.

North Park
Like something out of a Winnie the Pooh storybook, the North Park Village Nature Center offers a lovely forested respite within the greater North Park Village campus. The nature center, which spans nearly 60 acres, contains easy walking trails, wetlands, prairies, savanna, and forest, along with a hands-on discovery room, and a 12-acre addition called Walking Stick Woods, where kids and families can explore natural play spaces and cultural features.

Flickr/John Talley

Lincoln Park
It’s like your own zen meditation garden in a quiet enclave of Lincoln Park (the actual park) where a stone walkway encircles a serene lily pool. Listen to the sounds of the gentle waterfall, sit on the smooth rocks, and ponder life. The best part? Its close proximity to both North Pond (the restaurant) and North Pond Nature Sanctuary.

Flickr/Don Burkett

Hyde Park
This stunning little Lake Michigan peninsula in Burnham Park, is made of limestone blocks, is accessible by the Lakefront Trail, and is one of the best places in the city to mutter to yourself something like “hot damn” as you admire jaw-dropping views of the lake and skyline. You can also consider getting married here.

Garfield Park
Between the lush tropical jungle, the palms, the cacti, and the koi fish, this massive conservatory feels like the furthest thing from Chicago—and all easily accessible off the Green Line. Between its two acres of indoor greenhouse and 10 acres of outdoor gardens, this little piece of Eden contains numerous rooms themed around exotic plants that otherwise have no business being in Chicago. If things get too humid inside—and it’s almost always humid—stroll amidst the sunflowers in the breezy outdoor gardens and paths.

While Montrose Beach tends to bustle with crowds, food vendors, and loud music blaring out of car windows, there’s still ambient peace to be found along this northern stretch of Lake Michigan. Montrose Point is the more laid-back section of the beach, a dune-filled bird sanctuary on the southern tip of the park. It also contains one of the best spots for trail hiking in the city with killer skyline views. If that’s not enough, there’s also a beach bar.

Courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden

There are 27 gardens on 385 acres. There are nine islands, six miles of lakeshore, and a 45-foot waterfall cascading into a series of small pools. But the best part about this immaculately manicured green space might just be the less-famous open fields where you can simply sprawl out on a blanket and read a book in the sun. Additionally, the gardens feature numerous areas and elements, including a model train garden for the kids and rotating exhibitions, like the summertime Love in Bloom.

Courtesy of The Trust for Public Land

Wicker Park/Bucktown/Humboldt Park/Logan Square
While not technically a “nature escape,” this 2.7-mile recreation path does provide a beautiful way to see the city in a whole new (and more chilled-out) light. And don’t forget the endless array of fine establishments for food and booze just off the trail. Because hiking is hard work.

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Matt Kirouac is a Thrillist contributor. 

Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor. Follow him:@innerviewmag.