take a day trip to the beach

Summer is almost over – have you been to the beach yet?  You owe it to yourself to have a sunny summer day at the beach!  Make it even better by getting a ride so you don’t have to deal with the stress of driving.

Lake Michigan. photo: susan ask

Four beaches near Chicago that you can get to by public transit.

Take a day trip to the beach!

Don’t forget to check in with lifeguards about swimming conditions.  Riptides and rough water should be taken seriously.  If it’s not a good day for swimming, there’s still more to do at the beach!

Illinois Beach State Park  (northwest Illinois)

Wildlife along the Dead River. photo: susan ask

Miles of beaches provide room for everyone to relax, run and enjoy the sun and water.  Take some time to explore the black oak savannas, swales and marshes away from the beach.

The trails along the Dead River lead into a surprisingly lush area, rich with aquatic life, birds and other critters.

Transit directions:

Metra (Union Pacific North Line):  Take the train to the Zion or Winthrop Harbor stop, then walk east into the park. To get to the trails and beaches: From Zion, walk east on Shiloh Boulevard then turn south (right) on Deborah Ave.  From Winthrop Harbor, walk east on 7th street.

From Chicago (Ogilvie Transportation Center):  about 1 hour 25 minutes; $8.75 round trip on weekends or $17.50 round trip weekdays

Montrose Beach  (in Chicago)

Montrose dune. photo: susan ask

Right in the city, you’ll find a nice stretch of sandy beach where you can read a book, build a sandcastle or play volleyball.  Short walking trails through the restored dune and ‘Magic Hedge’ provide the chance to see and hear more birds than you might expect in a big city.  There are picnic tables throughout the park, where you can have lunch under a shade tree.

Why not get out on the lake?  You can rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards at the kiosk on the southern edge of the beach.

Transit directions:

CTA bus:  The Montrose Bus (#78) or the #145 or #151 going north/south.  The #78 goes into the park during the summer.  For all other buses, walk east long Montrose to get into the park.

CTA el train:  Red Line.  Exit at the Sheridan, Wilson or Lawrence stops and walk east until you reach the park.

Fare:  $2 – 2.25 each way; transfers within 2 hours are 25 cents.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore   (northwest Indiana)

Dune grass. photo: susan ask

The Indiana Dunes provide a beautiful oasis along 15 miles of Lake Michigan coastline.  There are broad sandy beaches, high dunes, wetlands and rich history to explore.

Walk the trails through the wooded dunes to take a trip through deep time and ecological succession.  The tree-covered dunes furthest from the lake were once right on the water’s edge.  Over time, new dunes developed near the shore and trees replaced marram grass on the older dunes.

Transit directions:

South Shore Line:  There are four stops within the Park:  Miller Station, Ogden Dunes, Station Beverly Shores Station and Dune Park Station.  The National Park Service has detailed directions for getting from each station to some popular places within the park.

To get from the station to the park, the free Dune Buggy shuttle runs a circular route that includes stops at Miller Train Station, Douglas Center, Lake Street Beach and Marquette Park.  The shuttle runs every 20 minutes from 10 am – 6 pm from Memorial to Day Labor Day.

From downtown (Millenium Station):  About 1 hour 10 minutes; $14 round trip.

New Buffalo Beach  (southwest Michigan)

Lake Michigan. photo: joe mazza / brave lux

The beach is a busy, family-friendly vacation spot.

For a wilder experience, rent a kayak or paddle board on the beach to explore the coast or paddle up the Galien River.

If you want the full beach-tourist experience, wander up Whittaker street for all the t-shirts and junk food you can handle.

Transit directions:

Amtrak:  The Wolverine and Blue Water trains both stop in New Buffalo, right by the beach.  It’s a short walk west to the beach or east to the main shopping district.

From Chicago (Union Station):  About 1 hour 20 minutes; $24 round trip.  (For comparison, beach parking is $12, the same as a one-way train ticket)


transit to trail tour: Montrose Harbour

People traveled by bike, bus, train, feet and even by car to join the Just Space / Transit to Trail tour of Montrose Harbor. We walked from the historic lake shore (now ½ mile inland) out to the concrete pier where land now meets water—and back into Uptown.

The Chicago skyline peeks over the native prairie plantings at Montrose Harbor-- a treat on the transit to trail tour.  photo:  joe mazza / brave lux

The Chicago skyline peeks over native prairie plantings at Montrose Harbor– a treat on the transit to trail tour. photo: joe mazza / brave lux


Melanie, of Friends of Cuneo, shares stories about how the lakefront has changed in the past hundred years.  photo:  joe mazza / brave lux

Melanie, of Friends of Cuneo, shares stories about how the lakefront has changed in the past hundred years. photo: joe mazza / brave lux

Throughout the walk, we discovered how people have shaped this area over the past hundred years—literally creating the landscape by filling in the edge of the lake. What a history this space has!

Over time, the area has provided space for tourists to party on the lakefront, for mothers to give birth in a state-of-the-art facility, for migrating birds to rest & feast every spring and fall, for gardeners to grow flowers and vegetables, for the city to pump drinking water and for child laborers to bathe at night.

Quite a history, yes. And what a future!

Getting a closer view of Purple Martins in their lakeside condos (nesting boxes). photo: joe mazza / brave lux

Getting a closer view of Purple Martins in their lakeside condos (nesting boxes). photo: joe mazza / brave lux










A community garden, full of brightly colored flowers, butterflies and vegetables, in a lakeside park in Uptown. photo: joe mazza / brave lux

A community garden, full of brightly colored flowers, butterflies and vegetables, in a lakeside park in Uptown. photo: joe mazza / brave lux

Montrose Point, Uptown, the Bird Sanctuary– they’ve all been shaped by the priorities of people.

This unique tour drew on the knowledge of collaborating CSLN members Friends of Cuneo, Audubon Chicago Region, ICA and animalia project– on July 29, 2015.

Join us for our next tour!

Sometimes natural wonders are discovered on unexpected paths.  photo: joe mazza / brave lux  montrose point chicago bird sanctuary

Sometimes natural wonders are discovered on unexpected paths. photo: joe mazza / brave lux

A bit of nature, culture and community in Chicago montrose point. photo: joe mazza / brave lux

A bit of nature, culture and community in Chicago. photo: joe mazza / brave lux

Dam No. 4 Woods { by el }

Walking trails snow upland forest Cook County Forest Preserve Dam No. 4 Woods animalia project photo by susan ask

Walking on snowy trails through the upland forest of Cook County Forest Preserve’s Dam No. 4 Woods. animalia project photo by susan ask

Two forest preserves, Chippewa Woods and Dam No. 4 Woods, create a woodland oasis just outside O’Hare Airport.  These are two of several  Cook County Forest Preserves along the Des Plaines River.  Despite the strange name, Dam No. 4 Woods are a lovely place for a walk.

The preserves are mostly forested, with floodplain forest along the river and, true to type, these forests are prone to flooding and act as a buffer for springtime river flooding.  The trails are mostly in the upland forests.  Unpaved trails run the length of the preserve and lead down to the river; some trails are marked, some aren’t.

Beaver activity Des Plaines River Dam No. 4 Woods animalia project susan ask

Beaver activity along the Des Plaines River in Dam No. 4 Woods. animalia project photo by susan ask

The forest provides important stop-over habitat for migrating birds– and springtime along the Des Plaines river is a great chance to see a huge diversity of songbirds; more than 280 bird species migrate through Chicago.  Year-round, beaver, deer and gray squirrels are active in the preserve.  You’re likely to see evidence of their presence, even if you don’t see the animals.

In winter, this is a good place for cross-country skiing because of the easy terrain and long stretches of trails.  Skiing trails aren’t groomed; they’re made by skiers cutting through fresh snow, but they are shared by walkers, dogs and deer so the trails aren’t always smooth.

Because of the proximity to the airport and several highways, expect to hear the sounds of motorized transportation as a constant presence.  You’ll also see and hear planes overhead frequently.

About the preserve

These preserves, located in Park Ridge, are part of the Cook County Forest Preserve system; this is one many preserves that make up the Des Plaines River Trail in Cook and Lake Counties.  The Des Plaines River Trail allows you to travel many miles along the River; underpasses and bridges allow you to avoid traffic along the way.

The preserve includes two picnic areas (John E. Traeger Family Picnic Area and the Blandings Grove Family Picnic Area) and Axehead lake.

Get involved with protecting the Forest Preserves as a volunteer.

Getting to Dam No. 4 Woods East

trail sign Dam No 4 Woods Dee Rd Higgins Rd. animalia project susan

A trail sign marks the entrance to Dam No 4 Woods, near the intersection of Dee Rd and Higgins Rd. animalia project photo by susan ask

El:  The preserve is easy to reach from the CTA Blue Line.  Exit at the Cumberland stop, and leave the station through the doors on the north side.  Walk northeast (angle to the left) through the parking lot, towards the intersection of Higgins and Dee (East River) roads.  Cross to the northwest corner of the intersection and you’ll be at the trailhead to the preserve.  Fare:  $2.25-2.50 each way.

Map:  Here is a map from the Cook County Forest Preserve District.


While you’re in the area:

Des Plaines River Trail underpass Dam No 4 Woods Devon Ave. animalia project susan ask

This underpass, in Dam No 4 Woods, passes under Devon Ave. animalia project photo by susan ask

This preserve connects to others in the Cook County Forest Preserve system.  Continue exploring to the north and south along the trails; Catherine Chevalier Woods is located south and Iroquois Woods is to the north.

Other than the preserves, you’ll be near O’Hare, so if watching planes is your thing, you’ll be happy to get a close up view.  The short walk from the el to the trail cuts through a typical suburban corporate parking lot.  Come prepared with food and water, so you don’t have to rely on the pop machine at the station.


author:  Susan Ask

Montrose Point { by bus }

chicago skyline montrose harbor animalia project susan ask transit to trails

chicago skyline from montrose harbor. animalia project. photo by susan ask and joe mazza / brave lux

Some wonderful habitats are right in Chicago– and easy to reach by CTA.  Montrose Point (aka Montrose Harbor) is an easy walk from several CTA bus routes and a somewhat longer walk from the el.

Montrose Point contains a varied patchwork of habitats and diverse wildlife throughout the year.  You’ll see the harbor, of course, with calm, protected water– but you’ll also see sand dunes, shrublands, prairie plantings, lawn, beach and the open water of Lake Michigan.  Intensive restoration and management have created bird and butterfly habitat at the “Magic Hedge” and the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary; the site has been designated an “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society.  On almost any visit, you’ll see and hear birds throughout the park; you’ll also see lots of birders with binoculars draped round their necks.

Montrose Harbor is a vibrant place, busy with all kinds of life– including sparrows, sailors, ducks, gulls, picknickers, skaters, fisher-men/women/kids, dogs and more.  You won’t be alone in nature, but chances are you’ll have a nice chat with someone else who enjoys exploring a bit of nature in the city.

About the park:

Montrose Harbor, part of the long span of Lincoln Park, is owned by the Chicago Park District.  The address is 4400 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL  http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/montrose-beach/

Volunteers help to maintain the habitat, with monthly Saturday workdays throughout the year.  If you’re inspired to help, get involved:  http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/mobile/jobs–volunteering/nature-area-volunteer-stewardship-days/

The Magic Hedge was featured in an old edition of the (now, sadly, defunct) Chicago Wilderness magazine:  http://www.chicagowildernessmag.org/CW_Archives/issues/spring1998/IWmagichedge.html

Getting to Montrose Point and Montrose Harbor

Bus:  The Montrose bus (#78) will take you right to the edge of the park year-round; in the summer the bus goes all the way to Montrose Beach.  Take the #78 as far east as you can, then continue east on Montrose into the park.  You can also get to Montrose Harbor from the #145 or #151 and the express buses that run along Lake Shore Drive or Marine Drive in rush hours (#136, 144, 146).  Exit at Montrose and walk east on Montrose directly into the park, or exit at Buena and cross under Lake Shore Drive, through a viaduct and into the Peace Park.  Take the trail north (turn left) and follow the trail, bearing to the east (right)– you’ll walk up to the harbor.  Fare:  $2-2.25 each way.

El:  The red line brings you fairly close, but you’ll have a 1/2 mile to 1 mile walk from the Sheridan stop.  From the Sheridan stop, walk north on Sheridan to Buena St.  Go east (turn right) and walk to Marine Drive.  You’ll cross under Lake Shore Drive, through a viaduct and into the Peace Park.  Take the trail north (turn left) and follow the trail, bearing to the east (right)– you’ll walk up to the harbor.  Fare:  $2.25-2.50 each way.

Train:  Not the best option, since the nearest stop is about 2 miles away at the Ravenswood Station on the Union Pacific-North line.

Once you’re at Montrose Harbor

Follow the sidewalk along the north end of the harbor and you’ll reach the “Magic Hedge” at the northeast corner of the harbor.  You can walk along the sidewalk all the way to the point of the harbor.  Explore the variety of habitats as you please.  When you’re ready to call it a day, head west and cross under Lake Shore Drive at Montrose or Buena to catch the bus (or the el) back home.

While you’re in the area:

The Peace Park is a lovely, sunken garden along the bike path where the underpass connects the lake front to Buena St.

Take a walk through the Buena Park neighborhood in Uptown, just west of the park.  The Hutchinson St Distoric District is home to Prairie Style mansions and larger-than-usual city lots.  To get there from the park, cross under Lake Shore Drive at Buena, then walk north 1 block to Hutchinson St and walk west, along 2 tree-lined blocks of homes built when this area was an escape from the city.

In winter, the golf course just south of the harbor is a great place for cross country skiing.  It’s a wide open space, with a few rolling hills to add some extra fun.  Enter the golf course near the lake front, south of the harbor, approximately where Grace St would be if it ran all the way to the lake.

Restaurants and coffee shops are scattered all along Sheridan Rd (two blocks west of Marine), with a few places on Montrose and Irving Park Roads.


author:  Susan Ask






Thatcher Woods { by metra or el }

thatcher woods bat box animalia project susan ask

A bat house on a tree in the Thatcher Woods Forest Preserve in River Forest IL. animalia project susan ask

A short train ride can lead you to an interesting restoration project in the center of the Chicago Region.  The Metra or the el can take you to a linear forest preserve that follows the Des Plaines River.

Thatcher Woods is a diverse woodland, encompassing floodplain forest, upland oak forest and oak savanna in the near west suburb of, aptly-named, River Forest.  Thatcher Woods is the northern portion of the preserve; GAR and Thomas Jefferson Woods are the southern portion.  GAR stands for Grand Army of the Republic, but the acronym is more commonly used.

The trails can be busy, with bikes, families, joggers and naturalists.  If you’re not yet comfortable walking alone in more isolated places, you might find comfort in the company and the proximity to nearby houses.

The Des Plaines River runs along the western edge of the three woodland preserves.

About the park:

Thatcher Woods, is part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District.  The address (of the museum) is: 738 Thatcher Ave, River Forest, IL  60305

This is another location where volunteers make a tremendous difference.  Read more about their work, and how to get involved here.

Hal Tyrell trailside museum at thatcher woods forest preserve river forest IL animalia project susan ask

Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum at Thatcher Woods Forest Preserve in River Forest IL. animalia project photo by susan ask

Thatcher Woods is also home to the Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum.  The small museum has exhibits about the natural history and especially the wildlife of the area.  They offer some interesting programs and activities for kids and families.  And they offer more advance workshops for adults– for example, propagating native plant seeds for your garden.  (Although it was once home to a wildlife rehabilitation center, they no longer accept injured or orphaned animals.  Click here for some local wildlife rehabilitation centers.)

Getting to Thatcher Woods

El:  The terminus of the Green Line is in nearby Oak Park.  Exit at the Harlem stop (the westernmost stop).  Go north less than a block to Lake St, then turn left to head west on Lake St. for about 1.2 miles.  Turn right (north) onto Thatcher Ave to go to Thatcher Woods or the Trailside Museum.  Or— turn left (south) onto Thatcher Ave to go to GAR Woods or Thomas Jefferson Woods, located on the west side of the street (on your left).  Fare:  $2.25-2.50 each way.

Metra:  Take the Union Pacific West line to the River Forest station.  Walk north from the station on Thatcher Ave to reach Thatcher Woods.  Walk south from the station on Thatcher Ave to reach GAR or Thomas Jefferson Woods, on the west side of the street (on your left).  Train line:  Union Pacific West (20 minutes to/from Ogilvie Station) Fare: $3 – 6.75, depending on where you start.  A weekend pass is $7 for unlimited rides on Saturday and Sunday. 

While you’re in the area

turkey tail fungus Trametes versicolor thatcher woods animalia project susan ask

Turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) on a log at Thatcher Woods. animalia project photo by susan ask

Connect to other natural areas.  Continue North through Thatcher Woods to connect to more Cook County Forest Preserve property.  Jerome Huppert Woods and Sunset Bridge Meadow are just north of North Avenue.

Oak Park is the home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home/studio, as well as many homes and the Unity Temple designed by him.  More information from the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.


author:  Susan Ask

transit to trail

Using public transit to explore nature– it’s easy and energy efficient.

train susan ask

take the train to explore nature– it can be easier than driving, especially in rough weather. photo by susan ask

The Chicago Wilderness region is rich in biodiversity and there are diverse conservation areas, forest preserves, parks, restoration projects and beaches to explore.   Most of these can be reached easily by car, but driving—and burning fossil fuels—for the sake of nature study seems counterproductive.  Driving just one mile releases about a pound of CO2 ¹ and releases other pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates²— all of which can harm nature.  Add to that the environmental cost of road construction and maintenance—and the total cost of driving to a conservation area can seem too high.  Maybe it’s better to stay home.

Fortunately, living in an urban area has the distinct advantage of access to public transportation.  Trains, busses, even the el, can take you to natural areas full of beauty, wildlife, calm and inspiration— without the higher emissions of driving a personal vehicle.  You can cut CO2 emissions by riding the train (using 0.40 pounds per passenger mile), el (0.60 pounds/passenger mile) or bus (0.74 pounds/passenger mile) compared to travelling by car (using 0.96 pounds per passenger mile). ¹

Transit to Trail provides a (growing) list of conservation areas that can be reached by public transportation.  Periodic blog posts, based on the travels of one urban ecologist, will explore some of these natural areas and how to leave a smaller footprint travelling to them.



author:  Susan Ask


¹ US Department of Transportation / Tina Hodges.  2009.  Public Transportation’s Role in Responding to Climate Change.

² US Environmental Protection Agency.  2012.  National Emissions Inventory (NEI) Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data.