During last week’s #HikerChat, I was complaining (sort of) about the fact that my nearest National Forests are more than six hours away. The National Forests Foundation suggested I visit the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. I had thought about it before, when I was looking for dispersed camping opportunities near Chicago (there are none) and also when I read that they were planning on reintroducing bison at the Prairie, much like the Nature Conservancy is doing at the Nachusa Grasslands. In a stunning display of serendipity, we literally had NO plans on the calendar for this past weekend (that NEVER happens), so we headed over Saturday.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first national tallgrass prairie and, at 19,000 acres, the largest piece of contiguous open space in northeastern Illinois. Midewin (mi-DAY-win) is a Potowatomi Native American word referring to the tribe’s healers. Established in 1996 on the site of the former Joliet Arsenal, this is a prairie restoration project that also helps preserve the history of the location by leaving existing bunkers, leading tours of remaining buildings, and utilizing existing roads as trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. It’s a really neat place and, while we walked about 5 miles of trails, we just barely scratched the surface of the available experience.
It’s a shame that no camping is available at this time, though it might be in the future. The concern is not so much about human’s impact on the environment, but rather the environment’s impact on humans. Because it was an area that munitions were manufactured and stored, the existing water is not potable as it is polluted. Ongoing water monitoring will allow them to determine if it would be safe to allow camping.
This Fall, it is expected that 15 – 30 bison will arrive at Midewin, with access to 1200 acres of non-native prairie pastures. Since cattle currently graze on parts of Midewin, this experiment will help determine how the bison grazing will affect the area and if it helps the native tall grass prairie. The bison are also expected to provide a higher quality habitat for grassland birds and other animals, when compared to prairie habitat maintained by cattle grazing.
Midewin National Tallgrass Video
At 45 minutes or so from home (about an hour from Chicago), this is a national treasure that we are sure to return to and explore more.