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8 wildest places in Chicago

Here’s where the wild things are

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Skokie Lagoons.
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Here’s a surprising fact: Chicago’s human population has declined over the past several years but its coyote count is booming.

According to a story published last month in National Geographic, there are now approximately 4,000 eastern coyotes living in Cook County. Many of them reside in the Busse Woods Preserve west of O’Hare Airport, but some (labeled “super urban coyotes”) have found a home in the city limits.

Coyotes aren’t the only wild animals hiding in plain sight amongst Chicago’s urban landscape. Foxes, deer, birds of prey, herons, bats, and skunks can be spotted in quiet pockets of the city that blur the line between wild and civilization—if you know where to look.

With some help from Seth Magle of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo, we’ve mapped out some of the “wildest” spots in the city where you can commune with the city’s less tamed flora and fauna.

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1. North Park Village Nature Center

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5801 N Pulaski Rd
Chicago, IL 60646
(312) 744-5472
Visit Website

Once farmland, this 57-acre area was once part of a 150-acre parcel purchased by the city and converted to a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1911. It’s now the largest city-owned natural area on the North Side. There are three main restored habitats to explore: oak savanna, woodlands, and wetlands. Take it’s looping trails surrounded by native grasses, flowers, and bur and white oak trees and you can discover wood ducks, geese, painted turtles, and deer live there. Raccoons, foxes, bullfrogs, kingfishers, crayfish, and great blue herons can also sometimes be found. 

2. West Ridge Nature Preserve

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5801 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60659
(312) 742-7529
Visit Website

When the city purchased this 21-acre site for $8 million in 2011, it was a part of Rosehill Cemetery mostly used as a dumping ground for dirt and debris. The park district worked with Hitchcock Design Group to design a park that’s more overgrown and uncultivated than most of Chicago’s green spaces. As of 2015, a multipurpose trail snakes though tall grasses, restored woodland, and four-acre pond. Both the nature area and the adjacent cemetery are known to contain a “phemonomal amount of biodiversity,” says Magle. “We’ve detected deer, coyote, tons of birds including belted kingfisher, kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and hooded mergansers—not to mention nocturnal species that are harder to see like bats and flying squirrels.”

3. Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

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Follow the Lake Michigan shoreline east from Montrose Beach and you can find this 15-acre wooded oasis of mulch-covered hiking trails and more natural habitat that attracts migratory birds looking for a green resting spot as they travel over Lake Michigan. Duck into “The Magic Hedge,” a 150-yard stretch of honeysuckle bushes, during traditional spring and fall bird migrations and it’s possible to see or hear up to 320 different species that have been identified there. “You’re quite likely to meet other birdwatchers there to share tips and rare sightings, too,” says Magle.

4. Nature Boardwalk

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2001 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60614

This small slice of curated wildness in the middle of the city was once the Lincoln Park Zoo’s manmade South Pond. But in 2010, it was turned into a more natural habitat, a 14-acre Midwestern prairie ecosystem meant to serve as a “connective habitat for resident and migratory animal populations.” Walk on the Studio Gang-designed half-mile long Nature Boardwalk these days and you can encounter rare migratory birds like the black-crowned night heron, frogs, turtles, and dozens of species of butterflies.

5. Columbus Park

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500 S Central Ave
Chicago, IL 60644
(773) 287-7641
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Parts of this historic 140-acre westside park looks like a natural landscape, but the rolling hills, waterfalls, stepping stone paths, and river were all part of landscape architect Jens Jensen’s original “Prairie-style” plan. “This gives a feeling of breadth and freedom that only the prairie landscape can give to the human soul,” Jensen wrote in his 1917 report to the Parks Commission. Columbus Park is currently a favorite gathering spot for Chicago’s hearty coyote population, which are easier to spot in the winter, says Magle.

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A beautiful morning in Columbus Park today.

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6. Northerly Island

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Northerly Island
Chicago, IL 60605

The eastern tip of this man-made peninsula is an urban nature sanctuary that offers wild prairie grasses, a 5-acre pond, and strolling paths. Everything from coyotes, possums, raccoons, herons, red-tailed hawks, and rare butterflies have been spotted there. Northerly Island offers “amazing birding opportunities to go with incredible skyline views,” says Magle.

7. Henry C. Palmisano Nature Park

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2700 S Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60608
(312) 747-6497
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As is the case with many parks on this list, this 26-acre site in Bridgeport is an adaptive reuse. Once an ancient coral reef, a stone quarry, and a landfill, as of 2009— it’s become a public green space featuring a fishing pond, wetlands, preserved quarry walls, and 1.7 miles of trails. “It’s a phenomenal example of nature in the city. All manner of mammals and birds can be spotted,” says Magle.

8. Big Marsh Park

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11559 S Stony Island Ave
Chicago, IL 60633
(312) 742-7529
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Birds are the word at this huge 280-acre far southeast side public park—opened in 2016 in the Calumet Area Reserve. After a water control structure was installed in 2015 to control water levels and invasive species were removed, birds have been nesting there. Hike through the park and you might spot catch a glimpse yellow-headed blackbirds, sandpipers, Pied-billed Grebes, Least Bitterns, and Common Moorhens and more winged fowl.

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1. North Park Village Nature Center

5801 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60646

Once farmland, this 57-acre area was once part of a 150-acre parcel purchased by the city and converted to a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1911. It’s now the largest city-owned natural area on the North Side. There are three main restored habitats to explore: oak savanna, woodlands, and wetlands. Take it’s looping trails surrounded by native grasses, flowers, and bur and white oak trees and you can discover wood ducks, geese, painted turtles, and deer live there. Raccoons, foxes, bullfrogs, kingfishers, crayfish, and great blue herons can also sometimes be found. 

5801 N Pulaski Rd
Chicago, IL 60646

2. West Ridge Nature Preserve

5801 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60659

When the city purchased this 21-acre site for $8 million in 2011, it was a part of Rosehill Cemetery mostly used as a dumping ground for dirt and debris. The park district worked with Hitchcock Design Group to design a park that’s more overgrown and uncultivated than most of Chicago’s green spaces. As of 2015, a multipurpose trail snakes though tall grasses, restored woodland, and four-acre pond. Both the nature area and the adjacent cemetery are known to contain a “phemonomal amount of biodiversity,” says Magle. “We’ve detected deer, coyote, tons of birds including belted kingfisher, kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and hooded mergansers—not to mention nocturnal species that are harder to see like bats and flying squirrels.”

5801 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60659

3. Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

Chicago, IL 60640

Follow the Lake Michigan shoreline east from Montrose Beach and you can find this 15-acre wooded oasis of mulch-covered hiking trails and more natural habitat that attracts migratory birds looking for a green resting spot as they travel over Lake Michigan. Duck into “The Magic Hedge,” a 150-yard stretch of honeysuckle bushes, during traditional spring and fall bird migrations and it’s possible to see or hear up to 320 different species that have been identified there. “You’re quite likely to meet other birdwatchers there to share tips and rare sightings, too,” says Magle.

4. Nature Boardwalk

2001 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614

This small slice of curated wildness in the middle of the city was once the Lincoln Park Zoo’s manmade South Pond. But in 2010, it was turned into a more natural habitat, a 14-acre Midwestern prairie ecosystem meant to serve as a “connective habitat for resident and migratory animal populations.” Walk on the Studio Gang-designed half-mile long Nature Boardwalk these days and you can encounter rare migratory birds like the black-crowned night heron, frogs, turtles, and dozens of species of butterflies.

2001 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60614

5. Columbus Park

500 S Central Ave, Chicago, IL 60644

Parts of this historic 140-acre westside park looks like a natural landscape, but the rolling hills, waterfalls, stepping stone paths, and river were all part of landscape architect Jens Jensen’s original “Prairie-style” plan. “This gives a feeling of breadth and freedom that only the prairie landscape can give to the human soul,” Jensen wrote in his 1917 report to the Parks Commission. Columbus Park is currently a favorite gathering spot for Chicago’s hearty coyote population, which are easier to spot in the winter, says Magle.

500 S Central Ave
Chicago, IL 60644

6. Northerly Island

Northerly Island, Chicago, IL 60605

The eastern tip of this man-made peninsula is an urban nature sanctuary that offers wild prairie grasses, a 5-acre pond, and strolling paths. Everything from coyotes, possums, raccoons, herons, red-tailed hawks, and rare butterflies have been spotted there. Northerly Island offers “amazing birding opportunities to go with incredible skyline views,” says Magle.

Northerly Island
Chicago, IL 60605

7. Henry C. Palmisano Nature Park

2700 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60608

As is the case with many parks on this list, this 26-acre site in Bridgeport is an adaptive reuse. Once an ancient coral reef, a stone quarry, and a landfill, as of 2009— it’s become a public green space featuring a fishing pond, wetlands, preserved quarry walls, and 1.7 miles of trails. “It’s a phenomenal example of nature in the city. All manner of mammals and birds can be spotted,” says Magle.

2700 S Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60608

8. Big Marsh Park

11559 S Stony Island Ave, Chicago, IL 60633

Birds are the word at this huge 280-acre far southeast side public park—opened in 2016 in the Calumet Area Reserve. After a water control structure was installed in 2015 to control water levels and invasive species were removed, birds have been nesting there. Hike through the park and you might spot catch a glimpse yellow-headed blackbirds, sandpipers, Pied-billed Grebes, Least Bitterns, and Common Moorhens and more winged fowl.

11559 S Stony Island Ave
Chicago, IL 60633