What does a 13,000-year-old woolly mammoth feel like? Can you tell the difference between a muskrat and a mink? Do you know what beaver tracks look like? If these kind of questions tickle your family’s fancy, head to the awesome nature centers in and around Chicago. You’ll have a blast connecting digging your hands into nature. Read on for the scoop on destinations from the middle of the city to Palos Heights.
photo: North Park Village / Chicago Park District
North Park Village Nature Center
Let your kids decide where to turn next at this 46-acre nature preserve and educational facility. Start at Walking Stick Woods, a sweeping outdoor playground where you can go off-trail to climb, build and discover. Use natural materials to put together shelters, sculptures, swings and more.
You won’t see the time pass as you continue to wander through woodlands, wetlands, prairies and savannas. There’s also an indoor children’s room (perfect for rainy days) that includes puppets, books, stories and a coloring area.
In summer, the Center raises monarchs. You’ll see caterpillars grow and form chrysalises in an aquarium, and marvel as naturalists tag and release the monarchs when they are ready to head south.
5801 N. Pulaski Rd., North Park
Open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
photo: via Tim Griffin on Flickr
Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center
Make tracks, pet a woolly mammoth and explore the world of Salt Creek and its inhabitants. Whatever you choose, it’s hands-on fun for all ages here. Families can check out backpacks and equipment (binoculars, magnifying glasses, bug catchers, etc.) to discover new plants and animals along Fullersburg’s two main trails: There is a 1.3-mile loop trail (which includes a small island circle), as well as a three-mile loop trail.
Kids can pretend to be birds in a big faux nest, put on a puppet show, make animal tracks at the putty table, build with blocks, mimic nature sounds with slap drums, and learn about food chains. The education center has an extensive bird area where you’ll be briefed on species before cutting loose to find them outside.
3609 Spring Rd., Oak Brook
Building open Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. & Sun., 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Grounds open daily from one hour after sunrise until one hour after sunset.
Emily Oaks Nature Center
Although just a compact 13 acres, this north suburban paradise is filled with family-friendly adventure areas and a wealth of wildlife.There are two main trails: a ¼-mile paved trail that loops through the woodland (perfect for strollers) and a ¼-mile wood chip trail around the pond.
Watch for turtles, fish, a Canadian geese family, red-winged blackbirds, deer, coyotes, hawks and raccoons. While on the trails, families can play I Spy, launch a leaf boat on the pond, search for acorn caps, make a miniature house out of sticks, find every color of the rainbow in nature, call to the birds by mimicking their songs, and more. Consider renting a trail pack, which change seasonally and provide simple and engaging activities for families to do along the trails.
Inside the nature center, check out the huge tree in the center of the room with five interactive stations to enjoy: The Guest Rooms feature sleeping spots of woodland animals; Dial-A-Call allows you to hear the sounds of weather, insects and other animals on a large phone; Track Tales has footprints that tell the story of different animals as they wandered around the space; the Critter Café serves food preferred by Emily Oaks’ animals; and Eau de Outdoors encourages you to whiff woodland scents and discover its source.
4650 Brummel St., Skokie
Open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
photo: Lake Katherine Nature Center
Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens
Across 85 acres, this oasis has it all: woodlands, a prairie, wetlands and a 10-acre lake. Families with young kids will love the short trail to the manmade waterfall and the one-mile trail around the lake—it’s stroller-friendly. Benches are spaced around the lake, so break time is as scenic as hiking time.
The Children’s Forest is a special place where tots can experiences wetlands, the schoolhouse arch, a salamander mound, spider maze and more. The Wildlife Discovery Center is home to live animals, such as rabbits, turtles, salamanders and fish. Check out Adventure Backpacks (filled with activities to make your time more inspiring), do scavenger hunts and more.
7402 W. Lake Katherine Dr., Palos Heights
Center is open weekdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. & Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Park is open daily from dawn ’til dusk
photo: River Trail Nature Center
River Trail Nature Center
Hike through a sugar maple woods, interact with live animals and go on scavenger hunts. A good visit here begins in the live animal room, home to fish, frogs, turtles and more. This exhibit extends outside where you will find a fox, coyote, raptor, eagle, hawk and owls—feeding time is at 3 p.m. daily. The natural living history room includes an indoor play space equipped with a tent, fishing area, fox den, eagle’s nest, books, puzzles, games and puppets.
Families will enjoy the easy walking trails through the forest, checking off items they discover while participating in seasonal scavenger hunts, and eating at the picnic areas. You can also go fishing and rent poles for free at the nature center.
River Trail Nature Center offers a nature show on Sundays at 1:30 p.m., and on select Wednesdays at 10 a.m. children ages 3-6 can participate in a nature story and craft.
3120 Milwaukee Ave., Northbrook
Building open Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m; park open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
photo: Heller Nature Center
Heller Nature Center
At 97 acres, there’s a lot of room to roam here. Tackle it, step by step, on three miles of marked trails through an oak-hickory forest, tall grass prairie, oak savanna and natural wetlands. Kiddos love exploring Wander Woods, a nature and exploration trail. Wander Woods has an area for digging, listening activities, a tunnel, building logs and more.
The prairie landscape is constantly changing and gives kids the opportunity to chase grasshoppers, butterflies and dragonflies. Check the center’s calendar for a wide range of adventure-filled family programs, including archery instruction and guided canoe excursions.
Heller also offers an indoor nature exhibit that features a bird watching station, a 450-gallon aquarium showcasing native fish and aquatic plants, and an observation beehive. There is a pond at Heller that is stroller accessible, plus a pretty picnic area.
2821 Ridge Rd., Highland Park
Building open Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; Grounds open daily, from dusk ’til dawn.
Eden Place Nature Center
Once an illegal dumpsite, Eden Place Nature Center has emerged as an award-winning center dedicated to nature conservation and urban agriculture. Gather the fam and attend workshops on worm composting, starting a butterfly garden, organic gardening in small spaces, and seasonal cooking. While you’re there, tour the reflection pond and woodlands, which is anchored by a picturesque gazebo.
4417 S. Stewart Ave., Near West Side
Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat., by appointment
photo: Kane County Forest Preserve
Creek Bend Nature Center
The Fox River Valley is home to exciting wildlife. This nature center brings it all into focus. “A Clams-Eye View of the Fox River” is an interactive exhibit that offers an underwater look at life on the river. The exhibit includes sights and sounds from the river, as well as discovery drawers that help children of all ages learn about the area. The “Prairie Ecology” exhibit includes three taxidermy bison that date back to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Creek Bend is part of the Fox River Trail, which runs 43 miles from Algonquin to Oswego. Naturalists have been busy spotting migratory warblers, coyote, whitetail deer, aquatic mammals (mink, beaver, and muskrat), as well as waterfowl.
37W700 Dean St., St. Charles
Building open Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat & Sun., noon-4 p.m.; grounds open daily, dawn ’til dusk.
Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center
From the late 1800’s until 1948, children gathered in the charming Little Red School House to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, kids still come from far and wide to learn about all things nature. The core subjects have been replaced with fascinating family programming: learn everything you need to know about lily pads, stargaze into the night sky, practice yoga in the woods outside the schoolhouse.
9000 Willow Springs Rd., Willow Springs
Building open Mar.-Oct, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Nov.-Feb., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Trailside Museum of Natural History
Housed in a beautiful, mid-1870’s Victorian mansion, this nature center is small in size but big on nature-inspired fun. Inside the mansion, you’ll find puzzles and games as well as smaller animals that you can get up close and personal with, and naturalists are available to answer all your burning questions. Outside the mansion, you’ll find rescued area animals, including foxes and barn owls.
Easy hiking trails set off from the center and lead families through the surrounding oak woodlands and floodplain forest, past a river and a pond—you’re bound to spot some animals in their natural habitat.
738 Thatcher Ave., River Forest
Building open Mar.-Oct, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Nov.-Feb., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
— Amy Bizzarri & Lara Compton