Into the Wild
North Park Village Nature Center
Cook County, IL
Photo: Gerald D. Tang
TUCKED WITHIN A BUILDING COMPLEX on the northwest side of Chicago, North Park Village Nature Center is an unlikely, hidden natural haven for the urban public. “Our visitors from the city are surrounded by concrete and automobiles every day,” explains Natural Areas Manager Bob Porter. “We want people to be able to get away and enjoy nature here.” The 46-acre preserve has seen a ten-fold increase in visitors over the past decade.
In the 1800s, prominent civic nurseryman Pehr Peterson owned this land. He managed a farm and landscape nursery here, but sold 160 acres to the city for a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1911. When the sanitarium closed in 1974, the city made plans to sell the land to developers to build the Green Acres Shopping Center. In response to public outcry, however, they reversed course and preserved the land.
Entering the nature center grounds, visitors pass through a spacious native garden, complete with rattlesnake master, wild bergamot, Canada rye, bottlebrush grass, and smooth blue aster, all beneath a canopy of swamp white oaks. Though this acreage historically held wet woods and an intermittent creek, the nature center’s strategy isn’t to restore this highly altered land to “presettlement” conditions. Instead, they use restoration strategies to maintain a wider variety of smaller native habitats.
The nature center building itself teems with investigative opportunities, including a collection of fossils and bones of local wildlife, a working honeybee hive, and a recuperating green heron named Shypoke.
The head of the trail’s 1.5-mile woodchip and gravel main loop begins behind the nature center, taking visitors through prairie, open oak savanna, and wetlands. A densely wooded border along Pulaski Road and Peterson Avenue helps to insulate the nature experience from traffic. A rustic boardwalk and bridge offer close-up views into a large naturalized marsh with bullfrogs, snapping turtles, and red-eared sliders. Birds such as kingfishers, wood ducks, northern orioles, and cedar waxwings commonly inhabit the preserve, but be sure to visit during fall migration to see rarities.
North Park Village Nature Center offers nature programs for all ages, most free of charge. They also host seasonal festivals, including the Harvest Festival, October 14 – 15, with a farmers market, tours, and a scarecrow-making contest. December’s Winter Solstice Festival includes a shadow puppet play, chestnut-roasting, luminaries lining the trail, and live holiday music.
Jogging, biking, and fishing are prohibited at the center, as are dogs. Restoration workdays typically occur Wednesdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to noon. The nature center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Thanksgiving. For more information, or to request a free copy of The Urban Naturalist newsletter, call (312) 744-5472 or click here.
— Jennifer Tang