Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Bison graze and grasses blow on a gentle breeze in Wilmington, Illinois, at this sprawling prairie steeped in history. 

Bike riders in Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, Illinois (photo courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism)

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie sits just an hour southwest of Chicago, but it feels centuries away, boasting a landscape our pioneer forebears would easily recognize. With its remnants of the old farmstead where four generations of the Schumacher family lived and stands of black walnut, oak, hickory and Osage orange trees (the latter identifiable by their intricately twisted bark and pebbled green fruit), the 20,000-acre prairie seems like a place forgotten by time. 

Yet the site was not always as pristine and undisturbed at it appears today. The prairie was the former home of  Joliet Arsenal, the largest producer of artillery in the U.S. until the end of the Vietnam War. A statue depicting a worker at the arsenal, which is located near the Iron Bridge Trailhead, pays tribute to those who served on the home front during wartime. 

Today, most of the former Joliet Arsenal buildings are gone, replaced by a sprawling space that helps Illinois live up to its moniker as the Prairie State. Travelers may spot bison roaming the tall grasses. In 2015, 27 of the animals were introduced as a restoration project. The idea was that the presence of the bison and their natural actions, like the way they graze and wallow, could help boost the regrowth of native prairie plant life. Because bison are enormous animals, they are best viewed at a distance. Consider taking a guided or self-guided hike to the bison viewing station. Bring binoculars if you have them, but scopes are available as well. (For a head start on bison viewing, you can always tune into the preserve’s online bison cam.)

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie also has more than 33 miles of trails open to the public for nonmotorized recreation. Nature abounds here, as the area is home to more than 100 species of birds and a myriad of endangered flora. 30239 S. St. Rte. 53, Wilmington, Illinois 60481, 815/423-6370, fs.usda.gov/midewin