Whether you’re a Chicago area resident or planning a visit, the Windy City has access to at least 11 areas protected by the National Park Service. They range from National Heritage Sites to scenic trails and nature reserves to full-blown National Parks.
All are within a day’s drive from the city and make great getaways to experience the history and natural settings of this part of the United States.
Related: If you are also into a bit of history, check out Michigan’s best museums
Former President Barack Obama designated the Pullman National Monument as a historic site on February 19, 2015. Located on Chicago’s Southside, it protects the Pullman Historic District, one of the nation’s first planned urban developments.
The area served as a community for the Pullman Company’s railcar factories and provided homes for thousands of employees. Visitors can tour the historic homes, the Pullman factory complex, and examine memorabilia and artifacts from the era.
The Indiana Dunes National Park is an hour’s drive from Chicago just across the Illinois-Indiana border in Porter, Indiana. It features around 15 miles of protected lakeshore along Lake Michigan’s southern tip and includes interesting rock formations, gentle sand dunes, and picturesque wetlands. Visitors to the park will enjoy a wide variety of wildlife, hiking, camping, birdwatching, and fishing.
In the summer, you can take a chilly dip in Lake Michigan at one of the park’s public beaches. There are 50 miles of trails to hike and 37 miles of bike trails. With 15,000 acres of diverse landscape, the park is also home to natural landmarks and archeological sites.
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The I & M Canal Heritage Area has sites scattered around greater Chicago protecting the historical area along the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The canal connected Lake Michigan to the mighty Mississippi River and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico from 1848 to 1900.
Towns and communities along the canal route have partnered with the National Heritage Area to share with visitors. Tour historic homes, museums, and enjoy the wildlife in the area’s parks and nature preserves.
The Lincoln Home is a popular National Historic Site in the Illinois capital city of Springfield. Tour the 16th President’s home and surrounding neighborhood where he lived from 1844 to 1861 before moving to the White House. All summer long, the park features living history exhibits with reenacted historical figures that were part of Lincoln’s life when he lived in Springfield.
The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is located in the Illinois city of West Branch. The site commemorates where President Herbert Hoover grew up and is now home to his Presidental Library. It’s well worth the three-hour drive on I-88 outside of Chicago, especially in the spring when the site is surrounded by bulb flowers and flowering trees.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a 1,200 mile-long trail that runs along the edge of an enormous sheet of ice that is thought to have once covered most of North America. Established in 1980, the nearest visitors center and headquarters to Chicago is located in Madison, Wisconsin, a 2.5-hour drive north from Chicago. The trail has some of the best hiking opportunities in the midwest.
Located in northwestern Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes is a 5.5-hour drive from Chicago in the northwestern region of Michigan and is home to the famed and challenging Dune Climb. Overlooks provide stunning views at Sleeping Bear, Pyramid Point, and Empire are 400 feet above Lake Michigan on glacial moraines.
The seven-mile-long Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive with overlooks of the lake is popular for auto-touring to see the fall colors. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail leads to the town of Glen Haven which has retained its charm since 1900, changing very little.
Be sure to visit the park’s Port Oneida Rural Historic District to explore farm life and crafts. Sleeping Bear, an all-season park has campgrounds. Cabins and resorts are located around the neighboring towns.
If natural features such as sand dunes, lush woodlands, colorful sandstone cliffs, and pristine beaches sound tantalizing, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will be well-worth the seven-hour drive from Chicago. It’s located near Munising, Michigan on Lake Superior’s southern shores.
Admire the unique sandstone formations of Miners Castle and Chapel Rock on the park’s headlands. Hike the trail at Twelvemile Beach where it’s possible to spot shipwrecks dotting the shoreline near the 19th-century lighthouse at Au Sable Point. The park has opportunities for camping, hiking, and kayaking.
Kayakers and canoers of all experience levels will find gentle floating and paddling along with a few thrilling rapids on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a 200-mile-long water trail a 6.5-hour drive from Chicago. Around 252 miles of river are protected here including the Namekagon River and the St. Croix River. When off the water, there are trails and towns to explore in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Located in the northernmost part of Lake Superior, the Isle Royale National Park is a 7.5-hour drive from Chicago and feels even further away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The secluded and pristine park is a haven for backpackers, hikers, kayakers, and scuba divers.
The lakes and islands present an untouched and rugged look that is rare. The mainland and island attractions include stunning views and historic towns. Rent a kayak and sign up for a guided tour at one of the mainland’s outfitters.
Fans of lighthouses will want to make the approximately 8-hour journey to the Apostle Islands in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The 18 islands feature six lighthouses altogether which are accessible by kayak from the Apostle Islands Lighthouse Cruise Service. Paddle around and explore sea caves on the islands and the mainland. In late July and early August, forage for wild blueberries growing in the forest.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!