Midewin: A Ballroom Dance Recommendation
Written by Matthew Sove
Now that the fall weather is upon us, I have all sorts of friends and clients seeking fun outdoorsy things to do around Chicago and they’ve been asking me about my favorite places. My go-to spots in the Chicagoland area are the Indiana Dunes State Park (or National Lakeshore) and Starved Rock State Park, and I still recommend those places to everyone who asks. But in an effort to not feel lame about offering the same suggestions yet again this year, I did some internet spelunking and found Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, about an hour outside of Chicago.
The surprising thing about Midewin isn’t the 20,283 acres of beautiful prairie so close to Chicago, it’s that it was once the Joliet Arsenal, a munitions plant, built during WWII, that had 10,000 employees who made a billion pounds of TNT!
The plant closed after the Cold War and the National Forest Service and bunches of volunteers initially cleaned up 2,000+ acres. The land became Midewin in 1996. It’ll take an additional 10+ more years to fully remove the 373 ammunition bunkers, 429 buildings and other structures, 78 miles of paved roads and 105 miles of railbed and restore the remaining 18,000 acres.
While clean-up efforts still have a long way to go, the the only remnants of the arsenal that I saw during my hike were dozens of ammunition bunkers covered with earth and prairie vegetation (one of these had the door ajar so I peeked in - nothing but cement and a swarm of flies and hornets).
I find Midewin cool for one big reason: Illinois, if you didn’t know, is called the Prairie State (which is kind of a joke since 99% of the native prairie has been lost to agriculture, urban development and the industrial complex). But it’s true! Illinois was once diverse and vast grasslands with little streams all over and bison dotting the rolling hills. And Midewin is the only place in the country attempting to recreate tall grass prairie on a vista level.
So why should you go to Midewin? It’s true that prairie land does not make for the most exciting hiking (the hardest trail at Midewin is an “easy”). But their website puts it perfectly: no where in Illinois can you find such “vastness and solitude” that you find at Midewin. As of now, they have over 22 miles of multi-use trails, where all you see is vista-after-vista of wild grass and flowers. You’ll also see a bunch of critters. During our visit we saw a garter snake, a huge assortment of birds, a ground squirrel, a vibrantly red tree squirrel, some type of vole, crickets, butterflies, grasshoppers, and herd of bison. Yes, that’s right. I said Bison. In 2015, a herd of about 30 bison were introduced to Midewin and a series of hiking trails are designed to follow the proximity of their pastures to enable viewing.
But with all this said, the feeling of the place was the most spectacular to me. I’ve had a difficult time verbalizing what this “feel” was, but I found this image, created by Eliza Steel in 1941, that perfectly captures the experience at Midewin: “a world of grass and flowers stretched around me, rising and falling in gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell and it was at rest forever.”
Find out all the information you need on their website. If you have any questions, please feel free to chat with Matthew the studio or email him at