Spot Bison Just An Hour Outside Of Chicago At Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

A trip to Chicago puts visitors in the center of a vibrant arts and culture scene. Here, travelers are also well within reach of a variety of famed restaurants and exciting museums to explore too. From the towering skyline Chicago boasts to its notoriously heavy traffic trends, it may be considered the very definition of big city culture. This makes the fact that there's a sweeping tallgrass prairie about an hour's drive away from this bustling destination that much more surprising.

Chicago-bound travelers have the option to leave the city behind for a while and immerse themselves in a lush, open prairie landscape in Wilmington, Illinois. Those looking to balance out city-center fun with restorative time in nature will find what they're looking for at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Sitting southwest of Chicago within the parameters of Will County, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie offers visitors an authentic look at what the landscape was like in this region long before settlers made their mark.

While the tallgrass prairie here is home to an array of unique species, guests will find it's also a place where a herd of American bison roams. The opportunity to spot bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a sight that's sure to thrill. Bison are classified as the largest mammals in North America and bulls can grow to 2,000 pounds. They can also reach heights of six feet tall and reach impressive running speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.

Restoring history through nature

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was first established in 1996. At that time, 19,161 acres of terrain that was previously part of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant was given to the U.S. Forest Service by the Department of Defense. The land transfer allowed the area to be meticulously restored to its natural tallgrass prairie state.

5,000 acres of prairie were initially opened to the public in 2004. Today, a visit to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a chance for guests to explore over 13,300 acres of terrain. Connecting with nature is simple here as this tallgrass prairie provides habitats for 149 species of birds alongside 27 mammal species and 23 reptile species.

An American bison herd of 27 was first introduced into the protected habitat at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in 2015. The herd is an integral part of a 20-year restoration project designed by the National Forest Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service. The goal is to study how bison enhance native prairie restoration over time.

While millions of bison are believed to have roamed across North America in the prehistoric era, by the 1800s, only a few hundred remained in the United States. Modern efforts to restore bison populations in Illinois are vital to the species overall as the last bison spotted in Illinois was recorded back in 1808. This makes a stop at the tallgrass prairie not only intriguing but a true step back in time for visitors.

What to enjoy during a visit

Guests are invited to enjoy nature their own way at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Bison spotting is a particularly unique and memorable activity to add to the itinerary. 1,030 acres of the prairie are set aside as buffalo pasture where bison are free to roam. Within this space, these impressive animals can be observed in their natural habitat by visitors.

As with most wildlife-watching excursions, there's no guarantee that visitors will spot bison in a particular place at a particular time. However, there are areas where herd viewings are more frequent. The Ironbridge Trailhead is a popular starting point as it's located relatively close to the pasture. A walk along the trail provides access to overlooks complete with benches and viewing scopes. Anytime visitors head to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, binoculars are highly recommended for observing wildlife.

In total, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie hosts 33 miles of trails open for wildlife watching, hiking, biking, and horseback riding too. There's also a welcome center for guests to visit with exhibits to browse highlighting the bison on-site project. Guests have options to participate in learning programs throughout the year here which include the summer tour program and the winter lecture series.

When travelers could use a break from the noise of downtown Chicago, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie offers a stunning reprieve. Watching bison roam the natural prairie can transport observers to another time. It's an immersive experience that's sure to inspire.