Chicago Ecosystems – and Where to Explore Them

Chicago Ecosystems – and Where to Explore Them

- Erica Zazo - 

The nation’s third-largest city also boasts one of most diverse natural ecosystems – here’s where to find and explore Chicago’s wild side.

Of course Chicago is known for its iconic deep dish pizza, stunning skylines, and World Series-winning baseball teams.

But little do most people know that Chicago is actually home to one of the oldest and largest forest preserve systems in the country.

It’s also home to some of the most diverse ecosystems in the entire United States.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County – a one-of-a-kind natural playground for locals and visitors to adventure in and explore – span more than 70,0000 acres of natural landscape, from wetlands to prairies. 


Busse Woods

Ecosystem 101

Not quite sure what an ecosystem is? 

In its simplest form, an ecosystem is a community of living creatures, such as plants, animals, humans, and microorganisms, that live and thrive together in a specific region. 

Ecosystems are important because we literally can’t live without them. 

When healthy, ecosystems purify our water, clean our air, regulate the Earth’s climate, and provide us (and the plants and animals that live in them) vital nutrients and an abundance of food. But if one portion of an ecosystem is unhealthy, then that negatively impacts all the other parts of the ecosystem too.

An Insider’s Guide

Our friends at Mappy Hour Chicago, and more specifically, our friend Erica Zazo (the local chapter leader and author of this blog post), hosted a virtual chat with the Chicago Forest Preserves' Artt Matthews to learn about Chicago’s ecosystems.

As the Operations Manager of the Department of Conservation & Experiential Programming at the Forest Preserves, Artt is no stranger to exploring the preserves. His team offers outdoor programming – centered around recreation, education, and conservation – for city dwellers and visitors.

Explore the Preserve Ecosystems

In our mini, multi-adventure guide below, we break down Artt’s deep-dive into how to identify, find, and explore each of Chicago’s ecosystems: woodlands, savannahs, wetlands, and prairies.

Eco-Adventure 1: Woodlands

Ecosystem 2: Prairie

    • Identify it: Prairie ecosystems contain open grasslands with no trees and are full of native plants and wildflowers including new england aster, ironweed, blazing star, and milkweed.  
    • Find it: Orland Grassland & Shoe Factory Road Nature Preserve
  • Explore it: Bike, hike, or cross-country ski on 13-miles of paved, unpaved and snow-covered paths (come winter) on the Orland Grassland trails, or volunteer to restore natural habitats and remove invasive species 

  • Ecosystem 3: Savannah

    Ecosystem 4: Wetlands

    • Identify it: Westland ecosystems consist of water-covered land that stays saturated throughout the year.
    • Find it: Skokie Lagoons & Sand Ridge Nature Center
    • Explore it: Birdwatch at the Sand Ridge Nature Center marsh as migratory Sandhill Cranes pass through between late February and early April, or kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board at the 894-acre, water-filled Skokie Lagoons.


    Thank you to the Forest Preserve of Cook County for the pictures!

    Sandill Nature Center

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