Return to Nature at Northerly Island

17 September 2019

The prairie wildlife of Northerly Island, with a view of the Chicago skyline behind
Photo courtesy of Northerly Island Park Facebook.


1000M is only a short distance from Chicago’s most vital and impressive ecopark, Northerly Island. The man-made island has gone through nearly a century of change to finally find its way back to nature. 


History of Northerly Island

Northerly Island was first conceptualized by Chicago architect and planner Daniel H. Burnham, as part of the 1909 Plan of Chicago. Burnham envisioned that Northerly Island would be the northernmost in a series that stretched between Grant and Jackson Parks. Northerly Island was to be a nature enthusiast’s wonderland, including lagoons, harbors, beaches a scenic drive and more.

In the end, Northerly Island was the only man-made peninsula created from Burnham’s plan. The peninsula, built in the early 1920s, was also not originally a place focused on hosting nature. Instead, Northerly Island was a site for a world’s fair and an airport. 

The airport operated for nearly 40 years, until 2003, when Mayor Richard M. Daley allegedly tore up the runways in the middle of the night on the grounds of homeland security concerns. Though Daley’s actions set the city back with hefty fines, ultimately his sly reconnaissance mission allowed the park to be redesigned in a way that would make Burnham proud, slowly helping the land to be reclaimed by nature.


An Impressive Ecopark

Today, Northerly Island consists of 119.7 acres, an expanse of land that is dedicated to the celebration of nature, ecology and education. The peninsula is one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects undertaken in a fully urban area, and one of the few restoration projects to attempt the recreation of coastal savanna on the Great Lakes. 

As part of ecosystem restoration, the park includes sandy savanna-covered hills, a centralized pond and marshland reminiscent of the prairies that once covered Illinois. The impressively restored terrain was achieved by planting over 300,000 native plants (many rarely cultivated in Chicago), 11,000 shrubs and 400 trees.


Visiting Northerly Island

Northerly Island is located at the heart of Chicago’s Museum Campus. The peninsula includes trails and boardwalks, play areas and spectacular skyline views. The park is the perfect spot for bike rides, strolls, picnics, bird-watching and fishing. The paved paths for strolling and biking have no artificial lighting to create a natural environment, so it’s recommended to bring a flashlight past sundown. The park is the perfect place to convene with nature, allowing an experience so authentic that you just might forget you’re in the city.

You can also visit the Northerly Island Field House. From November to April, the field house is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 AM to 4 PM. Throughout the remainder of the year, the field house is open daily from 10 AM to 4 PM. 

Northerly Island is also home to Huntington Bank Pavilion, a huge outdoor ampitheater with seating allowing for up to 30,000 patrons. There, you can enjoy a show while surveying sweeping panoramic views of Chicago’s lakefront, with a favorite beer in hand from one of the numerous food stands surrounding. 

The peninsula also includes 12th Street Beach, a lesser-known lakefront spot located at the northern end of the peninsula, just south of the Planetarium. The beach includes a beach house, restrooms and concession stand Del Campo Tacos, serving up delicious Mexican snack food.


Northerly Island is located at 1521 S Linn White Dr, Chicago, IL. The park is open daily, year-round, from 6 AM to 11 PM.