From heart-pounding adventures like crossing swinging wooden bridges to riding in a restored prairie park, there’s outdoor fun to be had around every bend of The First Hundred Miles. Here’s an itinerary that connects you with six more of the top open-air places to celebrate the spring weather along this storied stretch of Route 66.
Joliet Iron Works Park
Columbia Street, Joliet
When you visit the Joliet Iron Works Park, you’ll never guess that at one time this was the site of the second largest steel mill in the U.S. Opened in 1869, Joliet Iron and Steel Works employed over 2,000 laborers until its closure in 1936. Adopted by the Forest Preserve District of Will County, this factory-turned-natural space now boasts almost 2 miles of paved trail, and is an access point for the 12-mile I&M Canal Centennial Trail. Interpretive signage takes the visitor through the heyday of the location’s history. Sheltered picnic areas (with electricity), fresh water and bathroom facilities can be found on-site.
554 Brook Forest Ave., Shorewood
Located directly on Old Route 66 in Shorewood, Hammel Woods provides tubing, canoeing and kayaking down the picturesque DuPage River. Visitors also can enjoy a run along the park’s 1.6 miles of natural-surface trails. Additional activities permitted at the park include cycling, hiking, running, in-line skating, fishing and cross-country skiing when weather permits. Covered shelters can accommodate 25 on a first-come basis with no need for a permit. If you’re a fan of geocaching, Hammel Woods is a great place to stop for a quick hunt.
Des Plaines Dolomite Prairies Land and Water Reserve
24621 N. River Road, Wilmington
With a free skeet shooting and archery range, Des Plaines Dolomite Prairies Land and Water Reserve is a unique and diverse sporting park. With over 5,000 acres of land and 2,000 of water, there is plenty of room to enjoy your favorite pastimes, like horseback riding, jet skiing and boating. The Des Plaines Dolomite Prairies Land and Water Reserve is known as an excellent spot for hunting and fishing, provided you have all the necessary licensing to do so. The park also features a peaceful selection of on-site camping, which can be reserved online in advance.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
30239 S. Route 53, Wilmington
Known as “The Largest Prairie Restoration Site East of the Mississippi River,” the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is also the single largest open space in Illinois. At this attraction managed by the U.S. Forest Service and recognized as a U.S. National Grassland, bison were reintroduced back on the prairie in October 2015, making this gorgeous plot of prairie even more authentic. While it’s not guaranteed, every visit offers the opportunity to see these elusive animals as they roam throughout the terrain.
Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife Area - Fossil Hunting
Route 53 and East Huston Road, Braceville/Braidwood
Get your hunt on at Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife Area, one of the nation’s foremost destinations for public fossil hunting. Findings have included marine fossils such as jellyfish, worms and the renowned Tully Monster, with Mazon Creek fossils holding prominent places in some of the most important fossil collections in the world. The famous Pit 11, the largest and most productive fossil area in the park, is still open to the public (October to April, provided you’ve signed the correct permit). This open area encompasses a few thousand acres of rocky terrain, so make sure you dress accordingly; wear sturdy shoes and head coverings, and bring a backpack or bucket for your findings.
Pontiac’s Swinging Bridges
100 E. Park St., 303 E. Grove St., 400 W. Water St., all in Pontiac
Home to some of the most picturesque spring photo-ops in Central Illinois, Pontiac’s trio of historic swinging pedestrian bridges are a must-see for anyone traveling along Route 66. Crossing a bend in the Vermilion River, the earliest of these bridges was constructed at the turn of the 20th century to give shoe factory workers, who lived on the south side of town, a convenient way of expediently getting to work. Over the years, two additional bridges were added to help locals and travelers alike more easily access Pontiac’s beautiful city parks and festival grounds. The bridges all swing, sway and bounce as you cross. The heavier you walk, the more the bridge responds. The bridges connect Riverside Drive to Play Park, Play Park to Chautauqua Park, and Humiston-Riverside Park to Division Street.