When you start planning your first Route 66 road trip, images of classic diners, roadside attractions and historic sites may be what first spring to mind. However, The First Hundred Miles of the Mother Road is also lined with some unbelievably beautiful parks – and this snap of mild winter weather is the perfect time to pay them a visit. Here’s an itinerary that connects you with the best natural spaces to explore along the first stretch of Historic Route 66.
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
I-55 and Lemont Road, Lemont
Whatever your favorite outdoor activities might be, Waterfall Glen in Lemont has it all. On over 11 miles of meandering trails, you can enjoy everything from hiking to horseback riding to cycling, all just a short drive from the Mother Road. If your canine pal is accompanying you on your cross-country trip, this is the perfect place to stop, with its popular picnic and fishing area that is dog-friendly. Looking ahead to spring, you can discover the park’s stunning tiered waterfalls while enjoying the more than 740 documented species of native plants. If you’re a fan of birding, Waterfall Glen hosts hundreds of species of feathered friends every year.
I&M Canal State Trail
Access near Joliet Street and Illinois Route 351
Running through three counties, Will, Grundy and LaSalle, the Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail is one of the most historic natural spaces along the Route 66 corridor. At the noted biking and hiking trail, visitors can savor fishing and other activities along the mid-19th century waterway. Popular winter activities like snowmobiling and cross-country skiing also can be enjoyed along the canal. Great opportunities for outdoor activities abound on the 79-mile former mule trail. A precursor to Route 66, the I&M Canal was once the most important transportation hub for commerce and passengers in Illinois. It was after the development of the railroad that the gem would be transformed into a spectacular outdoor recreation area.
Lake Renwick Preserve
15425 Joliet Road, Plainfield
Located just off Historic Route 66 in Plainfield, a few blocks away from the village’s bustling downtown, Lake Renwick Preserve is home to a sprawling 200-acre lake and wetland habitat. Wildlife at the preserve includes a variety of bird species, such as great blue heron and great egret, in warmer months. Birders flock to the Heron Rookery Nature Preserve each year to marvel at heron, egret and cormorant populations, along with bald eagles, American white pelicans and hundreds of eclectic winter waterfowl. Access to Heron Rookery Nature Preserve is limited on a seasonal basis to protect the nesting activities of migratory birds, but Lake Renwick’s Copley Nature Park and Turtle Lake Access areas remain open year-round.
554 Brook Forest Ave., Shorewood
Located directly on Old Route 66 in Shorewood, Hammel Woods provides canoeing and kayaking down the picturesque DuPage River. Visitors also can take a run along the park’s 1.6 mile of natural surface trails. Additional activities permitted at the park include cycling, hiking, in-line skating, tubing, 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. The 5,000 acres of land and 2,000 of water offer plenty of room for your favorite pastimes, such as horseback riding 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. 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 is also the single largest open space in Illinois. At the site, 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. Although it’s not guaranteed, every visit offers a chance to view the elusive animals as they roam throughout the prairie.