Explore Parks and Prairie Along Route 66

Experience nature along The First Hundred Miles

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, zoos and natural prairie. From heart-pounding adventures like ziplining and mountain biking to serene natural activities like bird watching and fossil hunting, there’s outdoor fun to be had around every bend in the road. Here’s an itinerary that connects you with the best places to experience “The Prairie State” along this historic route.

A new primate habitat is being built at the Brookfield Zoo. Gorillas, orangutans and other monkeys will have a new 2-acre, indoor/outdoor living space.

Brookfield Zoo

8400 W. 31st St., Brookfield

Located only 15 miles west of Chicago, this 200-plus-acre zoo is widely regarded as one of the best in the nation, thanks in no small part to its accessibility and amazing array of animals. Opened to the public in 1934, Brookfield’s unique design utilized moats in place of bars and cages, resulting in an up-close experience unlike anything visitors had seen before. Now, with the zoo home to over 450 species represented by more than 2,500 animals, everyone is sure to find one of their favorite creatures. Brookfield also features a variety of souvenir shops and on-site food venues, serving up everything from fried chicken and hot dogs to cool drinks and treats.

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

Interstate 55 and Lemont Road, Lemont

Whatever your favorite outdoor activities might be, Waterfall Glen in Lemont has it all. With 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 dog is accompanying you on your cross-country trip, this is the perfect place to stop. The popular picnic and fishing area is also dog-friendly. Discover the park’s beautiful tiered waterfalls while enjoying the 740-plus documented species of native plants. If you’re a fan of birding, Waterfall Glen hosts hundreds of species of feathered friends every year.

The Forge: Lemont Quarries

1001 Main St., Lemont

Get ready for some real adventure at The Forge in Lemont, Illinois. Built in and around the Lemont Quarries, this area is action packed, offering rope courses, ziplines, climbing walls, mountain biking and an assortment of running trails, perfect for entertaining visitors of all ages and abilities. And if zipping down a cable does not pique your interest, then you and your family can enjoy the outdoor dining and picnic area, where you may catch some music or other seasonal entertainment.

The village of Lemont is celebrating its 150th anniversary this week, with the culmination of the celebration on Friday and Saturday. Pictured is the I&M Canal in Lemont.

I&M Canal State Trail

Access Huse Lake 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. On the popular biking and hiking trail, visitors can enjoy fishing and other activities along this mid-19th century waterway. Popular winter activities include snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. All these great outdoor activities can be enjoyed on this 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. After the development of the railroad, the long-forgotten commodity was transformed into a spectacular outdoor recreation area.

View nesting birds during a Lake Renwick Migratory Bird Viewing program on Saturday, July 8, 2023 at the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve in Plainfield.

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 found at the preserve includes a variety of bird species, such as the great blue heron and great egret. Birders flock to the Heron Rookery Nature Preserve each year to marvel at herons, egrets and cormorants, 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, providing spectacular frozen winter views and paved paths.

A bald eagle is seen in Hammel Woods, Shorewood, in 2021. The Forest Preserve District of Will County will host its annual Eagle Watch program on Jan. 14  at the Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon.

Hammel Woods

554 Brook Forest Ave., Shorewood

Located directly on Old Route 66 in Shorewood, Illinois, Hammel Woods provides tubing, canoeing and kayaking down the picturesque DuPage River. Visitors 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, personal watercraft 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. State 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. It’s 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 preserve.

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 infamous 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 accessible to the public (open 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, head coverings and bring a backpack or bucket for your findings.