Get Outdoorsing, Chicago!


As much of the Chicago year we're hibernating, July brings bikers packing the lakefront path - some more courteous than others; fire plugs popping; sidewalk cafes buzzing. Forest preserves fill with the smell of lit charcoal and bug repellent spray. Summer's why we live here, right? By this time, though, you may have had your fill of neighborhood festivals and actually want to do something outside other than stuffing your face with turkey legs. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) It's just time to switch it up. Big thanks to power team and cultural icons Molly Adams and Brian Babylon of Vocalo's The Morning Amp for having the Travel-Size Travel Guide on this morning. Tune into their show every weekday beginning at 8 AM Central time on the radio dial at 89.5 FM or 90.7 FM in the Chicago and Northwest Indiana region or online anywhere at

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As the heat index rises, as it has these past few days - please take precautions:

  • Check weather forecasts for heat advisories
  • Take frequent breaks from strenuous activity
  • Drink and bring plenty of water
  • Apply sunscreen and insect repellent (in wooded areas, especially)
  • Wear appropriate safety gear
  • Avoid outdoor activity during the hottest part of the day.

Here are my recommendations for fun Chicago-area outdoor activities for the novice, the budgeteer, the outdoor-curious, the car-less, and the wanna-be camper. Got any great ideas, add them in the comments, please!!

1. For the city-phile who wants outdoor activity without leaving the 606: Kayaking the lake or the Chicago River among the glass and steel canyons. Experienced guides from local outdoors companies like Urban Kayaks and The Northwest Passage take groups. They bring the boats, paddles, life vests, et al., show customers how to operate them, watch participants to keep them kayaking safely, and take care of all the equipment when the day is done. All you do is make a reservation, show up, play and pay.

The even better news: Deals for Urban Kayaks, the Northwest Passage and other sports and recreation activities can sometimes be found on Groupon (like right now!!), while supplies last. Groupon and competitor LivingSocial update their deals every week.

Des Plaines River Kayak Marathon, wigs, May 2010

2. For the car-less: Wander off the Hipster Highway and take your handlebars and handlebar mustachios out yonder. Julia Thiel of the Chicago Reader earlier this summer highlighted two biking brewpub itineraries: the easier bike-up-public-transpo-back Lake Bluff Brewing Company route (includes the gorgeous Baha'i Temple and delicious Edzo's), and the more challenging 4o-miler to Three Floyd's Brewpub with stops through delicious Calumet Fisheries. Get your fixie, padded bike shorts, helmet and your bike map (find these options from the City of Chicago, Active Transportation Alliance and more from Chicago Bike Maps at your friendly neighborhood bike shop).

3. For the folks who want to be in real wilderness for a day or longer. Illinois isn't all featureless flatlands. If you have access to a car and want a day trip out of the city, try Illinois state parks Starved Rock and/or Matthiessen.

Both boast similar landscapes (they're both in Utica, Illinois - 90 to 100 miles from the city, depending on the interstate route): hiking in river gorges amongst waterfalls, picknicking and hunting and winter activities later in the year. The major difference: Starved Rock State Park has more facilities and activities - a visitors' center, a log lodge, fishing, boating - and on weekends, can be much more crowded with a long line of cars waiting to get in. The Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center has some great and affordable lodging and activity packages ($200 - 300 for two people) - horseback riding, Amazing Race-style fun, ziplining, canoeing, packages for seniors and families, and more. The more thrifty camping route, with toilet and shower facilities and cooksites, if you have the rest of the equipment, only costs $35 and should be reserved online in advance. If you haven't made advance reservations for camping or lodging activities and just want to get some outdoors hiking/alone time in and then head back home after a few hours, head over to Matthiessen.

Didn't pack a picnic from the Jewel? On the way home, hit up the Gun Smoke Grill in nearby Cedar Point for burgers and brew, or maybe August Hill Winery and Vineyard in Utica? Who knew Illinois did wines?

4. No camping equipment? For the outdoorsy-curious and adventure lovers who don't want to make major investments in equipment at REI just yet: Take a guided camping and adventure tour. Tour operators like the Northwest Passage offer package deals like a three-day, two-night $325 per person trip to Devil's Lake, Wisconsin (Molly attests to its beauty), about a 3.5 hour drive. Enjoy the outdoors with the safety of experienced campers and rock climbers. This trip includes experienced guides who camp with you and instruct you in rock climbing, they bring group camping and rock climbing equipment (tents, ropes, cooking equipment, etc.), provide meals at the campsite, and necessary permits and campground reservations. Everyone's expected to participate in making camping a success. A great and safe way to learn how to camp and rock climb in a beautiful setting a little far afield!

5. Seeking the true American glamping experience? Hit the road with an RV rental. A sleek aluminum Airstream can be rented from Joliet's US Adventure RV for approximately $2000 a week (I misspoke on air!), not including cleaning and fees for over 50 miles per day. The airconditioned Airstream, complete with kitchen and bathroom aboard, sleeps two to four people. You'll need the right kind of car and hitch to tow the Airstream, but you'll be glamping in true retro Americana style. (They also offer Class A through C RV homes and even RV vans if you don't own a car to tow it.)

Happy outdoorsing!