U.S. National Forest Campground Guide

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie


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Forest Information

Visit Date: 8/16/2009

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is located in northeast Illinois about 40 miles south of Chicago and covers 19,000 acres. There are no developed campgrounds and dispersed camping is not permitted. However, see below for camping suggestion.

The Midewin (pronounced mi-day-win) National Tallgrass Prairie is neither a national forest or national grassland. What is it? It's a work in progress!

". . .I started with surprise and delight. I was in the midst of a prairie! A world of grass and flowers stretched around me, . . . We passed whole acres of blossoms, a carpet of every color intermixed, or narrow bands, as if a rainbow had fallen upon the verdant slopes. . ." This is part of a quote on display at the Midewin's Visitor Center. Written in 1840 by Eliza Steele in her "Summer Journey in the West," those words ring true only for a small portion of the Midewin today. However, the work to restore the whole of Midewin to this glorious vision is well underway.

When Ms. Steele traveled over the land we now call Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Midewin), it was part of a vast pristine tallgrass prairie. As the name suggests, a tallgrass prairie is dominated by tall grasses, some growing up to six feet, and receives only moderate rainfall. The richness of the soil brought farmers to the land. They drained the land and plowed under the native plants, replacing the rainbow of colors with the green and gold of crops for as far as the eye could see. By the 1930s, the land was no longer productive. With the shadow of a World War and an economic depression as encouragement, many farmers sold their tired land to the Federal government and the Joliet Arsenal (Arsenal) was established, spreading across the former farmland. With the establishment of the Arsenal, the area saw a rapid ecological degradation of the land which only compounded the consequences of earlier settlements and altering by man.

The Joliet Arsenal was a critical component in the manufacturing and production of ammunition for the U.S. Army from WWII through the Viet Nam war. The size and complexity of the Arsenal is amazing but, by the 1990s, it was realized there was little need for the type of ammunition made at the Arsenal and repairing the damage done to the land would take a focused, concentrated effort. In 1996, after a lengthy period of discussion, debate, and negotiations, 19,000 acres of the former Joliet Arsenal was transferred from the Army to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

The Forest Service was tasked with four objectives: (1) conserve, restore, and enhance the native populations and habitats for fish, wildlife, and plants; (2) provide opportunities for scientific, environmental, and land use education and research; (3) permit the continuation of existing agricultural uses; and (4) provide recreational opportunities. In partnership with numerous groups, these objectives will be achieved.

Critical to the Midewin success are committed volunteers who share in the Midewin objectives and vision. A few of the activities volunteers perform are conservation education, prairie restoration, ecological monitoring, and interpretation programs. Conservation educators works with students of all ages at the Midewin and in the area's schools. Restoration horticulturists form the longest standing and largest volunteer group. This group's important work includes native seed bed planting, weeding, mulching and collecting seed. Monitoring is an important part of the restoration process and data collected by the volunteers is used to plan and evaluate restoration projects. Volunteers who are interpreters deliver programs via escorted tours, bike and horse rides, walks, and special programs. They are the people that bring the Midewin's past to life and provide the public with a vision of the future. There are a number of other important roles that volunteers fill. Contact the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a comprehensive list of activities available to volunteers.

Some areas of Midewin remain closed to the public while the Army continues cleaning up the former Arsenal, but there are miles of trails available for hiking, bicycle and horseback riding, bird- watching, and just enjoying the great out-of-doors. On the west side of Midewin are the River Road Trail, the South Patrol Road Restoration Area, and Explosive Road Trail which accesses Newton and Henslow Interim Trails. These areas demonstrate what Midewin should look like in the future, restored to what Ms. Steele saw.

While the product of a lot of restoration efforts are plainly visible on the west side of Midewin, the eastern sector provides a very different view. In this sector visitors can see remnants of the Joliet Arsenal which include powerhouses, warehouses, and "igloos", a.k.a. bunkers. Foot, horse and mountain bike trails, such as Group 63 Perimeter Trail, provide access to many of the sights.

For visitors who like to experience a guided trail experience, the Midewin Heritage Association offers a variety of interpretative tours. Also, check the Midewin's website for a list of tours and other information.

At one time, Tallgrass prairies covered millions of acres from Canada to Texas and from Nebraska to the Great Lakes. The state of Illinois was dominated by over 60% of Tallgrass prairie. Today, the Midewin provides visitors with only a snapshot of what Ms. Steele saw and what our forefathers experienced. "Midewin" is the Potawatomi name for their "Grand Medicine Society." This group used their power and influence to heal individuals and to keep the Potawatomi society in balance. The term was chosen because it reflects the healing and balance sought for Midewin, this work in progress. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie may never offer visitors developed overnight camping seen in national forests and grasslands but it will always have an interesting history, an exciting future, and enough natural beauty to warrant many return visits. Restoring a prairie at the scale of the Midewin will require many years and you are invited to come and watch, to participate, and also enjoy the efforts of the Forest Service and hundreds of volunteers.

***Although there are no camping facilities at Midewin, consider Chippewa campground in the Kankakee River State Park, 13 miles south on State Rt. 102. From Chippewa campground, take State Rt. 102 north about 10 miles to Wilmington and State Rt. 53. Go north on Rt. 53 about 3 miles to the Midewin office.***

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SUPERVISOR ADDRESS 30239 South State Rt. 53 Wilmington, Illinois 60481 815-423-6370

Fred and Suzi Dow