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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
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,
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
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.***
(Return to Top)
30239 South State Rt. 53
Wilmington, Illinois 60481