1. Indiana Dunes National Beach, Indiana:
A mere 47 miles east of Chicago, this natural wonder defies every stereotype of the flat Midwestern landscape. The Indiana Dunes National Beach runs for 25 miles along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, from Gary to Michigan City. Among the most awestriking features is Mount Baldy, a 123-foot sand dune that was created by glaciers, and actually moves south at a rate of 4 to 5 feet a year without any trees or marram glass to keep it in place. Visitors can hike up Mount Baldy on marked trails.
Also near Michigan City, blue herons can be found in a "rookery" along the Little Calumet River, which the Web site duneland.com calls "a fantastic place for bird watching during the fall and spring migrations." The herons may be difficult to see during the summer, but beautiful wildflowers can be seen along the river.
Nearby, the Pinhook Bog is a miniature ecosystem you won't find anywhere else in the area. This wonder was created when glacial ice melted and became overrun with moss, creating an environment so acidic that only a few strange plants could grow there. Walk on the boardwalk and see carnivorous plants and tamarack trees.
A little to the west near Chesterton is the Indiana Dunes State Park, which features similar natural wonders, as well as campgrounds and lake swimming. And you can always stop and check out some of the attractions in the adjoining towns, like the Barker Mansion and the Washington Park Zoo in Michigan City, or the quaint downtown historic district in Chesterton.
2. Starved Rock State Park, Illinois:
Think it's all cornfields to our south and west? Think again. Starved Rock State Park is near the junction of Interstates 80 and 39 near Utica, about 90 miles from Chicago. In this 2,630-acre forest along the Illinois River, you'll find amazing sandstone bluffs and canyons that formed as a result of glacial melting and erosion. Bald eagles can be seen fishing below the bluffs during the winter months.
After a heavy rain and during the early spring, dazzling waterfalls grace the heads of all 14 of the canyons. Visitors say the 20-foot LaSalle Canyon Falls is likely to have a waterfall at any time, and while the St. Louis Canyon may be dry at some times of the year, its 80-foot height is still impressive.
And you don't have to worry about roughing it at Starved Rock either. The Starved Rock Lodge hotel is right onsite, with an indoor pool, hot tub and saunas, and a full-service restaurant and bar. If you want something a little more rustic, there are also cabins in the woods.
Just to the south of Starved Rock is Matthiesen State Park, which features more stunning rock formations and a 45-foot canyon where you can see water seeping out of the sandstone wall. Several mineral springs can also be found at the park. Camping and horseback riding are among the offerings.
3. Harbor Country, Michigan:
Droves of Chicagoans own summer homes in this area about 70 miles from Chicago in far southwest Michigan, including none other than Mayor Richard M. Daley. But even if you're just going for the day, there's plenty to enjoy in these idyllic towns.
Officially, Harbor Country consists of eight towns in Berrien County – Michiana, Grand Beach, New Buffalo, Union Pier, Lakeside, Harbert, Sawyer and Three Oaks. The beaches that make up the front yard of Harbor Country are just on the other side of Lake Michigan from Chicago, but the high-rises and urban bustle of the city is a world away. Two major public beaches anchor the waterfront, in New Buffalo and at Warren Dunes State Park, along with a chain of smaller beaches in between. Woods and nature trails can be found just inland in many areas.
If you fancy yourself a student of the grape, you're in luck. Just beyond the dunes and woodlands you'll find a wine trail where the local varietals have taken national titles. And it's a lot closer than Sonoma or Napa.
If you head down Red Arrow Highway through the towns, you'll run into about a dozen quaint and quirky antique and shabby-chic shops for every taste. And in Three Oaks, the only town not on the lakefront, you'll also find art galleries, high tea at the Viola Café, the annual Sounds of Silents Film Festival at the Vickers Theatre, and a variety of live music performances at the Acorn Theater.
4. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin:
Legend has it that the old Guns N' Roses song "Paradise City" is actually about the Playboy Club that used to be an attraction in this popular resort town. The Playboy Club closed nearly 30 years ago, but there are still plenty of people out there who wouldn't hesitate to call Lake Geneva (the town) and Geneva Lake (the adjoining lake) a paradise – and it's only 75 miles from Chicago.
The 5,500 square-acre lake is a popular spot for boating, parasailing, water skiing and wakeboarding. There are four beaches on the shoreline, and if you're a diver, there are two hulking shipwrecks at the bottom.
The town of Lake Geneva and its neighboring burgs features an array of attractions and festivals for all ages. Look for an outdoor museum of life in the 1870s in the town of Eagle, exotic bird shows and dancing horses in Delavan, and public tours at the University of Chicago's famous Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay. Performers from Kenny Loggins to Ramsey Lewis have played at the George Williams Campus of Aurora University on the lake shore. And if you're missing the discontinued Venetian Night in Chicago, not to worry – Lake Geneva has a Venetian Festival in August.
And if you're looking for something a little quieter, there are two more lakes – Lake Como and Delavan Lake – to the north and west of Lake Geneva, respectively.
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5. Galena and Jo Daviess County, Illinois:
About 165 miles from Chicago at the northwest corner of Illinois, you'll discover this scenic corner of the Midwest. The town of Galena features historic buildings and stately homes that hearken back to the era when steamboating and lead mining were the area's main trades. Among the notable attractions are the home of President Ulysses S. Grant, which was presented to the victorious Civil War general in 1865, and the Dowling House, which dates from 1826 – making it a decade older than Chicago's oldest house.
If you're a thrill-seeker, head to Chestnut Mountain Resort for the Alpine Slide. A ski lift will take you to a peak with views of three states three states, and you'll hop on a sled to glide down 2,050 feet of track along the banks of the Mississippi. And it's open during the summer as well as winter.
On the outskirts of Galena, historic sites and striking natural vistas can be seen along the routes of the Galena Trail and Coach Road, which runs south to Peoria, and the Stagecoach Trail, which runs east to Warren.
Also in Galena, look for art galleries, golf and even hot-air balloon rides in town.
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