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Want To Avoid Crowds But Be In Nature? Social Distance In These 10 Chicago Parks

Officials have said it's OK to head to the park, but people should keep their visits short and abide by social distancing and hygiene guidelines while there.

The Dan Ryan Woods
Forest Preserves of Cook County
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CHICAGO — The city is warning people to stay away from busy parks, especially as the weather warms up.

But Chicago has more than 600 parks and play lots, which means there are plenty of spots you can still enjoy the great outdoors while practicing social distancing. Members of Friends of the Parks, an independent advocacy group for those parks, created a list of 10 parks that have been considered underutilized in the past and they think won’t be too crowded now.

The list’s parks are accessible from multiple directions, as well, so visitors won’t have to worry about getting trapped in a crowded trail.

Just remember: Officials have said it’s OK to head to the park, but people should keep their visits short and abide by social distancing and hygiene guidelines while there. That means:

  1. Stay 6 feet from people outside your household, and only for short periods of time (less than 10 minutes), officials have said. If someone is passing by, move aside to ensure the 6-foot rule is enforced.
  2. If you’re sick, stay home.
  3. Do not form or join any crowds.
  4. Do not play contact sports like football.
  5. Pick up and dispose of any trash you have.
  6. Wash your hands frequently, especially before going out and after returning home.
  7. If a park or other area looks crowded, go elsewhere.
  8. Do not play on city playgrounds, which are shut down.
  9. Still stay at home as much as possible. The parks should be a “brief respite,” officials have said.

Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, urged nature lovers to adhere to these guidelines — or all parks could get shut down.

“A whole bunch of people crowding a small space is not safe and we shouldn’t be doing it,” Irizarry previously told Block Club. “Each of us needs to make wise decisions if we go any place.”

Friends of the Parks asked that people who do visit parks and enjoy them in a safe, isolated way take a photo and share it with the organization or on social media with the hashtag #IsolationInspiration.

Here’s Friends of the Parks’ list:

Garfield Park

Where: 300 N. Central Park

Many Chicagoans know Garfield Park for its wonderful conservatory, but we often hear from the local park advisory council that most visitors never venture south of Lake Street to take in other parts of the beautiful park.

Check out the “Golden Dome” field house, a gazebo, lagoons, art installations and lots of geese that are not good at social distancing. Friends of the Parks did various “Walks with Juanita” there last summer on Saturday mornings, and it was never particularly busy except for the walkers.

Schafer Park/Urban Growers Collective

Where: 9000 S. Green Bay Ave.

There’s not much to behold at Schafer Park as it is a very underinvested park on the threshold of the old USX SouthWorks property, just down the road from the usually underutilized yet now-shuttered Steelworkers Park on the lakefront.

Schafer is only crowded for the occasional special event, though there is a useful walking track there. And we were about to launch exercise club activities there with South Chicago senior citizens when COVID-19 shut that down. Still, the park made our list because it is also home to the Urban Growers Collective South Chicago Farm. Though we can’t currently partner with them for their goat yoga, they just launched their Saturday No Contact Pick-up of locally grown vegetables.

So why not explore some of South Chicago’s old industrial past along US 41, take a walk at Schafer and help out your immune system and Urban Growers Collective at the same time by purchasing some produce in isolation. Order in advance and sign up for your pick-up time slot here.

Big Marsh Park

Where: 11555 S. Stony Island Ave.

From Schafer Park, you might want to head over to Big Marsh. A former industrial site, this is a newer Chicago Park District property in the southeast side Calumet Reserve area spanning 280.13 acres.

Referred to as an eco-recreation park, Big Marsh includes a bike park and a large environmental preserve area, with lots of space for social distancing. Besides enjoying bike trails, you can also find good spots to do some bird watching, so bring your binoculars.

Douglas(s) Park

Where: 1401 S. Sacramento Ave.

How about going to Douglas Park for something other than Riot Fest? It’s a big park on either side of Ogden Avenue with lots of space to roam! And we encourage you to take this opportunity to look into the campaign by 7th grade students from Village Leadership Academy who are advocating for a change of the park’s name away from Stephen A. Douglas (a slave holder) to Frederick Douglass (an escaped slave who became a famous orator and abolitionist). You can sign the students’ petition here.

Dunning Read Conservation Area

Where: 4200 N. Oak Park Ave.

Saved from big box development by activist neighbors who called in Friends of the Parks to help, this 25-acre wetland and woodlands parcel — which is in the process of being turned over to the Chicago Park District — sits behind the Chicago-Read Mental Health center. It’s hard to find, so it doesn’t get a lot of use, which makes it the perfect place to visit now.

Wear hiking boots and long pants as the paths are overgrown, and invasives have taken over the place. Coyotes are sometimes seen there. More likely, you may encounter bird watchers who frequent the space, which is open from dawn to dusk.

Marquette Park

Where: 6700 S. Kedzie Ave.

This beautiful park on Chicago’s southwest side has a nine-hole golf course (which is closed), lagoons and lots of beautiful scenery. It is also the site of a monument to Martin Luther King Jr., who faced an ugly crowd of protestors when his Chicago Freedom Movement marched in the neighborhood in favor of fair housing.

The local alderman previously asked Friends of the Parks to help activate this park, which signals it doesn’t get as much use as it might. What better time to check it out than now?

Sherman Park

Where: 1301 W. 52nd St.

Adjacent to Garfield Boulevard, which is also a good candidate for an isolated walk in a lovely green space, Sherman Park is a treasure of Chicago’s rich park development and landscape architecture history.

According to the Chicago Park District website, it was “one of 10 revolutionary parks” meant to meet the needs of “noisy, overcrowded immigrant communities” by providing “social services as well as breathing spaces to these areas. Nationally renowned landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers and architects Daniel H. Burnham and Co. designed the whole system of new parks. … At 60 acres, Sherman Park was one of the largest of the parks.” We have been there, and we can confirm it’s worth a visit!

Riis Park

Where: 6100 W. Fullerton Ave.

This park represents interesting Chicago history from the steep glacial ridge that was once was the Lake Michigan shoreline to the legacy of Jacob Riis, for whom the park is named.

According to the Chicago Park District website, Riis “advocated the creation of small playgrounds to provide ‘breathing spaces’ for densely-populated urban neighborhoods. His 1898 speech at Chicago’s Hull House inspired local reformers to petition for city playgrounds. By the time the Northwest Park District created Riis Park in 1916, the playground movement Riis had helped to inspire had in turn fueled park-building across the nation.”

Recently, some neighbors have used the claim that Riis Park is underutilized to advocate for the construction of a Chicago Public School in the park (which, unfortunately, is legal). So go check it out before some of that green space gets gobbled up!

West Ridge Natural Area

Where: 5601 N. Western Ave.

Hopefully you won’t meet up with too many people — but possibly some deer — at the West Ridge Natural Area woodland with its trails, boardwalks and fishing area. The park land once belonged to the adjacent Rosehill Cemetery, which can also be a nice place for an isolated walk.

In fact, the Chicago Park District website describes it this way: “One of Chicago’s oldest burial grounds, Rosehill Cemetery was dedicated in 1859. Landscape gardener William Saunders, a national leader in the Rural Cemetery Movement, created Rosehill Cemetery’s original design which included curving drives, swaths of lawn, and several water features. Through the cemetery’s history, the area at the northwest corner included a pond. Until its recent conversion to parkland, however, the 21-acre site remained an undeveloped part of the cemetery that had never been used for burials.”

Dan Ryan Woods

Where: South Western Avenue and 83rd Street

Since once upon a time Friends of the Parks also advocated for the forest preserves before the creation of the Friends of the Forest Preserves, we thought we’d throw in one Forest Preserves of Cook County site in the city limits for good measure.

According to their website: “The 257-acre Dan Ryan Woods is a well-loved family destination on Chicago’s South Side, with sledding and snowboarding hills, historic aqueducts, fitness stairs, picnic groves and a mile-long paved loop that connects to the Major Taylor Trail. The site supports a large array of native plants, animals and migratory birds.”

We have fond memories of our VIP (Volunteers-In-Parks) Awards ceremony held at the visitor center which is currently closed, as is the nature play area. But there’s plenty of surrounding forest preserve to explore.