Henslow's sparrow on prairie grasses
Henslow's sparrow Henslow's sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) photographed at The Nature Conservancy's Caveny Tract along the Central Platte River. © Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy

Places We Protect

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Illinois

Midewin is the first national tallgrass prairie in the United States.

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established in 1996 on the former Joliet Arsenal. It is the first national tallgrass prairie in the country. Midewin represents a major effort to restore 20,000 acres of farm and industrial land to a unique American landscape and the complex ecology of the prairie. This also makes Midewin the largest open space in the Chicago metropolitan area and northeastern Illinois and the largest tallgrass prairie restoration effort east of the Mississippi River.

Public access to Midewin was restricted during the Army’s cleanup of contaminants remaining from decades of munitions manufacture, but today, nearly 9,000 acres of Midewin and 33 miles of trails are open to the public for non-motorized recreation. Midewin will remain a “prairie under construction” for many years to come, so there are many accomplishments for visitors to witness and even help achieve. In 2015, bison were reintroduced at the preserve. 

Why TNC Selected This Site

The Nature Conservancy has a strong partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to manage the volunteer program and support ecological monitoring.

Drummond Dolomite Prairie, located on the northwestern corner of Midewin, is some of the most ecologically important land in Illinois. Thin soils over dolomite, magnesium-rich bedrock create a mixture of wet, mesic and dry prairie that supports a wide range of species. The vast grasslands support one of the largest population of upland sandpiper in Illinois and provide refuge for other grassland bird species whose numbers are severely declining across the Midwest. Midewin’s sheer size provides the opportunity to foster a variety of habitats required by sensitive or endangered species, particularly those that require wide open spaces.

What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established through the Illinois Land Conservation Act of 1995. Two years later, the Army transferred the first 15,080 acres of former arsenal lands to the U.S. Forest Service. Later transfers and acquisitions brought Midewin to its current size of 18,094 acres.

As the Army completes additional environmental cleanup, more former arsenal lands will be transferred. The Nature Conservancy has been a strong supporter and partner throughout this entire process. The Conservancy has helped support shrike research, deer surveys, bird monitoring and manages the award winning volunteer program at Midewin. Project managers from the Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service collaborate on best practices and management for the largest tallgrass prairie restoration effort east of the Mississippi River.


 

Conditions

The Conservancy suggests wearing long pants, sturdy shoes and sun protection for hiking. There is no water available at the trail heads. There are designated areas for various activities such as biking, hiking, dog walking and horseback riding. Midewin recommends a fat-tire bike for the crushed limestone or gravel trails. Hiking trails are either mowed grass or mulched.

What to See: Plants

Several threatened and endangered plants are currently being monitored at Midewin, such as leafy prairie clover, glade quillwort, globe mallow, ear-leaf foxglove, Pitcher’s stitchwort and white ladies slipper. Some of these sensitive plants grow within Midewin’s restricted areas.

Visitors can walk through the 500-acre South Patrol Road prairie restoration, where nearly 200 different species have been planted. Visitors may also enjoy the restored Prairie Creek Woods and see woodland wildflowers such as Virginia bluebells, toothworth, trillium, woodland blue phlox and two orchid species.

Midewin produces about 30-60 percent of its own native seed at the River Road Seedbeds and Chicago Road Seedbeds, which are both open for the public to visit.

What to See: Animals

More than 100 bird species nest and breed at Midewin, and an additional 68 species use Midewin during migration, or as their winter range. Birds that can be seen and heard at Midewin include: threatened Henslow’s sparrows and loggerhead shrikes, endangered upland sandpipers, and more commonly the bobolinks, eastern meadowlarks and dickcissels.  In 2015, bison were reintroduced at the preserve. 

Things to Do at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
  • Hiking
  • Bike riding
  • Horseback riding
  • Dog walking
  • Hunting
  • Volunteering
  • Picnicking
  • Bird watching
  • Tours
Volunteer Opportunities

Please contact Volunteer Coordinator Allison Cisneros at acisneros@tnc.org or 815.423.2149.

To learn more and see volunteer position descriptions, visit the Midewin volunteer web page.

Visit the main Midewin web site to view a calendar of events, trail map, tour descriptions and hunting guidelines.

The Conservancy suggests wearing long pants, sturdy shoes and sun protection for hiking. There is no water available at the trail heads. There are designated areas for various activities such as biking, hiking, dog walking and horseback riding. Midewin recommends a fat-tire bike for the crushed limestone or gravel trails. Hiking trails are either mowed grass or mulched.