Visitors to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie will find a vision of hope and healing as big as the Illinois prairie.
In spring, shallow pools reflect branches and clouds; ducks flap overhead; and the breeze carries the sweet love song of chorus frogs. You'll realize how far this place has come from the days when trucks and rail cars hauled TNT from munitions plants to storage bunkers here.
Near Wilmington, Midewin was tapped in 1996 as the nation's first federally designated tallgrass prairie. Named for a Potawatomi healing/medicine society, Midewin (Mih-DAY-win) is now the site of healing on a grand scale. With volunteer help, the U.S. Forest Service and its partners are restoring the site to the way it looked before European settlers arrived. The work is crucial; less than .01 percent of the Prairie State's original prairie remains.
Click ahead for six ways to enjoy Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, along with suggestions for where to eat and stay near the prairie.
Of the 18,023 acres at Midewin, more than 9,100 are open to public use, with 29 miles of trails. Wandering this prairie is almost like being on safari; you may feel like the only humans for miles.
Along Grass Frog Trail, mint-green leopard frogs and ring-necked pheasants scurry across the path. The trail winds through South Patrol Road Restoration Area, a stunning tallgrass prairie. In summer, it's a waving mass of coneflowers, compass plant and blazing star; in spring, migrating ducks use it as a rest stop. Illinois prairies are naturally wet; standing water is a sign of balance returning to the land.
Pioneers described the Illinois prairie as a "sea of grass" (and covered wagons came to be known as prairie schooners). Midewin's trail system includes 16 miles of mixed-use trails (hiking, biking and bring-your-own horseback riding) that offer a chance to drink in that vastness and solitude. Cyclists usually start at Midewin's Iron Bridge Trailhead. Guided bike tours are offered periodically (bring your own wheels).
At Midewin's Native Seed Nursery, rows of flowering plants stretch across the fields; horticulturists cultivate roughly 130 species here. Some, such as the leafy prairie-clover, enjoy federal protection. Hundreds of kids from Mighty Acorns, an Illinois youth-stewardship program, help harvest seeds and plant them during late-winter months. If you'd like some prairie plants of your own, plan to visit during the Midewin Alliance's annual native plant sale in May.
Through its heritage program, Midewin offers three-hour "ghost tours" of the old ammunition plant. In this case, the ghosts are the buildings. Empty TNT boxes lie everywhere, and guides explain the history of the Joliet ammunition plant. Sometimes, peeking into the past is the best way to appreciate the present.
Guided tours are held some Saturdays, May through September. On other days, pick up a free guide at the new Welcome Center and head outside; look for birds darting from cool woods to sunny prairie.
More than 100 bird species nest and breed at Midewin, and 68 more species use the habitat during migration or as winter range. The prairie is home to the largest concentration of Upland Sandpipers in the state and the largest population of Loggerhead Shrikes in northern Illinois.
Midewin is a work in progress, a patchwork landscape of prairie, woodland and marsh stitched by old Army roads and dotted with bunkers. Crushed-rock trails lead to some wild places worth exploring (a map is essential; seasonal guided tours are a plus).
The 1.5-mile Prairie Creek Woods Trail meanders through woods along a clear, shallow creek. Here, wildflowers dot the ground: bluebells, spring beauty and mayapples, while Buttonbush Pond reflects the absolute peace of a woodland pond in spring.
For more information
Contact Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (815) 423-6370; www.fs.fed.us/mntp . The visitors center is open Mondays-Saturdays May through October and Mondays-Fridays the rest of the year. The prairie itself is open every day. The website has detailed directions and plenty of info about trails and programs available to the public.
Where to eat
Launching Pad Drive-In Tourists feast their eyes on the space-guy Gemini Giant mascot (pictured) before filling up with one of the signature Italian beef sandwiches or Route 66 burgers in Wilmington, 5 miles south of Midewin. Read Midwest Living's review.  (815) 476-6535
Hayden's Crossing Diners find plain food with big flavor in small-town Wilmington. The lunch/dinner menu features entrees such as steaks and chops ($11-$23). Cheese sticks are as big as egg rolls; mouthwatering burgers hold sway. (815) 476-5925
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2011. Prices, hours and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans,)