Horicon Marsh: Horicon, WI
This 33,000-acre wetland, known as the “Little Everglades of the North,” is the country’s largest freshwater cattail marsh. Its impressive Education and Visitor Center is open seven days a week, but the real action this time of year is in the tens of thousands of ducks stopping by the marshlands to fuel up on invertebrates, fish and leftover field corn on their migration from South America, Central America and the southern United States to the northern United States and Canada.
“They come through as soon as the ice is gone,” says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife educator Liz Herzmann, “but a lot of people miss it because it’s still chilly.”
It’s well worth the effort of bundling up and hitting the trails to see the males of nearly 20 different species showing off their iridescent greens and shimmering mohawks as they vie for mates. “There’s a lot of wing flapping and bill snapping,” Liz says.
The show lasts about two weeks and typically starts in late March or early April, but dates vary from year to year. Watch the “Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center” Facebook wall to pick the best time to visit.
Mitchell Park Conservatory: Milwaukee, WI
For more than 50 years, three glass-and-concrete beehive domes have lent a mid-century modern twist to the landscape near the Milwaukee Brewers’ ballpark.
Refresh your winter-weary outlook in the Tropical Dome’s rainforest microcosm, thick with vines and ferns, or explore the Desert Dome’s exotic succulents and African pampas grass. Looking for a summery shopping experience? Size up fruits and veggies at the Milwaukee Winter Farmers Market on Saturday mornings in the Conservatory Annex.
Photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee
Lincoln Park Zoo: Chicago
Baby animals might lead the online cuteness parade, but Chicago’s legendary (and free!) zoo lets you see them for real. Last year, three baby snow monkeys arrived, and zoo staffers are crossing their fingers for more this year. You might know them as Japanese macaques, or as the photo-friendly white monkeys with a habit of lounging in hot springs. In 2016, zoo fans named baby Otaru in a weeklong vote, continuing a tradition of naming each baby at the Regenstein Macaque Forest after a Japanese city with the same first letter as its mom’s name—in this case, Ono.
Soak it up What’s your baby fave? Whether wobbly zebra colts make you weak in the knees or penguin chicks are your picks, you can time your next zoo visit right by watching the New Arrivals page online (lpzoo.org).
Photos: (Zebras) Todd Rosenberg Photography; Bikers (courtesy of Choose Chicago); (monkeys) courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo
Chicago Flower and Garden Show: Chicago
Stepping inside Festival Hall at Navy Pier for this annual show (March 14–18, 2018) is like walking into spring, complete with teeming koi ponds, pergolas and tens of thousands of blooms bedded in earthy-fresh mulch.
If you’re eager to get your hands in the dirt again, stop by the How-To Garden and sign up for one of three daily potting parties. For $20, you’ll get the plants, container and step-by- step instructions to create your own garden to go.
Photo: Courtesy of Chicago Flower and Garden Show
Garfield Park Conservatory: Chicago
When March is coming in like a lion, head for this glass-topped botanical haven, where the weather is always in lamb mode. The conservatory houses 2 toasty acres of ferns, palms, cacti and thousands of other heat-loving species. It’s off the beaten tourist path west of the Loop but worth a stop to see one of the nation’s largest conservatories, and admission is free.
Photo: Courtesy of Patrick L. Pyszka/City of Chicago
Maple Sugar Festival: Kalamazoo, MI
Get ready to get sticky. Every spring, more than 2,000 people head to the Kalamazoo Nature Center for one of its biggest events of the year: Maple Sugar Fest (check website for 2018 dates). Visitors can feast on a pancake breakfast (dripping with real Michigan maple syrup, of course), maple cotton candy and ice cream drizzled with maple syrup.
All that maple will fuel your hike around 14 miles of trails at the 1,100-acre property—one of the largest nature centers in the country. Go your own way, or join a naturalist-led historical maple sugar tour.
Soak it up Jump into a horse-drawn wagon and head to the Delano Homestead, a wooden farmhouse where Laura Ingalls would have felt right at home. There, sap bubbles and burbles over the fire as it’s turned into maple sugar, just like pioneers made it in the 1800s (naturecenter.org).