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.
Soak it up Members of the Horicon Marsh Bird Club will be happy to share scopes, tips, “oohs” and “ahhs” on their carpool field trip to observe migrating species on April 23 (horiconmarshbirdclub.com).
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 (every Saturday morning until April 8) in the Conservatory Annex.
Soak it up Immerse yourself in the season without immersing yourself in the elements at the springtime show, For the Birds, April 15–May 29 under the Floral Show Dome. There, native Wisconsin bird replicas will perch in eclectic birdhouses and nests surrounded by fresh tulips and other fragrant bursts of the season (county.milwaukee.gov).
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 18–26, 2017) 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.
Soak it up Don’t miss Garden 7, where the budding professionals of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences will be showing off their horticultural and hardscaping handiwork—in past years, a tiny house, a mini fairy garden and an aquaponics farm where tilapia swam amidst the flora (chicagoflower.com).
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.
Soak it up This year’s spring flower show theme knocks it out of the ballpark. Through May 14, you can fake catching a fly ball at an ivy-covered wall reminiscent of the one at Wrigley Field and stroll among raised beds overflowing with azaleas, daffodils and tulips (garfieldconservatory.org).
Photo: Courtesy of Patrick L. Pyszka/City of Chicago
Art in Bloom: Indianapolis
A quarter of a million spring perennials create a living palette in the artfully landscaped gardens outside the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the Spring Blooms: Celebration of Color exhibit opening March 31.
Each of the museum’s six gardens has its own color scheme and style. The 1920s-era Richard D. Wood Formal Garden features arched arbors and paths lined with sweet-scented lilacs and daffodils. The Rapp Family Ravine Garden cascades into a ravine dotted with rock-rimmed pools and 19,000 blooming irises, orchids and cherry trees. And the Allée and border gardens highlight native and Asian specimens of jack-in-the-pulpit and other spring showstoppers. Blooms come to life gradually throughout the grounds, opening over a two-month period, so you’ll see something different each time you visit. Follow the museum on social media for daily updates on what’s at its peak.
Soak it up The limestone bench at the Rapp Family Ravine Garden is almost 15 feet wide from end to end, but because of the way sound waves travel across curved surfaces, you and a friend can whisper into the stone on opposite ends and have a conversation only you can hear. You’ll also enjoy a spectacular view of the gardens and estate from here (imamuseum.org).
Photos: (Tulips) Nathaniel Edmunds Photography; (Bench) Tad Fruits
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 (March 11–12). 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).