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The Wild Side of Chicago
Amid the nation’s third-largest metropolis, we found the wildlife.
By Donna Ikenberry
Lovers of the outdoors, we typically spend our days watching animal life, often visiting national parks, and searching for animals at national wildlife refuges around the country. You get the picture. We love wildlife! In addition, one of our favorite things in the world is to be up high, to hike above the tree line, to witness see-forever views from on high.
So when we visited Chicago, we opted to find the wild side of the city. We searched out the best places for views and found plenty in the way of animal life, including an array of delightful big-city museums, aquariums and zoos, and in doing so we discovered the “wild side” of Chicago.
Setting Up Home-Base
We checked out campgrounds located near areas that have a connection with the Metra Rail into Chicago. That’s important, because if you drive into the city, you’ll have to pay to park at all of the various attractions.
We discovered that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) would provide great ways to get around town. In fact, we used CTA buses and trains to reach most of our destinations.
Our wintertime tour of the “Windy City” began on a frigid, record-setting December day – so cold even the local weather people were talking about it. Still, we had come to explore the city, so we bundled up and braved the cold.
We joined other like-minded adventurers at the Christkindl market, an annual German Holiday Village, where we sipped traditional glühwein, a famous hot, spiced red wine, ate German foods and bought some ornaments also from Germany.
After picking up a big packet of ideas from City of Chicago Tourist Information, we later gazed in awe at the lights of the city before retreating for the night to plot our next day’s tour.
Taking in the Wild Sights
Mike and I had a list of must-sees – and we saw them all. Being avid animal enthusiasts, the Shedd Aquarium, both the Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos, and The Field Museum were places we definitely did not want to miss. In addition, we wanted to touch the highest points in Chicago, so we made plans to visit the Sears Tower and the Hancock Observatory.
We found the Chicago CityPass to be a great local travel bargain. At a cost-saving package price, it provided admission to five popular attractions – the Hancock Observatory, the Field Museum & Underground Adventure, Shedd Aquarium VIP, Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, and Museum of Science and Industry plus Omnimax – all for about half the cost of their combined entry fees. An added bonus was knowing that all attractions were accessible via the CTA.
An amazing place, at the time the Shedd Aquarium was built, it was the largest indoor aquarium in the world (losing the title when the Georgia Aquarium was opened), and its Oceanarium is still impressive. Three million gallons of seawater (made by combining freshwater with salt) fill three connected pools, all of varying size, shape and depth. Beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins access the pools.
The aquarium, designated a national historic landmark by the National Park Service, opened in 1929 and four years later acquired an Australian lungfish. Amazingly, the lungfish is alive and well – it’s been on exhibit for 74 years and is at least 75 years old.
In addition to the Oceanarium, we thrilled to other aquarium exhibits such as the Waters of the World, where we saw iguanas and seahorses, a Caribbean Reef with a green sea turtle, and bonnethead sharks. Amazon Rising provides a view of a green anaconda and giant river turtles.
Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory:
The bus dropped us off at the entrance to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is located north of downtown Chicago. Open year-round, this is one of the world’s last free zoos.
We enjoyed all of the displays, but were especially awed by the chimp and gorilla exhibit. We had seen it featured on the “Animal Planet” series’ “Ultimate Zoo.” Designed with enrichment for the apes and connection with the public in mind, we laughed as the chimps ran in and out of the exhibit gathering snowballs, not only to eat but to throw, too.
The Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo was also a special treat, with its local residents – North American black bears, red wolves, beavers and river otters – all animals seen in the wilds of North America.
One day we decided to take the Metra to the Brookfield Zoo, located 16 miles outside Chicago. We were definitely impressed with the southern hairy-nosed wombat exhibit in the Australia House. Wombats are stocky marsupials built for digging, and the Brookfield Zoo is one of only four zoos in North America where these wombats are on exhibit.
Enter the Living Coast exhibit with its Humboldt penguins, Inca terns and gray gulls, and you’ll get a glimpse of the western coast of South America. One of the newest exhibits at the zoo – Wolf Woods – is a 2.1-acre sanctuary, home to several rare and endangered Mexican gray wolves.
Even for outdoors-lovers, a Chicago visit is not complete without a tour of the Sears Tower and a few other downtown landmarks. We zoomed up inside one of the world’s fastest elevator systems, to the 103rd floor, in a mere 60 seconds. Zipping up to the top, however, gave us more free time to look at the view and study all 375 feet of museum-quality murals. The murals provide a lesson into Chicago’s vast and rich history.
At 1,450 feet, the Sears Tower is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Open all year, on a clear day its Skydeck offers a 50-mile view in every direction across four states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Hancock Observatory:
While the sights from the Sears Tower are amazing, the recently renovated Hancock Observatory offers visitors what it claims are Chicago’s best views. Plus, you get the opportunity to walk the city’s highest open-air Skywalk – 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile.
Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s:
In addition to animal life, one objective of big-city life is to try local foods – and if you’re into eating, Chicago is the place to visit. Voted one of the “best food cities” in America, our tummies were grateful for many meals. But one of our most unique experiences came when we had breakfast at Rock ’N’ Roll McDonalds.
Claimed to be the third-busiest McDonald’s in the country, it boasts 60-foot-high yellow arches and 20,000 square feet in two levels.
An escalator carried us upstairs to comfortable, lounge-type dining, where we spent time examining a wealth of rock ’n’ roll memorabilia and toys dating from our childhood, including Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys.
The Field Museum:
Although I prefer live animals, places like The Field Museum are wonderful places for education. In the past, I’ve been to some nice natural history museums, but the Field Museum is certainly the largest. Why, it would take more than a day just to mosey past all of the exhibits.
We found a treasure of Native American artifacts at the museum, as well as mummies and Egyptian tombs. In addition, the museum has more than 16 million other specimens on display of interest in the fields of zoology, geology, anthropology and botany. And if that isn’t enough, visitors can also gaze at dinosaur skeletons, including that of Sue – the largest, most complete and best-preserved tyrannosaurus rex yet discovered.
As we readied to hit the road again, we were pleased to have found that Chicago does, indeed, have a “wild side.”