As Chicagoans know, it’s always cooler by the lake; but I think of the bright Lincoln Park sun in autumn more than I think of the cold. Lincoln Park holds some of my favorite spots to spend time in Chicago. But with an area of about three miles on the Lake Michigan shore, stretching from Ohio Street Beach up to Edgewater, Lincoln Park could mean many different landmarks and locations to Chicagoans.
The portion of the park that sits next to the Lincoln Park neighborhood is often categorized into the South Lincoln Park/South Pond area (below Fullerton Avenue) and the North Pond Nature Sanctuary area that stretches up to Diversey. The lakefront biking and walking trail comes alive in the summer, but remains in use throughout the year, even with snow or ice on the ground. The lake often looks the most poetic and alluringly ominous when frozen and delicately dusted with snow.
North Avenue Beach is full of volley ball games in the summer, and River North drinkers sit sunbathing atop the abandoned-ship restaurant, Castaways. Engagement photo shoots often take place in the lower half of the park, near historic Cafe Brauer on South Pond, and in an artsy pavilion that’s become known as the honeycomb, a favorite place to take a leaning-kiss photograph for save-the-dates. The honeycomb’s actual name is the Peoples Gas Education Pavilion, and it sits amid the pleasant Nature Boardwalk.
I recently had the pleasure of taking an hours-long stroll through this portion of the park, something I haven’t been able to do as frequently since I moved out of my studio apartment near Clark and Wrightwood to be further west in Logan Square. I miss my jogs along the lakefront, being so near the water you can smell its freshness in the morning when you open the windows.
On this recent Sunday-morning walk with two dear friends, we ducked into the hidden Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool that rests just south of busy Fullerton Avenue. One of my favorite places to find peace in the city, the lily pool was constructed for this purpose. Named for its architect, the pond’s few structures blend in with their natural surroundings and consist mostly of flat rocks, creating a Frank Lloyd Wright–esque architectural atmosphere.
The pool was originally part of a Victorian garden constructed around 1889. The garden eventually fell into disrepair, until Caldwell reconstructed the pool in 1936. In 1977, it became part of the Lincoln Park Conservancy. Caldwell said he wanted to create “A cool, refreshing, clear place of trees and stones and running water.”
The neighboring Lincoln Park Conservatory is also worth viewing; another calm (but very humid) landmark in the expansive park, perfect for walking through on a cold day. The Conservatory’s Victorian-style glass building resides brightly over South Lincoln Park. The Shakespeare Monument near the conservatory gardens has given my walks more creative inspiration.
After heading south through the gardens, you’re right in front of the Lincoln Park Zoo. One of the best free activities in the city, the zoo seems to appear out of nowhere amidst the park vegetation. Upon entering, families sit and watch the harbor seals enter and exit the water, which can also be viewed from underground. One of the oldest zoos in the nation, the Lincoln Park Zoo was founded in the 1860s, and remains one of the few zoos that still offers free admission.
After Thanksgiving each year, the zoo comes alive at night during ZooLights, another free activity, when the 35-acre zoo is lit up with Christmas lights and the concession stands offer hot, spiced wine. My first visit to the zoo was for ZooLights in 2011, my first autumn in Chicago. A date and I wandered through the lights and families, passing the empty outdoor cages and warming up inside the Kovler Lion House or the Kovler Penguin Seabird House (since been replaced by the Pritzker Penguin Cove). Such a night felt quite far off in late September this year, when the weather was still as stifling as mid-July.
It’s never a bad idea to end such a stroll back west toward the cafés and restaurants on Clark Street, where the familiar city pace returns.
Lincoln Park holds some of Chicago’s best spots to experience and reflect upon the natural world. It’s often easy to forget about nature in a city, especially because we often only associate nature with science, animals, or hiking. But if you notice your surroundings—walking to the L, on your lunch break downtown, taking your dog for a walk—urban nature surrounds us and continuously influences our experiences as city dwellers.
Lincoln Park info:
500-5700 N. Lake Shore Drive Irving Park and Recreation Drive Chicago, Illinois 60614 [View Map]
Park Hours: 6:00 AM-11:00 PM
Park Supervisor: Lauren Quinn
Park Phone: (312) 742-7726