Published: August 27, 2019

Out of Office, Into Nature

Bookmark these domestic destinations for your next natural history-inspired vacation.

Many of us covet PTO days to take a vacation where we can press pause and escape the daily grind. This summer, we noticed that many Field employees were taking time away from the office— not to get away from work, but to immerse themselves even more fully in it.

From caves to mountains, these domestic destinations across the US and Canada offer a healthy dose of natural history whether it’s your work, passion, or both.

"Owl" see you in Alaska

For most, a work conference in Alaska means purchasing airfare and prepping for a layover. For three of our birds department staff, it meant the opportunity for an epic birding road trip. Kayleigh, Sean, and Dave headed out from Chicago two and a half weeks in advance of the 2019 American Ornithological Society Conference in Anchorage so they could stop and see the birds along the way. They managed to log over 160 species of birds, as well as grizzly bears, fox, Dall sheep, otters, whales, and more. They even heard a Willow Ptarmigan, which has one of the more unbelievable animal vocalizations. Between the forests, coasts, mountains, and waterfalls, hot springs in northwest Canada topped Kayleigh’s list of favorites. Her travel pro tip? Be sure to find a spot to take a dip!

Visiting a neighbor to the north

Daniel and his best friend from high school hit the road to visit our neighbors to the north. Having never been to Canada, Daniel embarked on an ambitious itinerary that included Toronto, North Bay, Ottawa, and Montreal. He especially loved Lake Nosbonsing with its hiking opportunities and wildlife. One day while lunching at a fish and chips joint, they spotted an adolescent moose. Daniel spends his days digitizing botany specimens at the Field and his passion for image-making is evident in his photography from the trip. Travel pro tip: Bring wearable mosquito nets and bug spray if you plan to be out in the evening because the mosquitos are no joke.

Deep time in the Dakotas

You might’ve heard that our Chief Curiosity Correspondent, Emily, is filming a three-part documentary series called Prehistoric Road Trip for PBS with local public broadcast station WTTW. It’s an aptly named show. In the past six weeks, she and her team have driven more than 4,500 miles across the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and a bit of Nebraska. In between visiting museums, universities, and geological dig sites, Emily has politely backed away from a rattlesnake, helped free the car from mud, and become an expert at peeing in the great outdoors. But the highlight from her epic road trip has been revisiting her home state of South Dakota to explore the region in a whole new way: through the lens of deep time. The documentary spans a massive 2.5 billion years of Earth's history, and South Dakota boasts an amazing amount of geologic diversity in a relatively small geographic region. Travel pro tip: If you ever find yourself at an active paleontological dig site, bring sunscreen, more than enough water, and a great attitude.

When poetry and paleontology collide

When your daughter’s first utterances are “tops” (triceratops) and “digogo” (dinosaur), chances are, years later, she’ll convince you to head to the Hell Creek Formation—a geological hotbed in South Dakota. And so Eric, our poet-in-residence, and his family planned a trip with PaleoAdventures to explore an active dig site just twenty miles from where SUE the T. rex was unearthed in 1990. Paleontology work is hot, dirty, and laborious work. Prepare to be patient but also amazed. In addition to finding 65-million-year-old crocodile scutes (bony plates) and teeth, they found turtle fossils and an extraordinary leaf impression. Travel pro tip: Stay in a hotel with a pool. There’s nothing like diving into cool water after eight hours digging through prehistoric dirt.

Mammoth as in massive, not woolly

When our Web & Digital Engagement Director’s six-year-old son asked if they could “go out to nature this summer,” Brad couldn’t refuse. His family got out, but also under, with a visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. This is the longest known cave in the world, with 412 miles mapped so far. Despite its massive size, newbies need not be intimidated. The guided tours, metal pathways, handrails, and lighting make it a safe environment—but be ready for a few tight spaces! The surrounding above-ground areas are gorgeous and definitely worth time for hiking and camping. Travel pro tip: Try Louisville for a city stay that’s less than an hour and a half drive from the cave.

Parks & recreation

Lesley is a national park system superfan, and she visits as many parks as often as she can. This summer, our conservation scientist and ichthyologist explored Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Lesley and her family spent their time swimming in glacial lakes, fly fishing on the Snake River, river rafting, and hiking. But seeing bison roam freely in Yellowstone was especially memorable. Travel pro tip: Don’t sleep in! From geysers to mountains, there’s too much to see. And be sure to carry bear spray when hiking.

A nature staycation

The United States is filled with natural wonders, but enjoying the great outdoors doesn’t necessitate a cross-country road trip. If you live in Chicago, you’re 50 miles from Indiana Dunes National Park, which ranks in the top 10 for most biodiverse ecosystems in the nation. Want to stay closer to home? As this episode of The Brain Scoop reminds us, even if our home is a dense urban environment there’s nature to be found almost everywhere. Take advantage of Chicago Park District's many locations and programming. Enjoy the calming sounds of Lake Michigan while finding ancient life with our Beachgoer’s Guide to Fossils and Rocks. Use our Field Guides to identify new blooms, migrating birds, and other plants and animals in the Chicago region. Bad weather? Always a good excuse to visit your local museum.