15 Day Trips Near Chicago for Kids This Summer
Many Chicago-area kids have been at home for more than 100 days now, and parents and kids alike may be itching for a change of scenery. While dreams of a vacation to Disney World may be off the table––for now––day trips near Chicago abound for a quick kid-friendly getaway.
We’ve gathered up 15 summer day trips from Chicago that have kids in the car for less than 2.5 hours and still offer plenty of fun even at a social distance. Beaches, nature hikes, zoos, sculpture gardens, and even a handful of museums are open for short day trips near Chicago.
Be aware that while the neighboring states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana may be open for business, not every business in each state is open. Also, opening hours are changing quickly in this situation. Please do pack your masks, along with the snacks and hand sanitizer, and do call ahead before heading out for these mostly outdoor Chicago day trips.
Stroll for miles on the stunning beach at Indiana Dunes National Park. Photo courtesy of NPS
Beach Day Trips Near Chicago
1. Indiana Dunes National Park
Enjoy 15 miles of Lake Michigan shore at Indiana Dunes National Park. The Dunes have several hiking trails, a boardwalk, and historic sites to tour. The most adventurous families can also spend the night at Dunewood Campground, which is open. Keep an eye on the national park's site for temporary access point closures this summer.
2. New Buffalo, Michigan
Relax on one of Lake Michigan’s popular beaches in New Buffalo, Michigan, a small town just north of the Indiana border. Families can rent paddleboards, kayaks, and tubes for lake and river recreation. Kids might also enjoy picking blueberries in July––there are several pick-your-own farms nearby––or exploring lighthouses along the coast.
Feed a variety of wild animals at the Safari Lake Geneva drive-through zoo experience. Photo courtesy of Safari Lake Geneva
3. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Just 90 minutes from Chicago, Lake Geneva has plenty of quiet shores and quaint shopping, as well as outdoor adventures and water sports for families to take in. Families can go tubing, ziplining, hiking, biking, waterskiing, or golfing at this large resort community. Families may also enjoy Safari Lake Geneva, a drive-through zoo experience in which families can feed a variety of wild animals from alpacas to yaks (online reservations required).
4. Illinois Beach State Park
The name of this state park may be a bit misleading as it is one of the only beach-ridge shorelines (a ridge created by sediment piled by waves long ago) left in the state. It is home to 6.5 miles of sandy shore and recreation areas, with dunes, swales, marshes, and forests. Illinois Beach State Park has interesting examples of Illinois wildlife like prickly pear cactus, prairie grasses, and cattails. Families can swim, boat, picnic, hike, fish, or camp in the park.
5. South Haven, Michigan
The charming Michigan beach town of South Haven fully reopened with the rest of the state on June 1. Visitors can enjoy beaches along Lake Michigan, a walkable downtown with shops and restaurants, nature trails, boat rides, and even golfing and a wine trail for the grown-ups. Plenty of rental properties offer swimming pools for families, making this Chicago day trip easy to turn into an overnight weekend getaway.
The Sweet Bookworm Garden has 70 gardens each with a theme from classic children's book. Photo courtesy of the garden
6. Kohler and Sheboygan, Wisconsin
In addition to swimming or boating in Lake Michigan, kids may enjoy two special gardens in the areas of Kohler and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The sweet Bookworm Garden in Sheboygan features 70 different gardens with themes from classic children’s books. (Book your timed entry online.) Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden hosts statues of 30 historic religious and mythic figures. As the state of Wisconsin starts to reopen, kids may also be able to celebrate bathroom design with Kohler’s museum and factory tour (for those who take potty humor seriously).
Outdoor Day Trips Near Chicago
A hike through one of our nearby state parks is among our favorite day trips near Chicago. We're lucky to be surrounded by a variety of parks, water, and more outdoor activities on all sides. Read on for a sampling of where to take the kids.
7. Starved Rock
Get ready for some serious hiking at Starved Rock State Park's 13 miles of trails complete with waterfalls, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks. Families can also enjoy fishing and boating, or a stay at Starved Rock Lodge in luxury lodging or cabin rooms. The park is rich in Native American history, so kids can also learn more about the Illinois tribe and French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette throughout the lodge and park.
Meet giant trolls at the Morton Arboretum. Photo by the author
8. Morton Arboretum
The 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum is home to more than 222,000 live plants––and six giant troll statues. The trolls are 15 to 30 feet tall. Now is a great time to go visit all of them, exploring the variety of terrain. We recommend taking the car if arriving with toddlers. Older children may be able to hike the 6 to 7 miles to see each one. The suburban site reopened in early June and requires advance timed tickets to get in.
9. Brookfield Zoo
The Brookfield Zoo's new "Dinos Everywhere!" exhibit brings prehistoric animals to life with more than 40 animatronic dinosaurs spread throughout the zoo this summer. Its indoor spaces are temporarily closed, but most outdoor animal exhibits remain open. The 216-acre zoo features bears, big cats, pachyderms, and dolphins. Masks are required for all visitors over age 2 and timed tickets are required for entry. (The zoo opens to non-members on July 8.)
Head to a berry patch with your little ones and let them do the picking! Photo by the author
10. Berry picking
Head northwest or southeast to pick strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or even gooseberries at these nearby farms. Berry picking can take several hours with preschoolers, but to make the trip a whole day with bigger kids, pair it with another day trip near Chicago, such as the drive-in movie in McHenry, Indiana Dunes National Park, or New Buffalo, Michigan.
11. Drive-in Movie at Golden Age Cinema in McHenry
OK, this isn't completely outdoors as you'll be in your car. But movies screened at this outdoor drive-in movie theater happen every night at 6:30pm in far northwest suburban McHenry for a summer season treat. The drive-in theater features classic and new films for $6 per child and $12 per adult. Snack carts on-site offer a variety of movie concessions.
Visit the Milwaukee County Zoo to see over 2,100 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles spanning 190 wooded acres. Photo by the author
Nearby Cities and Towns to Visit
12. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Wisconsin, Chicago’s neighbor to the north, has been reopened for more than a month. At less than two hours away, Milwaukee is typically a favorite day trip near Chicago for families. It offers many options for kid-friendly entertainment. Its Milwaukee County Zoo has elephants, which neither Chicago zoo has on display. Kids and adults may enjoy a tour of Sprecher Brewing Company, where kids can see how soda is made, and adults can learn more about beer, with a few age-appropriate samples for both kids and adults. Milwaukee Public Market provides lots of options for local favorite foods and treats. (Masks are required, and it is operating at reduced seating capacity and hours).
Rockford, Chicago’s third-largest city, has plenty of nature and water adventures available for families. Kids can learn to wakeboard, kayak, or paddleboard on the Rock River from Rocktown Adventures or West Rock Wake Park. Hiking excursions along the Rock River Trail or a day trip to the Nicholas Conservatory Gardens might be a better speed for less aquatically inclined families. The Burpee Museum of Natural History has reopened (with timed online tickets) on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays throughout July. Rockford also has a Food Truck Drive Thru event attracting families to half a dozen of its favorite food trucks, serving pizza, tacos, churros, and "Disco Chicken" through July 30.
14. Oak Park
This near western suburb of Oak Park is worth the short trip from the city––families could even take the L or the Metra at off-peak hours. Architecture-loving families can once again enjoy interior tours of the Robie House and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, or walk around the town to enjoy the buildings' exteriors. The Oak Park Conservatory also offers a natural respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Stop by Junction Diner for a train-themed lunch and Brown Cow for an ice cream treat.
15. Naperville Riverwalk and Downtown
For a slightly smaller town feel and to get kids out of the city, families can take a Metra ride or drive out to Naperville, Illinois. The western suburb’s River Walk offers almost two miles of brick paths with fountains, bridges, and outdoor sculptures. Along the River Walk, visitors can rent paddleboats, paddleboards, or kayaks for a water adventure in the quarry. Downtown Naperville also has several family-friendly shops and restaurants including Anderson’s Book Shop and Sweet Home Gelato.
Hopefully, these summer day trips near Chicago will let everyone safely stretch their legs a bit. Whether you choose berry picking, beaching, or hiking, it seems Chicago kids have some great summer activities lined up.