Busse Woods: Unexpected Outdoor Adventures

A couple embraces Chicago Northwest’s wild side

By Quincy Koetz

Looking out the window of our apartment on a sunny Monday morning, I could see nothing but a sky full of fluffy white clouds and the neighboring building. My wife, Dee, sat in the corner, folding the last of our moving boxes for the recycling pile. I cast a longing glance at my hiking boots as Dee closed the closet door. Catching my eye, she smiled.

“We need a new destination.” Dee declared.

Urban life was a new experience, and neither of us were yet accustomed to living in downtown Milwaukee. I grew up in the rural Northeast, and Dee moved from a small coastal town in sunny California. We both missed having a place to connect with the outdoors, a getaway where nature was the nurture that you needed. A quick browse of local blogs recommended Busse Woods as an all-seasons destination, and it seemed easy enough to plan—plenty of hotels that wouldn’t break our budget and restaurants with rave reviews that tempted our stomachs. A few clicks later, we were booked and I promised my hiking boots they’d escape the closet this coming weekend. Little did I know our weekend getaway would turn into a year-round retreat, one we’d revisit time and time again.

Spring: Finding wilderness near Chicago

Saturday morning brought the complete turnaround of Midwestern weather: the temperature broke 70 degrees for the first time in that year. Even the city dwellers were out enjoying a stroll on the lakefront. Not content with our day-to-day pathways, we set off on our first of many trips to Busse Woods. Our drive took us just over an hour, but we felt like we were a world away.

Lacing up my boots, Dee and I tackled Red Loop, a 7.2-mile hike. Trail runners jogged past us, and I was tempted to give chase, but Dee grabbed my hand to slow me down. 

“Look at those trees,” she said breathlessly. “It’s like something out of a Tolkien novel.” 

“We were both spellbound by Busse Woods’ natural beauty.”

I smiled in agreement. Trees crisscrossed the walking path, their long branches reaching out towards one another. Sunlight filtered down, illuminating the thick canopy of leaves so brightly that they seemed to sparkle like gemstones. A warm breeze whispered hints of the summer to come and showered leaves and petals around us. 

“It’s a National Natural Landmark,” I explained. “This is Illinois before downtown Chicago emerged.” 

I never knew if Dee heard me. We were both spellbound by Busse Woods’ natural beauty.

Before we’d reached the halfway point, the forest gave way to meadows and lakeside trails. Wildflowers broke through the previously frozen spring earth, greeting the first sunny day of the season. 

Once we had finished our hike, we plotted where to go next. As a couple, we share an enthusiasm for hiking and a good beer, and we found an excellent microbrewery not more than ten minutes from the preserve: Mikerphone Brewing. Their extensive draft list is filled with punny (and delicious) beers named after songs and musicians. I got the Fiona Apfel, an apple cobbler inspired Berliner Weisse, while Dee opted for the Zig a Zig Ahh, a heady double IPA. We snapped photos of our brews and toasted other couples in hiking boots, clearly fresh from the trails. 

Pink cheeked from either the sunny weather or the warming effects of beer, we piled back into the car for the short ride to our hotel room. 

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Summer: Fish tales

Looking for a way to beat the crowds on the shores of Lake Michigan, we decided to return to Busse Woods and cool down by the lake. 

“The last time I cast a line, my fishing pole had a picture of Snoopy on it,” Dee admitted to the helpful purveyors at Busse Lake Boating Center. I hadn’t fished since I was out of a Boy Scout uniform, but with the number of experienced water-sports enthusiasts around, we were in good company.

While renting kayaks and purchasing bait, a few friendly fishers shared their wisdom with us. We learned that Walleye and largemouth bass were the premium catches of the lake, and archipelagos of islands offered prime casting spots. If we really got stuck, someone recommended dropping a line in the deep water by the dams. Though inexperienced, we knew we’d catch something!

“The last time I cast a line, my fishing pole had a picture of Snoopy on it,”

Placid waters greeted us as we cast off into the main pool, looking for a perfect spot. We paddled lazily and took in the gorgeous scenery. Finally, we dropped our lines near a small island by the dam. Moments later, I felt an insistent tug on my fishing rod. 

“Watch out!” I shouted, and Dee paddled over to get a better view. I reeled in the line, and sure enough, a largemouth bass wriggled and flopped above the water. Dee yelped and ducked as it splashed her. I quickly unhooked the fish from the line and tossed it back. 

A small shout of excitement from nearby told me Dee hooked a fish of her own. We spent the rest of the afternoon splashing and laughing as the sun went down.

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Fall: Leaf peeping on two wheels

Coming from temperate California, Dee was awed by the change of seasons she found in the city. While walking through the park she’d pause to point out each tree. 

“That’s a perfect pumpkin orange,” she said.

“I bet I can find a better spectrum of fall colors,” I said. Busse Woods was on my mind, and it turns out, there’s no better place for leaf peeping near the city. 

This visit, we traded our hiking boots for bikes. Although we could have easily brought our own bikes, we wanted to try out the park’s dockless bike service. Renting was quick and painless and Dee challenged me to a race as we started off. Eleven miles of paved trails winding through the forest awaited us. 

Riding through Busse Woods in the fall felt like riding through a painting. Maples, oaks and ash trees created a mosaic of fall colors rivaling that of my former home in the Northeast. We gave up on our race and slowed down, even stopping frequently and took more pictures than we do on a week’s vacation.

As we rode on, we stumbled upon two attractions we missed last time. Just off Higgins Road on the eastern boundary of the park was an elk herd! These stately creatures strutted around and right up to the fence; they’ve been here for almost a hundred years and certainly didn’t mind pictures. We gawked at the bull whose antlers stretched an enormous width. 

As we pedaled on through the north half of the park, we heard the nearby buzz of overhead aircraft. Looking expectantly for drones snapping fall foliage photos, we spotted a group of people piloting small model airplanes. The experts of all ages guided their planes through graceful loops and dives against a backdrop of autumn leaves. 

Stopping for a breather, I took a long swig from my water bottle as Dee studied a trail map.

“Look,” she said “there’s a bunch of other trails that link to Busse Woods. Like, look right here…” She trailed her finger along the map. “If we took the Salt Creek Trail all the way out we would end up at the Brookfield Zoo!”

I laughed. “And we thought seeing the elks was impressive. Imagine ending a nice long bike ride with some elephants?”

“Riding through Busse Woods in the fall felt like riding through a painting.”

Winter: Staying fit and ski-sons greetings

It takes much more than a piping hot piece of deep-dish pizza to cure your winter blues. Or so we discovered in a bold winter trip to Busse Woods on a cold but sunny day in February. Although it was a challenge to escape our well-heated apartment, we bundled up in long underwear and the highest rated down Patagonia had to offer. 

As it turns out, down jackets aren’t necessary if you’re trying your hand at cross-country skiing. A few months of snow blanketed the park, so at least we were well cushioned with our initial trips, falls, and more than a few humorous face plants. 

“It’s like jogging,” I gasped. Yep, running outside in the snow. Note to self: lay off the deep dish.

Keeping up a respectable, but by no means fast pace, we skied off into a Norman Rockwelll painting. Solitude and silence fell around us, and we hardly saw a soul that day. Even the chatty birds were still. Winter’s tranquility melted our work stress like snowflakes falling on warm pavement.

At the end of this excursion, we unstrapped from our skis. Wiping sweat from my face, I turned to my wife. 

“Next time, we’re getting a snowmobile.”

“We skied off into a Norman Rockwell Scene”

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Discover four seasons of endless possibilities in Busse Woods
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