Check out these unique destinations that reflect the genuine character of our region.
Visit Yerkes While You Can
373 W. Geneva St., Williams Bay, Wis., (262) 245-5555, astro.uchicago.edu/yerkes
If you’ve never toured the Yerkes Observatory, known as the “birthplace of modern astrophysics,” do it while you can. The future of this remarkable site is uncertain. Its owner since 1897 – the University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics – plans to wind down Yerkes activities by Oct. 1. Talks are in progress with a coalition of Lake Geneva-area residents who wish to preserve the famous site but no plans have been announced yet.
Luminary scientists such as Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Edwin Hubble and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar have conducted research here. The elaborate, gargoyle-clad architecture on the 77-acre site makes a visit worthwhile all by itself, but there’s much more to see.
Expert tour guides explain Yerkes’ history and allow a peek inside the 90-foot dome where a 40-inch refractor telescope remains the largest lens-type instrument in the world.
Public tours are Mon.-Sat. Self-guided tours of the building’s main floor, displays and museum are only available on Saturdays from 9:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Consult the website for tour times and costs.
Yerkes also holds “star parties” in which you can view celestial objects through telescopes on the lawn and try out astronomy-related activities. They’re planned for June 30 and Aug. 11, and more may be added.
Is it the end of an era or a bright new beginning? Only time will tell.
1160 W. Empire St., Freeport, (800) 369-2955, littlecubsfield.com
How many children have grown up dreaming of what it would be like to play baseball in the professional leagues? During the past decade, thanks to talented volunteers with a lot of moxie and imagination, that dream has been especially vivid for children living near Freeport, home of Little Cubs Field.
As plans for the scaled down Wrigley replica were drawn, the Chicago Cubs not only gave their blessing, but also provided ivy cuttings from their stadium walls and a private tour of the real thing. Cubs third-baseman Ron Santo even showed up for the June 2008 grand opening of Little Cubs Field.
Today, visitors enjoy dropping in to watch pint-sized players, stage photographs, play some informal ball themselves, peruse the gift shop, picnic or walk their dogs in the area surrounding the baseball field.
Freeport Little League plays on summer weeknights through July. The field also hosts special community events such as the 30th Anniversary Re-enactment of the First Night Game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8 at 9 p.m.
Little Cubs Field was built on land provided by Freeport Park District but is owned by a nonprofit charity. It can be rented for $45 per hour with a two-hour maximum. Learn more at the website and Play Ball!
Illinois Big Tree Champion
Bald Hill Prairie Preserve: 5502 N. Silver Creek Road, Mount Morris, Ill., (815) 234-8535, Byronforestpreserve.com
When Byron Forest Preserve District (BFPD) purchased 160-acre Bald Hill Prairie Preserve from the Natural Land Institute last November, it got more than it bargained for. BFPD Executive Director Todd Tucker and Superintendent of Land Management Russell Brunner discovered a giant cottonwood tree growing at the base of a big gravel hill. The hill, deposited by glaciers thousands of years ago, has protected the tree from lightning strikes and strong winds through the centuries, and provides ample runoff water that a thirsty cottonwood needs.
Suspecting the tree may be a wonder, BFPD submitted information about it to the Illinois Big Tree Register (yes, this is a real thing started by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources 56 years ago and managed by the U of I Extension). Sure enough, the tree was declared the Illinois Big Tree Champion, dethroning a bald cypress in southern Illinois.
At 28.5 feet in circumference, 9 feet in diameter and 122 feet tall, this tree is about 200 years old, which makes it an Illinois Bicentennial Tree.
Bald Hill Prairie Preserve opened for passive public use this spring, including hiking, running, bird watching and picnicking.
The site was mostly open prairie at the time of European settlement and some rare prairie plants survive there today, says Tucker.
“More than 99.97 percent of original prairie in the state has been lost,” he explains. “Saving and managing these last remaining original prairies is a major goal of all conservation groups to protect the rare plants and animals that call these sites home.”