For much of its life, this city in Chicago’s Southland has been associated with heavy industry.
From 1917 Chicago Heights was the home of the Thrall Car Manufacturing Company, producing railroad freight cars, while the Inland Steel Company was founded here in 1893 .
Although the population has contracted since the city’s peak in the 1960s, the manufacturing industry is still key to the economy, with Ford operating a metal stamping plant on the city’s east side.
There’s a strong arts community just under the radar in the Chicago Heights area, and if you need to get out for a walk or bike ride, a series of forest preserves are linked by Thorn Creek which flows northwards through the city.
1. Union Street Gallery
This vital arts hub for Chicago Heights is also in one of the city’s most treasured historic buildings.
This Colonial Revival building, with white terra cotta ornamentation, was built for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in 1927, before closing in the 1940s to become a furniture store.
Run by an artists’ collaborative, the Union Street Gallery was set up in the 1990s, moving into the building in 1996, and puts on captivating exhibitions.
These attract thousands of visitors each year and include national juried art exhibits biannually.
If you come for a visit, check out the original steel I-beams above the main gallery. There are more than a dozen artists currently working at the gallery’s studios on the third floor.
2. Joe Orr Woods
Right in the heart of Chicago Heights there’s a Cook County Forest Preserve along the banks of Thorn Creek.
As we’ll see, this has a trail system running through it, making it super convenient to set off on a walk, bike ride or cross-country ski trip in calming nature, while still in the middle of the city.
To the southwest the trail continues into Halsted Woods, and if you head north you’ll travel along the eastern fringes of Chicago Heights East Golf Club.
Dogs are permitted on-leash in the preserve and there’s a picnic grove and shelter with a capacity for 300 people.
3. Thorn Creek Trail
This trail system has almost 30 miles of paved and unpaved paths, tracing the watercourse of the same name.
Much of the trail travels through Chicago Heights in a northeasterly direction along the green corridor that hugs the creek’s banks, which can be surprisingly steep in places.
On the way is an ever-changing series of habitats, from woodland to wetland, grassland and open water.
There are ten Cook County forest preserves on the route, and, as well as numerous picnic groves, these offer amenities as diverse as fishing lakes, sledding hills, a model airplane field and a number of birding areas.
4. Evil Horse Brewing Company
The Chicago area is a craft beer paradise with hundreds of breweries, and in Chicago Heights there’s a highly rated craft brewery a couple of miles along Illinois Route 1.
Even though the Evil Horse was only established in 2016 it has already picked up a raft of awards at the Illinois Beer Festival and Indiana Brewers’ Cup.
The location is pretty special too, in a renovated historic building on Main Street in Crete, raised in 1911 as a combined warehouse, insurance office and event hall.
When we wrote this article there were 14 beers on tap, running the gamut from a Belgian Dubbel to American and New England IPAs, a coffee stout, a Hefeweizen, an Irish Dry Stout and an American Pale Wheat Beer.
Take a look at the brewery’s calendar for upcoming game nights, live music and details of food trucks.
5. Marcus Chicago Heights Cinema
The local movie theater is part of the Marcus chain, which has locations all over the Midwest. The Chicago Heights bench has recently been given a refit, and the auditoriums now have special DreamLounger seating.
These extra-cushioned chairs go back to a full recline at the touch of a button and have a full seven feet of legroom between rows.
Real cinephiles should try to catch a movie at the SuperScreen DLX theater, which boasts an oversized screen, those DreamLounger seats and Dolby Atmos sound.
You can save money with specials, like $5 Tuesdays and $6 for students on Thursdays.
6. Sauk Trail Woods
Part of that chain of nature preserves on Thorn Creek, Sauk Trail Woods is a patchwork of six individual preserves on or near the shore of Sauk Trail Lake.
Something unusual about these habitats is the steepness of the terrain, which descends quite sharply down a ravine to the banks of Thorn Creek.
Much of the landscape is covered with forest, although there are expanses of grassland and wetland, as well as Sauk Lake.
The latter, walled by those steep sandy bluffs, is a prime fishing spot, with carp, largemouth bass, channel catfish, yellow and black bullhead and bluegill.
7. Park Forest Aqua Center
Five minutes away from Chicago Heights is a public outdoor pool complex that has welcomed swimmers since 1952.
The Park Forest Aqua Center combines three pools on one site, with a lap pool where adults can exercise, a zero-depth toddler pool with a sandy area and a large wading pool accompanied by a 160-foot slide, two drop slides and a 15-foot climbing wall.
Open Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, the center has been an essential part of local summer life for 70+ years but also moves, with the times adding new features and events like monthly drive-in movie nights.
8. Old Plank Road Trail
Chicago Heights is the eastern trailhead for a 21-mile rail trail that takes you west in almost a straight line to Joliet.
The route is on the right-of-way of a planned, but never realized, plank road that in 1855 became a section of the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad.
This line was already in decline in the early 20th century and had been completely abandoned by the 1970s, when the process to turn it into a trail began.
On your journey west you’ll enter burgeoning new suburbs at Frankfort and New Lenox, and walk or cycle through parcels of prairie that were purchased for the plank road right-of-way but have never been developed.
9. Tall Grass Arts Association Gallery
A thrilling showcase for local artistic talent, this regional gallery in nearby Park Forest puts on six or seven expertly curated exhibitions each year.
These feature pieces by juried artists in a wide range of media, and their work is often sold at the gift shop. There you can find original and unusual pieces in glass, ceramics, metal and mixed media, and the selection changes regularly.
The gallery also organizes a wide variety of art classes for children, teens and adults, and has a lively events calendar, culminating with the Park Forest Art Fair, which has been going for almost 70 years.
10. Indian Hill Woods
North of Sauk Trail Woods is another Cook County forest preserve, encompassing both banks of the meandering Thorn Creek.
Surrounded by peaceful residential areas, the preserve is mostly oak-hickory forest, which you can explore along the multi-use Thorn Creek Trail, which continues along the west bank of the watercourse.
On the east side of the preserve is Euclid Park, managed by the Chicago Heights Park District, with amenities for soccer, baseball/softball and volleyball, along with a picnic area and a playground.
11. Chicago Heights Park District West Course
One of two public courses in the hands of the Chicago Heights Park District, the very affordable west course is a nine-hole track that has been around for a long time.
Previously this was the Chicago Heights Country Club, founded as long ago as the 1890s. What you get here are mostly straight fairways, traced by big stands of century-old trees.
The greens are noted for their large size, and the general level of maintenance is excellent throughout. The clubhouse is a popular venue for parties and special events.
12. Brownell Woods
There’s another sizable chunk of blissful protected woodland just past Chicago Heights’ northeast corner.
This scenic Cook County preserve is traversed by a winding trail, mostly following the route of North Creek on its way to join Thorn Creek.
On the south and west sides is the Thorn Creek Trail, which makes the preserve accessible from as far away as Schubert’s Woods on the south side of Chicago Heights.
To the north, Brownell Woods is contiguous with Wampum Lake, which has an abundance of waterbirds and contains several fish species, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, channel catfish and bluegill, with ice fishing available in winter.
13. Commissioners Park
One of the larger facilities in the Chicago Heights Park District, this space is close to the city’s northern boundary.
Commissioners Park has come through plenty of improvements in the last few years, and is brimming with amenities.
One is the trail surrounding the park, dotted with workout equipment. You’ll also find tennis courts, soccer fields, baseball/softball fields and a skating rink during the winter months. Added to that is a playground, with equipment for various ages.
14. Chicago Heights Rec Center
An excellent resource for Chicago Heights residents, the Park District Rec Center is on the same campus as the city’s public library.
Among the amenities here are an indoor pool, workout room with weight and cardio machines, a free weight room, basketball courts and a sauna.
The center is open seven days a week, only closing at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and also has a team of personal trainers for hire if you want a boost to reach your fitness goals.
15. Thornton Quarry
On an almost dumbfounding scale, one of the largest aggregate quarries in the world is a few miles north of Chicago Heights.
This giant hole in the ground is 1.5 miles long, 0.5 miles wide and a maximum of 450 feet deep. Thornton Quarry was first worked in the 1830s and contains silurian reefs from when the Michigan Basin was a seabed 400 million years ago.
Under the Chicago Deep Tunnel plan, the northern section has been turned into a reservoir, while the remainder of the quarry will be worked for another few decades before being flooded.
For now though you can take a rare tour of this astounding site on the first Saturday of June and October via Thornton Hill Historical Society.