Immediately south of Chicago’s city limits, Dolton is a mostly residential suburban village bounded to the north by the Little Calumet River.
The name comes from one George Dolton, who settled in the area in 1835 and whose son became the village’s first postmaster in 1866.
Around this time Dolton became a base for major railroad companies, and today these railyards remain an economic asset for the village.
In a region that was once a byword for heavy industry, Dolton and its neighboring communities are now surrounded by nature preserves where there used to be factories and strip mines.
These spaces, at Kickapoo Woods and Beaubien Woods, are restoring the native prairie and savanna that was here before European settlement.
1. Dolton Park
Headquartered at 715 Engle Street, the Dolton Park District was founded in 1927 and looks after a range of facilities in the city.
At the main campus you’ll find the Shaw Recreation Center, a series of administrative and youth buildings, as well as extensive open space at Dolton Park to the south.
The latter has a children’s playground, a baseball/softball diamond, a walking path with exercise equipment and plenty of space for a picnic.
This park is the venue for a host of summer events organized by the Park District, including concerts by talented local artists.
2. Nicky’s Gyros
Not to be confused with the Chicago-area chain of the same name, the original Nicky’s Gyros is a local mainstay, housed in a big red barn at 2050 Sibley Blvd and open for nearly 40 years.
If you’re on the hunt for Chicago-style comfort food and want to support a local business, this is a good place to start.
One promising sign is that Nicky’s Gyros is always busy, and although the gyros are the main event, a lot of the customers come for the Italian beef and Italian sausage.
As is the norm for Chicago, this sandwich is customizable, coming dipped in broth to your taste, and/or topped with sweet or hot peppers (pepperoncini).
Also on the menu are Polish sausage, hot dogs, burgers, Chicago-style fried chicken and a host of other sandwiches.
3. Dolton Bowl
A much-loved local attraction in Dolton is this bowling alley, which always has special, seasonal events and promotions, for example at Easter and Fathers’ Day.
Equipped with automatic scoring and overhead flatscreens, Dolton Bowl is an inexpensive place for a game, at just $1 on weekdays before 4 pm, and $5 all day weekends (at the time of writing).
There’s a DJ on Tuesdays, while on weekend evenings you’ve got cosmic bowling, with blacklight and a party ambience.
The alley is home to the Tap Out Bar and the Strike Zone Grill, the latter making everything from waffles in the morning to pizza, Polish sausage and fried catfish.
4. Pullman National Monument
The first planned industrial community in the United States sits a few short miles north of Dolton at Chicago’s Pullman District.
Begun around 1880, this company town was constructed by George Pullman (1831-1897) known for the namesake sleeping car, and was intended as a way of improving employee welfare while increasing manufacturing efficiency.
The reality was rather more complicated, particularly in terms of how African-American employees were treated.
Later, jobs and wages were slashed due to declining demand, while rents and prices in Pullman stayed the same, leading to the Pullman Strike of 1894.
One of Pullman’s design features was that every amenity could be reached on foot, and that applies today at this highly walkable attraction.
Be sure to check out the landmark Administration-Clock Tower Building, and begin your visit by calling in at the Pullman National Monument Visitor Center at S. Cottage Grove and 112th Street.
5. Beaubien Woods
An ideal spot if you want to admire the Little Calumet River, Beaubien Woods is on the north bank, opposite Dolton.
Cared for by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, is undergoing a long-term restoration, bringing back to life the wet prairie and oak savanna that existed here before European settlement.
So far, birds like the indigo bunting, Baltimore oriole, yellow warbler and gray catbird have been attracted back to these habitats.
The site of a former strip mine, the 19-acre Flatfoot Lake is home to sunfish, bluegill and largemouth bass, among others while there’s a public boat launch for a voyage on the Little Calumet River.
6. Sand Ridge Nature Center
The Forest Preserves of Cook County maintains this natural site just southeast of Dolton, where you can learn about the natural and cultural history of the Calumet Region.
The Sand ridge Nature Center has indoor and outdoor exhibits, with terrariums, tanks and aviaries displaying local wildlife, including birds of prey, snakes, fish and turtles.
At the flight room you can observe birds visiting the center’s feeders, while you can also amble through demonstration gardens and check out replica log cabins for a sense of life in the area some 200 years ago.
There’s a nature play area for children, and you can discover prairie, wetland and woodland habitats along four miles of trails.
7. Cal-Sag Trail
When we wrote this article, Dolton was in the process of being joined to a long-distance trail, traveling through the Chicago Southland for more than 25 miles.
From the Illinois and Michigan Canal at Lemont to Burham in the west, the Cal-Sag-Trail will eventually create a link with the Centennial Trail and the Burnham Greenway.
In Dolton the trail will pass in front of the public library, along the north shore of Lake Cottage Grove and then east towards Burnham on E 142nd St.
At the time of writing there was a long completed section of the trail, just west in Riverdale and leading you across the Cal-Sag Channel and through downtown Blue Island.
8. River Oaks Golf Course
The Forest Preserves of Cook County run this 18-hole course a few minutes away in Calumet City. The first thing to say about River Oaks Golf Course is there’s a lot of water.
The Little Calumet River bends through the course, and there’s a sequence of ponds close to the riverbank.
Water comes into play on no fewer than 14 of the 18 holes, and there are almost 60 carefully positioned sand traps, causing lots of risk-reward dilemmas.
Keep an eye on the Forest Preserves website for details of specials, like family packages on Sunday evenings, including up to four players and a meal at the clubhouse’s restaurant.
9. Kickapoo Woods
Another convenient place to go to stretch your legs and get some fresh air, Kickapoo Woods is just west of Dolton in Riverdale.
In five minutes or less, you can be out on the paved trail, which takes you past a mix of savanna, woodland and wet prairie.
There are plenty of picnic tables in the grassy space bordering the parking area, while people with drones can make use of the designated model airplane flying field.
Kickapoo Woods is also on the Little Calumet River, and you can launch a canoe here for a trip through a series of Cook County Forest Preserves.
10. Thornton Distilling Company
This craft distillery ten minutes away in Thornton was founded in 2015 at the oldest brewery building in Illinois.
The complex dates back to 1857, and was constructed above an artesian well, known to have been used to make beer since the 1830s when there was a log cabin saloon and brewery on the site.
Come prohibition the brewery officially made “soda pop”, but was actually a front for a massive bootleg operation.
Under the Dead Drop brand, harking back to those bootlegging days, the Thornton Distilling Company produces a variety of artisan spirits, such as rum, vodka, gin and rye and pecan whiskey.
Wednesday to Sunday you can sample this range at the cocktail bar and restaurant, take a mixology class or find out about the rich history of the site on a tour.
11. Downtown Blue Island
Ten minutes or less from Dolton is the center of a city that was one of the Chicago area’s main commercial and industrial hubs at the turn of the 20th century.
Blue Island is still loaded with fine architecture from that period, such as the old Woolworth’s building on Western Avenue, now one of the top antiques centers in the Chicago Southland.
Downtown Blue Island has a choice of independent eateries and a pocket park with a weekly farmers’ market and information about the old Dixie Highway, which once came through here.
Cross the Cal-Sag Channel and you’ll find a craft brewery and a cluster of other bars and restaurants along Old Western Avenue.
12. Gouwens Park
Something to recommend this park nearby in South Holland is its location on the south bank of the Little Calumet River.
After heavy rain it’s not unusual for Gouwens Park to be flooded, but at other times you can stop by here to wander along the South Holland Trail, which follows the wooded riverbank and also winds through the park.
A few of the amenities on hand include a picnic shelter, baseball/softball field and tennis courts. If you’re into sports you could check out one of the senior league softball matches, as the standard in South Holland is known to be high.
13. Towle Theater
Just across the Illinois-Indiana line, the city of Hammond has a surprisingly strong arts scene.
This is anchored by a cherished theater group, which puts on a vibrant season of musicals, dramas and comedies, with professional-level performances and production values.
These four shows are crafted to challenge both the audience and performers, taking place in an intimate space with affordable seats.
Towle Theater is a non-equity house that is able to pay its talent, and also runs a youth ensemble presenting two shows each year—a musical in the fall and a non-musical in the spring.
14. Paul Henry’s Art Gallery
Also contributing to Hammond’s arts scene is this gallery and performance venue in a historic hardware store dating back to 1887.
This is a cozy and atmospheric place to take in an exhibition featuring the work of local and regional artists, much of which is for sale.
These pieces are displayed against the backdrop of the store’s old shelves and drawers, lending the gallery extra character. Paul Henry’s Art Gallery has also made a name as a live performance venue, hosting diverse open mics and shows for Hammond’s vital punk rock scene.
In addition to its normal hours, Tuesday to Sunday, the gallery is also open before and after performances at the Towle Theater.
15. William W. Powers State Recreation Area
Slightly further afield, but well worth the short trip northeast is an Illinois State Park on 580 acres and considered one of the most biodiverse sites in the Chicago area.
Much of the park’s area is taken up by Wolf Lake, affording around six miles of shoreline for fishing. A few of the species regularly landed here are carp, bullhead, walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass, redear sunfish and bluegill.
Motors of any size are allowed on the water, and there’s a spacious picnic area on the west side, south of the main entrance. Here you’ll find plentiful picnic tables and stoves in the shade of cottonwoods and willows.