Located in the Chicago Southland, this village was established as a fully planned community in the late 1940s, partly for returning WWII veterans.
The Park Forest provided suburban comfort for the growing middle class, and you can get a taste of lifestyles from this period at the 1950s Park Forest House Museum, preserving a residence by American Community Builders (ACB), which developed the village.
Now the village is a diverse community, renowned for its strong arts scene. There’s a regional gallery here hosting a juried art fair that goes back to the 1950s, as well as a renowned theater group and the performing arts center at Freedom Hall.
1. Tall Grass Arts Association Gallery
Underpinning the Park Forest’s formidable arts scene is this regional gallery on the village green.
The annual highlight here is the second-oldest juried art fair in Chicagoland, the Park Forest Art Fair.
Taking place in mid-September, this two-day event has been going for more than 65 years and features more than 70 artists from a wide spectrum of media.
Some of the artists participating at the fair come from as far away as Florida and Arizona. There’s live music on both days, as well as the Kids Art Alley on the sidewalk in front of the gallery.
The rest of the year you can check out other high-quality exhibitions at the gallery, while the gift shop is perfect for a unique, locally-made item.
2. 1950s Park Forest House Museum
Backing onto Thorn Creek Woods is a museum preserving a townhome built in the wave of construction immediately after WWII when the Park Forest was incorporated as a village.
Constructed by American Community Builders, this house went up in 1947-49 and has been preserved as it was in the early 1950s.
The interior is adorned with details from that era, including home furnishings, clothing, books, dolls, toys and appliances.
The 1950s Park Forest House Museum is managed by the Park Forest Historical Society, and at the time of writing was open on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.
3. Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve
There’s a wonderful expanse of nature in the south of Park Forest at the headwaters of Thorn Creek.
From here this watercourse weaves its way through the Chicago Southland on its way to the Little Calumet River.
Thorn Creek Woods is an Illinois Nature Preserve, acquired in 1978 and comprising one of the largest forested areas in northeastern Illinois.
Make your way through the preserve and you’ll discover bottomlands, ravines, marsh, meadows and forests with white and red oaks dating back 150 years or more.
4. Thorn Creek Nature Center
In the preserve at 247 Monee Rd you’ll find the Thorn Creek Nature Center. Unusually, this attraction is in a converted old church dating back to 1861, and you can visit to browse an extensive nature library and see exhibits about the ecosystems at Thorn Creek Woods.
Check the Village of Park Forest website for details of programs at the center, including walks, animal tracking, bird identification and talks on a whole host of fascinating topics, from fossils to beekeeping.
A trail leads you eastwards into the woods just behind the center, taking you down into the Thorn Creek Valley.
5. Central Park
Park Forest’s favorite park is close to many of the village’s key attractions and amenities, like the public library, the Park Forest Aqua Center and Freedom Hall. Central Park is set up for active and passive recreation.
The sports amenities here include three separate lighted baseball/softball diamonds, tennis courts and soccer/football fields.
There’s also an excellent playground for kids, and benches scattered throughout for relaxing, while a trail heads off into a wetland area equipped with information signs.
Central Park is a go-to for birthday parties and reunions in summer, and has two large pavilions, both equipped with electrical outlets, and one (East) with an attached kitchen area.
6. Park Forest Aqua Center
Usually open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the Park Forest Aqua Center next to Central Park has been a major attraction since the early 1950s.
Of course, the pools have been updated since those days, and sit in a park with lots of trees and grassy spaces.
Today you’ll find a large amusement pool with two drop slides, a 160-foot water slide and a 15-foot climbing wall, a beach pool for toddlers, surrounded by sand, and finally a lap pool where grownups can do some serious swimming.
There’s also a sand volleyball court and although the center has a popular concessions stand you can still bring your own food and drink.
7. Park Forest Farmers’ Market
Linking residents with local farmers, businesses and food vendors, the Park Forest has a farmers’ market going back as far as 1974.
This is held on Saturday mornings, May through October, taking over the lot at 152 Main St.
There are 36 spaces for vendors at the Park Forest Farmers’ Market, and you can visit for freshly picked fruit and vegetables, herbs, flowers, dairy products, baked goods, as well as delicious food to go, like tamales and sandwiches.
Also at the market is a lineup of local businesses selling artwork, jewelry, garden decorations, pet supplies and much more besides.
8. Old Plank Road Trail
Before the railroads came there was a network of wooden plank roads all over the United States, and one was planned in the 1850s through what is now the Chicago Southland between Chicago Heights in the east and Joliet in the west.
Within a few years the right-of-way was improved into a railroad between Joliet and Lake Station, Indiana, affiliated with the Michigan Central Railroad.
The line was abandoned in the early 70s, and the right-of-way was preserved, eventually becoming this trail that crosses through the nortion portion of the Park Forest. A short way to the east the trail connects with the Thorn Creek trail system at Indian Hill Woods.
9. Park Forest Rail Fan Park
One of the largest rail intersections in the United States sits on the northwestern edge of the Park Forest.
This resembles a highway cloverleaf interchange, and has come about since 2007, after the Canadian National Corporation Purchased the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad, running east to west through the town.
This has been linked to the North-South Metra line in spectacular fashion, and if you have passion for railroading you can come to see the trains passing through at this unique park.
The Park Forest Rail Fan Park has a historic caboose, information boards and a piece of elevated boardwalk, where you can catch sight of up to 32 trains a day negotiating the intersection.
10. Freedom Hall
Next to the Park Forest Public Library is a major performing arts venue for the Chicago Southland.
Freedom Hall houses the Nathan Manilow Theatre, seating 287 and staging an exciting season of performances. You can head here for musicals, plays, comedy acts, children’s shows, concerts and all kinds of special events.
A few of the acts to take the stage at Freedom Hall in recent years include Peter Mayer, Julie Fowlis, Booker T, George Winston, Billy Branch, and The Mystical Arts of Tibet.
11. Theater 47
The seat of a multi-talented performing arts group, this 200-seat venue shares a building with the Park Forest Village Hall.
The Theater 47 Performing Arts Group is made up of a contingent of actors, dancers, musicians and singers who perform throughout the year in musicals and plays.
Many of these are original works or adaptations penned by the producer/director, John L. Ruffin. Theater 47 also puts on productions written by up-and-coming playwrights, as well as concerts, both inside and out on the green in the summer months.
12. Sauk Trail Woods
Downstream from Thorn Creek Woods is another large forest preserve on the shores of Sauk Trail Lake, created by a dam on the creek.
Sauk Trail Woods covers a big area, and has six different sections, each with amenities like picnic groves and shelters.
The preserve is on a migration corridor for birds, and in late fall and early spring you may see wood ducks, towhees, osprey and white-eyed vireos.
A great way to encounter the preserve’s woodlands, lake and wetlands is via the Thorn Creek trail system, which can be accessed from Park Forest on Chestnut St (by Murphy Park) and at the corner of Western Ave and Steger Rd.
The trail travels through five of the Sauk Trail Woods’ six sections, and has branches on both the east and west sides of the lake.
13. Somonauk Park
When we wrote this article, this park in a quiet residential neighborhood in the southern part of the Park Forest was going through its first renovation for three decades.
The work will give Somonauk Park, the second-largest community park in the Park Forest, a one-acre pond with a fishing pier as well as kayak rentals in summer.
The park will also have accessible paths, elevated seating terraces and zip lines. All this is in addition to the park’s current amenities which include a great children’s playground, basketball courts and fields for soccer.
14. Logan Park
If you’re heading along the Old Plank Road Trail, this park is an ideal place to stop for a moment.
On the east side of Logan Park the trail crosses N Orchard Dr on an old steel railway bridge. Set in a peaceful residential area, the park has picnic tables, a pavilion, a grill, electrical outlets and restrooms.
There’s also a playground, as well as a ballfield and a large grassy space bounded by a mix of hardwood and softwood trees.
15. Main Street Nights
Downtown Park Forest puts on the top free summer entertainment series in the Chicago Southland.
Centered on the green next to the Village Hall, Main Street Nights promises eight evenings of entertainment on Wednesdays, mid-June to mid-August.
The schedule includes local celebrations like Unity Day, Governors State University events and the Resident Appreciation Celebration.
Each week there are two acts on the bill, with support coming from children’s entertainers like magicians and yo-yo experts. The headliners each week are talented artists, ensembles and tribute acts for anyone from Santana to Elton John.