A city with a bizarre backstory, Zion was established at the turn of the 20th century as a religious community by the wealthy faith healer John Alexander Dowie.
Practically all land and business in Zion was owned by his church, which ruled every aspect of the populace’s lives, even down to their choice of marriage partners.
The church’s demise came in 1942 when Dowie’s successor, a sworn flat earther, confessed to embezzling church funds, but not before he had oppressively ruled the congregation for almost four decades.
You can find out about this curious legacy at Dowie’s Shiloh House, while today’s Zion is an attractive lakefront city, with great parks and a number of working farms that welcome visitors in fall.
1. Illinois Beach State Park
Most of the shoreline in Zion is occupied by this ecologically rich state park, adding up to more than 4,150 acres across two units (north and south).
The beach is the main draw for visitors, with some 6.5 miles of shoreline, and you can reach the two sections along the Zion Bike Trail.
Away from the sand and pebble beaches, the park has astonishing biodiversity, in black oak savanna, wetlands, dunes and prairie.
More than 650 plant species have been recorded in the dunes alone, and for a glimpse of these ecosystems there are looping trails in both the north and south sections.
2. Dungeon of Doom Haunted House
By Illinois Beach State Park, the old Briquette Factory is the setting for one of the country’s most acclaimed haunted houses.
Dungeon of Doom is open on weekends, usually from mid-September to Halloween, and has pushed the envelope for what haunted house attractions can be.
When you’re not scared out of your wits you’ll marvel at the extraordinary level of skill and artistry that goes into everything, from the sets to acting, makeup, concepts, ambient sound and props.
Dungeon of Doom takes a harrowing hour to get through, and when we wrote this article was celebrating a quarter century of scares.
3. Edge of Escape Rooms
At the same location, the team behind Dungeon of Doom Haunted House, have channeled their expertise into a transformative escape room attraction.
With the same extreme attention to detail, Edge of Escape Rooms offers an immersive, engaging and highly interactive experience, enhanced with first-class service.
As well as realistic props and scenarios, the two rooms here have puzzles that even veteran escape room players won’t have encountered before.
At the time of writing the two rooms were Time Machine and Tunnels Under London, both for 2-9, with an adjustable difficulty level and with a steampunk aesthetic.
4. Shiloh House
If you want to get your head around Zion’s curious beginnings the obvious place to start is the restored 24-room mansion of its founder, John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907).
The evangelist and faith healer commissioned Chicago Architect Paul Burkhardt to design this property, which blends elements of the Queen Anne style with a Swiss chalet.
Dowie lived here from 1903 until his death in 1907, and since 1967 the landmark has been the headquarters for the Zion Historical Society.
Objects of interest including volumes of Dowie’s writings, decorative arts, his photographs, his pulpit/lectern, his office furniture, Scottish lace made by the church-owned factory and a dress belonging to Dowie’s wife, are on show throughout the building, which is open for tours.
5. Shiloh Park
West of Dowie’s mansion is a sweeping, 132-acre park with several recreation amenities within its boundaries or close by.
Remarkable for its stately boulevards, Shiloh Park is Zion’s main venue for outdoor community events, the largest being the 4th of July Festival, with carnival rides, children’s activities and of course, an impressive fireworks display.
There are also family events in the park at Halloween and Christmas, so it’s worth staying in touch with the Zion Park District Website.
Sports-wise, Shiloh Park has basketball courts, four tennis courts, two baseball diamonds and several smaller softball fields, as well as a children’s playground. Close by there’s Shiloh Park Golf Course, the Zion Park District rec center and Port Shiloh Pool, open in summer.
6. Kroll’s Fall Harvest Farm
Visiting this farm in Waukegan has been a fall tradition for local families for generations. Kroll’s Farm is regularly named among the best pumpkin patches in Illinois, and even the country.
The fall season kicks off in mid-September, and for the next seven weeks there’s a small world of attractions, including a corn maze, hayrides, a petting farm and of course, pumpkins.
These are pre-picked, coming in every shape, size and color, and are sold along with corn stalk bundles, straw bales, Indian corn and gourds.
On select days in summer, Kroll’s Farm also puts on outdoor movie nights, when you can meet and feed the farmyard animals, grab something from one of the food trucks and settle down to a classic movie in a bucolic setting.
7. Hosah Park
Hiding between the Illinois Beach State Park’s two sections, Hosah Park is an unfrequented lakefront sanctuary, composed of dunes and wetlands, and designated a Ramsar site.
Hosah Park’s ecological importance comes from the unique ecosystems created by the rich soils in the damp depressions between the dunes.
You can explore the sanctuary and get onto the beach via boardwalks and paved trails that link with the state park.
The beach is one of the most secluded pieces of lakefront in the Chicago area, although swimming is not permitted due to offshore drop-offs and riptides.
8. Port Shiloh Pool
A pillar of summertime in Zion, this outdoor pool complex is one of a cluster of public recreation facilities around Shiloh Park.
There has been a community pool at this spot since 1955, and the facility was completely remodeled in 1993.
Open early June to mid-August Port Shiloh Pool has a zero-depth entry leisure pool, a lap pool with lanes, a body slide and a tube slide.
Around the complex there are water play features, a sand play area, as well as a concessions stand and a spacious lawn area.
9. Patch 22
Now deep into its fifth decade, Patch 22 is a working, family-run farm not far away in Wadsworth. The farm opens to the public from the first Sunday in May until Halloween (Sundays only, then weekends in fall).
During the summer and fall you can bring children for 20-minute pony rides in the farm’s large pasture.
Then when fall comes, there’s a little more going on, with thousands of farm-grown pumpkins, hayrides, a petting farm, a spooky hayloft and lots of fall-themed treats like taffy apples.
10. Shepherd’s Crook Golf Course
The innovative course architect Keith Foster laid out this acclaimed public 18-hole course in Zion.
Opened in 1999, Shepherd’s Crook has links-style layout, drawing inspiration from fabled courses like Ballybunion and Waterville in Ireland.
The design also harks back to the 1920s and 30s, the heyday of course design in the Chicago area, with its bentgrass tees, fairways and greens.
Allow about 4 ½ hours for a round, and stop by the clubhouse grill, which has a scenic veranda with views over the 9th and 18th holes.
11. Beulah Park
This park encompasses the peaceful hardwood forest on the banks of Kellogg Creek, which flows into Lake Michigan at Illinois Beach State Park.
Along with its quiet beauty, what puts Beulah Park on the map is a warren of mountain biking trails, to go with the paved bicycle trail that follows the banks of the creek.
At the park’s east end is a series of BMX jumps, while on the south side, away from the trails, is a playground for kids next to Kedron Boulevard.
A couple of blocks west of the park is the Robert McClory Bike Path, shooting north to south through Lake County on the route of the former Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad.
From the Wisconsin line, the trail becomes the Kenosha County Bike Trail, continuing for a few more miles into Kenosha.
12. Jubilee Days
Held for more than 70 years, the biggest public event on the calendar in Zion takes place over Labor Day weekend.
Jubilee Days was established to celebrate the harvest, as well as Zion’s unique origins. The festival has something to please all comers, with food vendors, a queen’s pageant, live entertainment, children’s activities, fireworks and much more.
But the big event is the largest Labor Day parade in Illinois, with a new theme each year, and more than 100 units setting off from Shiloh Park and traveling down Sheridan Road.
13. Anderson Farm Orchard
One of the last remaining family-owned apple orchards left in Lake County can be found in Zion, right next to Shepherd’s Crook Golf Course and a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin border.
Anderson Farm was established in 1979 and opens seven days a week in the fall to sell its pre-picked apples and freshly pressed cider.
Among the varieties cultivated at the orchard are Red and Golden Delicious, Gala, McIntosh, Winesap and Snowapple, and when we wrote this article the farm had just started producing Rhode Island Greenings, a variety dating back to the 17th century.
14. Edina Park
Exiting the train at Zion Metra station you’ll be greeted by this inviting 50-acre park, framed by lofty old trees.
The north section of Edina Park is a tranquil, wooded nature area, while the southern section by the station has a playground, two tennis courts and a basketball court.
Something special about Edina Park is the Zion Bike Trail, which connects the north and south sections of Illinois Beach State Park.
This trail runs north to south for several miles, starting at 17th Street and taking you all the way into the south section at 29th street, where the trail has a southern spur for Carmel Park and the Zion Shopping Center.
15. Lake Michigan Fishing Charters
There’s an exceptionally productive salmon and trout fishery in Lake Michigan around the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
And if you’re up for a fishing trip, Winthrop Harbor’s North Point Marina is little more than ten minutes from the center of Zion and is a base for a number of fishing charters.
Typically, the lake trout and chinook salmon season is May through September, and with a big choice of companies to choose from, you’re sure to find the package, vessel and captain that suits you.
A few names to look out for are Jackpot Fishing, Migrator Charters, Diamond Ghost Charters, Renegade Fishing Charters, Breezy 1 Charters and Son Set Charter Fishing.