A guide to planning a sensational summer alfresco outing — from prime locations to palate-pleasing provisions
As actress Zooey Deschanel once said, “Nothing’s better than a picnic.” For hundreds of years, unfurling a blanket across the grass for an alfresco meal amid scenic surroundings has been a popular summer pastime for families, groups of friends and couples. Picnicking provides a mini escape from the mundane and encourages relaxation and an appreciation of the outdoors.Whether you’re looking to share a leisurely lunchtime repast, partake of a pre-playtime snack, or toast to tunes under the stars, there is a perfect picnic spot for you in the western suburbs.
IT’S A DATE
While parks are often recognized as great spaces to gather with large groups under a picnic shelter, those seeking a quiet space to commune with nature and/or a significant other can also enjoy a sylvan spot away from the hustle and bustle.
Across the Fox River from the Fabyan Windmill at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva, you’ll find plenty of quiet out-of-the-way picnic spots on the former Riverbank Estate where millionaire businessman Col. George Fabyan once lived with his wife Nelle. Spread a blanket near the Japanese Tea Garden or stake out a riverside picnic table for a water view.
Courtney O’Kray, marketing and communications supervisor for the Glen Ellyn Park District, says that Lake Ellyn Park is popular for romantic picnics. “There is a pergola next to the boathouse with views of the lake that makes for a nice picnic area,” she says.
Knoch Knolls Park in Naperville also takes advantage of a nearby water feature. The picnic grove features a beautiful view of the DuPage River. After your picnic, you can visit the Knoch Knolls Nature Center, take a walk or a bicycle through the woods, launch a canoe on the river, fish at the pond, or try the disc golf course.
In Wheaton, Adams Park provides a peaceful oasis downtown, near the public library. The petite park, gifted to the city by Katherine Adams Wells, who lived on the property until her death in 1942, features a grassy area where you could set up a picnic as well as a small gazebo and benches in shady spots. The original fountain in the middle lends a nostalgic touch.
At Pottawatomie Park in St. Charles, couples can take in the sunset from an observation tower overlooking the Fox River or enjoy an afternoon cruise on the paddlewheel riverboat before picnicking at one of the many tables or under the historic pavilion.
The Roy C. Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville is one of the DuPage Forest Preserve District’s most popular properties, with large picnic shelters and opportunities for boating, camping, archery, hiking and more, but it also features plenty of places for private picnics. One example is Hidden Cove, located above the boat launch lot.
“It’s tucked away, so you have the area to yourself, close to boats and with a nice view of the South Bay of Silver Lake,” says Mary Jacobsen, a district staff person.
Even if you’re not on a date but just wish to break up your workday with an outdoor lunch, there are places where you can commune with nature while still staying connected. The recently opened Naperville Jaycees Park is a solar-powered outdoor workspace with its own Wi-Fi network, seating for 71 people, 26 power outlets and two smartphone charging stations. Located in a sunken garden along the Naperville Riverwalk, the “smart park” combines technology and recreation in a new way.
Pack a picnic lunch or supper and set off for an afternoon or evening of adventure with your family at a local park. Amenities such as themed playgrounds, nature centers, mini golf, splash pads and more can keep the fun going for hours.
In Wheaton, the Lincoln Marsh Natural Area features 150 acres of prairie, woodland and marsh to explore on trails and boardwalks and includes a new Prairie Patch Nature Play Area that incorporates vegetation and natural materials for exploration and provides a unique spot to unpack your picnic.
Peck Farm Park in Geneva allows you the opportunity to picnic on the grounds of a former sheep farm that was preserved from development when the family sold a portion of their property to the Geneva Park District. The 385-acre nature retreat also features an observation silo, an educational nature-themed playground,a butterfly house and a sensory garden. There is a picnic shelter, but you can also spread out on the lawn adjacent to the Peck family’s 1869 farmhouse, which now serves as a nature education center and history gallery.
At Naperville’s Rotary Hill, you can bring a blanket or folding chairs and enjoy your picnic under a tree or in a sunny spot on the spacious lawn. If you’d rather purchase your picnic items on site, stop by Riverwalk Café. After you dine, enjoy the Riverwalk, climb the hill, play the musical instruments at Harmony Park at the top of the hill, or take a paddleboat ride at the Paddleboat Quarry.
The Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a St. Charles Park District facility, features an indoor turtle pond and wetland exhibits as well as the Hideout Nature Play area outdoors. Picnic tables on the north side of the building are perfect for lunch or a snack. If you wish to continue the fun into the evening, the nearby Otter Cover Aquatic Center offers twilight discounts.
Throughout the summer months, many area parks offer entertainment options that pair well with picnicking. Several park districts feature live music events on selected evenings. For example, the Batavia Park District hosts a River Rhapsody concert series June through July at the Batavia Riverwalk, which has a large lawn area in front of the Peg Bond Center stage. The riverfront park includes a playground and wildflower sanctuary and offers paddleboat rental on the adjacent Depot Pond.
At Cantigny Park in Wheaton, visitors can enjoy acres of gardens, two museums, a golf course, restaurants and more, including spacious picnic grounds, which are located near the new Red Oaks Farm playground. Admission to the park is free, but there is a fee for parking and for some events and activities.
Summer at Cantigny brings outdoor concerts, plays and movies. Evening symphony concerts draw the largest picnic crowds. Alcohol is typically prohibited in the park, but is allowed at the evening symphony, and communications manager Jeff Rieter says concert-goers commonly set up elaborate picnics, complete with tables and candles. “It’s a lot like Ravinia, but getting to and from Ravinia is a big commitment,” he says. “People like a low-key, pleasant evening outside that’s a little closer to home.”
With the dwindling availability of drive-in theaters, movies in the park offer a great way to view films outdoors while enjoying picnic fare. Many area park districts offer family-friendly flicks and nostalgic classics on select dates throughout the summer. The Park District of Oak Park, for example, is showing summer movies in Scoville Park, and upcoming titles include “The Sandlot,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Live performances are another way to take in entertainment outdoors. Oak Park Festival Theatre stages summer shows in Oak Park’s Austin Gardens, which features a lush lawn with plenty of space to spread out your picnic blanket.
The Morton Arboretum in Lisle also features many summer outdoor concerts and events that can be combined with a picnic, including live music at Arbor Evenings and walking plays, which combine performance with a short hike. There is much to explore on the 1,700-acre grounds, but there is a general admission fee and some events require tickets.
Stocking Your Basket
Whether you pack a classic wooden basket or a tote, a backpack or a cooler, you’ll need to pick up some essentials for your dining pleasure.
Your basket should be stocked with plates, cups and eating utensils. Insulated glasses and tumblers are a must for keeping drinks cool in the summer heat. Plastic, metal or melamine dishes are durable and non-breakable, but if you want a lighter load, bamboo plates and utensils, which are disposable and compostable, are an eco-friendly choice, says Jill Foucre, owner of Marcel’s Culinary Experience and Marché in Glen Ellyn.
You’ll also need an expansive and washable picnic blanket. If you don’t have one on hand, Crate & Barrel offers an 80-inch square bandana-style picnic blanket that is soft and comfy, with a classic summer look. Another option would be to seek out an outdoor blanket made with water-resistant fabric on the backside, which is helpful when grass is damp. Small portable or roll-up tables are a good alternative if you prefer not to eat on the ground. Petite tablecloths are available to add a decorative touch. Accents like votive candles and a small vase of flowers can up the ambiance.
You can certainly prepare your own picnic foods, but there are many local businesses that can give you a hand in creating a memorable meal, whether for just two or for a larger group. Here are a few to get you started.
Standard Market in Westmont is stocked with many items that can be combined for picnic fare, from precut fruits and veggies to market-made dips and salsas, wine and cheese platters, bakery goods and ready-to-eat sandwiches and salads. Lobster deviled eggs and caprese skewers make for distinctive on-the-go appetizers. The market also offers “lunch totes” for groups of five or more. Each includes chips, fruit, pasta salad, and your choice of six sandwich or wrap options.
Movable Feast + Company, a café and catering company that has locations in both Geneva and Wheaton, also is a good picnic resource. Their case menu changes daily in each location and is stocked with seasonal salads, the sandwich of the day, quiches, as well as baked goods. Items are available on a first-come, first served basis, but the company also takes orders from its catering menu. A sample catered picnic might include roasted tomato bistro sandwiches, lemon-roasted veggies, honey kale salad, orzo pasta salad and a homemade dessert. While the company is known for its legendary brownies, which were recognized as one of Oprah’s favorite things, they have many other delicious treats, including “fairytale” cookies — almond cookies topped with pink icing and shimmering sprinkles.
At Deane’s Market & Deli, located in downtown Geneva, handcrafted sandwiches featuring house-roasted meats, fresh salads and soups are take-and-go menu offerings. Seasonal salads are accented by house-made dressings, including the currently available blueberry salad, which boasts cranberry granola and pomegranate dressing. The shop’s market section offers items such as cheese, salsas, spreads, crackers, bread, charcuterie meats, olives and more to round out picnic provisions. Owner Chris Deane says, “We have all the supplies you need for a great picnic.”
Marché, the sister company to Marcel’s, also located in Glen Ellyn, offers a wide selection of specialty foods and wines, making it easy to throw together a delightful picnic dinner. Marché also offers picnic boxes for two, featuring four different styles of cuisine, and including such items as chocolate, bread, meat and cheese. “We can even help you make up your own and pack it for you,” says Foucre.
You’ll need something to quench your thirst — traditional lemonade or ice-cold water will fill the bill, as will sparkling seltzer or a selection of juices. Or, pick up an old-fashioned bottle of soda pop. Rocket Fizz soda and candy shop in St. Charles, for example, offers a wide selection of flavors, ranging from unique (green apple jalepeño) to traditional (cherry cola).
For light summer wine choices, Loren Beadle, owner of SixtyFour Wine Bar in Naperville, recommends 2018 Aix Rosé, “a classic dry and crisp rosé from the South of France,” as well as 2017 La Pettegola Vermentino, a white wine from Banfi in Tuscany, Italy, and 2018 Joseph Drouhin Saint-Véran, a white burgundy (chardonnay) from Burgundy, France.
More Great Picks for Picnicking
Following are a few additional spots that are fun for families:
Historic Northside Park in Wheaton includes amenities such as a picnic shelter, basketball courts, a baseball field, tennis courts, soccer fields, a playground (for ages 5-12 years), and a tot lot (for ages 2-5 years). Bring your own picnic or enjoy concessions from Northside Family Aquatic Center. The quaint Memorial Park in the heart of downtown Wheaton features a band shell where summer concerts and events are held and a grassy area where you can set up a picnic blanket.
Naperville’s most-visited playground is the Jaycee Playground, which overlooks the Riverwalk and is just west of Centennial Beach. There are plenty of picnic tables under the trees and restrooms are available nearby. Another Naperville option is Seager Park, which includes trails through quiet woodlands, open fields, a basketball court, a volleyball court and a large picnic pavilion.
Also on site, the Seager Park Interpretive Center offers an opportunity to learn about the park’s history and area plants and wildlife. Just beyond the Interpretive Center is a short path that leads to a playground at neighboring Yorkshire Manor Park.
At Mount St. Mary Park, located along the Fox River in St. Charles, children will enjoy the large playground, skate park and basketball courts, while adults and kids alike can wander the park’s paths that lead past new sculpture exhibits installed each summer as part of the Sculpture in the Park program. A small picnic pavilion is supplemented by picnic tables and benches scattered throughout the park.
The Katherine Legge Memorial Park in Hinsdale has room for big groups, but it also features nice spaces for couples and families to relax and dine amid mature trees, a creek, and two playgrounds.
Glen Ellyn’s Churchill Park is the town’s largest natural area and offers a picnic shelter as well as three different natural habitats to explore. It also includes an ADA-accessible walking trail. Lake Foxcroft Park features a playground, open shelter and picnic tables as well as a catch-and release fishing pier where kids can test out their angling skills.
There are playgrounds and picnic areas in Phillips Park in Aurora, but the facility is also home to a small zoo, a visitor’s center where you can check out mastodon bones unearthed at the park in 1934, and a lush sunken garden with a three-tiered fountain as its centerpiece. A golf course, skate park, dog park, aquatic center and more are also part of the property.
If you are looking for a picnic space for a large group, the following spaces might fit the bill. Some of them require reservations. Contact the local park or forest preserve district for more information.
Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva includes several picnic shelters, one of which is housed in the former “Bear Cage” that once housed three black bears that were kept as pets of Colonel Fabyan, who lived on the property in the 1900s. The shelter is located next to the Japanese Tea Garden. Across the river, also located in Fabyan Forest Preserve, a picnic shelter with a fireplace is located near the Fox River, Fox River Trail, and the authentic Dutch windmill that is open to the public for tours.
Two shelters in Tyler Creek Forest Preserve in Elgin are popular with picnic-goers. The lower shelter, is near a creek that runs through the preserve and is conveniently located next to the flush toilet facilities. The upper shelter is further up into the preserve.
One of the most popular shelters in Kane County is at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles. The site offers many amazing features, such as Creek Bend Nature Center, Ferson Creek, youth camp sites, and trails with a view.
DuPage River Park in Naperville, which is just east of the DuPage River Sports Complex, offers a large rustic picnic shelter near the Royce Road entrance. The two parks are connected by a multi-use trail that continues all the way through DuPage River Park to Whalon Lake Preserve, a Will County Forest Preserve.
There are many other group picnic areas to reserve for groups ranging from 25 to 300 in DuPage Forest Preserve properties, among them the pavilion at St. James Farm in Warrenville and shelters at York Woods in Oak Brook and Herrick Lake in Wheaton.
Check out a few lesser-known picnic spots recommended by park district and forest preserve staffers:
Ehret Park in Hinsdale has a small gazebo with picnic tables and a butterfly garden, but people often don’t realize it’s there, says Heather Berekis, supervisor of the Hinsdale Parks and Recreation Department. Another overlooked spot is Woodland Park, a long, narrow park with a grassy area where you could have a quiet picnic under the trees.
There are spots to picnic near the Rocky Glen waterfall in the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien. Though there is some foot traffic, it is typically a peaceful getaway.
For those who wish to combine picnicking with bird watching or fishing, Pioneer Park Forest Preserve in Naperville or Songbird Slough Forest Preserve in Itasca are good bets.
The 220-acre Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve in Oak Brook is known for the Graue Mill and Museum, an extensive trail system and a nature education center. Though it has a large picnic shelter, an off-the beaten-path alternative is the River Bend shelter, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Note: Virtually all park districts in the western suburbs feature wonderful spots for picnicking and play. We regret that space does not permit us to feature each one. Share your favorites with us on our Facebook page.