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Specializing in the outdoors: It's summer at the Morton Arboretum

Steve Johnson

6:50 PM EDT, June 26, 2013

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When people talk about the Morton Arboretum, the too easily overlooked west suburban woodland preserve and living laboratory, summer is not the first season that falls from their tongues or springs to their minds.

Autumn and its opportunity to walk, bike or drive amid changing leaves is the big draw. Spring, with such stunning, new-bloom vistas as the Daffodil Glade on the campus' West Side, is a close second.

But summer at the arboretum, which occupies 1,700 acres near Lisle, offers myriad charms from outdoor theater to classical music to the ongoing combinations of hiking trails, biking opportunities and the still-stunning Children's Garden.

A visit to The Park that Salt Built, as I was reminded this week, is restorative even if you don't do anything special there, even if you just soak in all the green around you, genuflect before the giant oaks, or walk along the main pond admiring David Rogers' Big Bugs, the series of giant wooden insect sculptures on a summerlong return engagement. The bugs are simple and superb, whether the damselfly resting at water's edge, the daddy long legs perched over a (human) footpath or the three mega-ants marching downhill.

My kids, in sixth and eighth grade this past school year, are past prime Children's Garden age. But even without it entertaining them, the 4-acre combination of water play areas, tree-fort walks, winding paths and backyard discoveries still struck me as it did the first time I saw it: as one of the best museum exhibits, broadly speaking, that I've ever seen.

Anne Soto, who had brought her 2- and 4-year-old from nearby unincorporated Glen Ellyn, agreed.

"It's our favorite place to be," she said, while her kids climbed the long, suspended bridge in the Children's Garden's Evergreen Lookout area. "It just feels like the perfect place for children. It just seems like what children should be doing in summer."

The garden has been an unqualified success and is frequently studied by other institutions, said marketing vice president Jennifer GoodSmith. Built (along with other projects) for $10 million and opened in 2005, it has boosted attendance by some 300,000 a year, to the current 800,000.

For adults, the arboretum has had good recent success with its Wednesdays, Woods & Wine program, which brings in bands to play each week and allows only those 21 and older to participate. Those shows run from 5:30 to 8 p.m. through Aug. 21. Next up, Wednesday, is Hifi Superstar. Tickets are $15 for nonmembers ($10 members), including a drink ticket, a cheese buffet and free admission after 4:30.

These more modest concerts have taken the place of the Arboretum bringing in national touring acts, which ended with the 2010 season. The big sellers that year were Huey Lewis and Lyle Lovett, each drawing almost 4,000 people. But weather impact and plenty of area concert competition made the economics challenging, officials said.

On the other hand — and up the cultural scale — a new initiative this year sees the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing a series of outdoor shows between Thursday and Sunday, with crowd-pleasing programs including John Williams, Tchaikovsky and Bizet's Carmen.

As of Wednesday afternoon, tickets remained only for the Sunday afternoon show, billed as a "CSO Family Concert" (and available at cso.org/morton).

One mixed blessing is the institution's location. It's right off Interstate 88, about 25 miles west of Chicago. So it's easy to get to. But it's also right along I-88. Especially from the park's East Side, bird calls compete with the high whine of highway traffic. The CSO, I'm told, will perform with plenty of amplification.

Bicycling is rarely uncomfortable on the one-way roads, on which cars tend to dawdle. (Riding in a golf cart, an arboretum publicist and I passed a sedanMonday.) But from May to early September, the nine miles of roads are closed to car traffic from 5:30 p.m. to sunset Fridays and 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. You can bring your own, or a good selection of bikes to rent is available in the main parking lot near the Visitor Center.

Theatre-Hikes performances resume in July and are quite charming, although the kid-friendly shows are probably not for those who like their drama Robert Falls-style. Patrons follow the cast through fields, along streams and into woody areas, as the scenes are played at stops along the route. The shows are weekend afternoons and include "The Three Musketeers" (July), "An Afternoon with Mark Twain" (September) and "The Passion of Dracula" (October; more information at theatre-hikes.org).

But hiking without the theater is enjoyable, too, and doesn't require a special ticket. A good alternative to driving all the way down to Starved Rock State Park, the arboretum not only has actual elevation changes, but claims 16 miles of trails, and the terrain varies from prairie to spruce grove to a Conifer Loop, and from paved pathways near the Visitor Center to traditional trails as you get farther into the park.

It's the Conifer Loop that will be a main location for a new attraction, one that doesn't start until November. Morton Arboretum is getting into the holiday lights game, but with a display called "Illumination: See Trees in a Different Light" that officials vow will be very different from what the area zoos offer.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Morton Arboretum

When: Daily, 7 a.m. to sunset.

Where: 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle

Tickets: $12 adults, $9 children (discounts on Wednesdays); 630-968-0074 or mortonarb.org