With a family and circle of friends full of medical professionals, I’ve been lying pretty low during COVID. I’m literally surrounded by first responders, counting a fire department captain and an EMT (in charge of his shift’s COVID response) as immediate next-door neighbors. It’s been out of respect that my family has taken the extreme caution route during the pandemic.
The list of places I’ve been since lockdown began is short. Since March I haven’t dined at a restaurant, stepped foot in a gym nor patronized any entertainment venues. So when the opportunity to explore an outdoor adventure park came up, a park that aggressively outlines their COVID safety precautions, your girl jumped.
The Forge: Lemont Quarries falls squarely in my pod’s list of approved places: it’s outdoors, masks are required, social distancing is enforced (and easy given that the park lopes over 300 acres) and timed entry digitally sets visitor capacity limits.
So on a warm summer/fall evening, my husband and I headed south to Lemont, giddy to re-engage with the world and try something new. The extensive bodily harm waivers only caused slight pause, sending me on an internet rabbit hole trying to remember the documentary I had mentally bookmarked, but not watched yet (FYI it’s called Class Action Park and it’s on HBO).
If you feel like the name elicits a vague familiarity, The Forge — which opened on July 17 — has been in the local news chatter a few times, and phrases like “North America’s largest aerial adventure course” tend to stick somewhere deep in the back of your brain.
Located about 20 miles from the city (and 10 minutes from former BMW Championship darling Cog Hill), the hilly, riverside hamlet of Lemont is a quiet yet historic site. These since transformed quarries were responsible for producing notable local limestone landmarks including the Chicago Water Tower, the Stockyards gate, Holy Name Cathedral and even a portion of the Capitol building in Springfield. The park literally borders the I&M Canal, a waterway central to Chicago’s development, and savvy visitors can walk the five-mile crushed limestone path to have a peek at the park before paying to enter.
But what is this place? Well, let’s start with the most relevant stats. The Forge has:
- North America’s largest aerial adventure course
- North America’s tallest ropes course tower (an eye-watering 120 feet)
- the longest ziplines you’ll find in the tri-state area (travel 1,050 over water)
The property is picturesque, remote and rugged in the way a quarry would be. If you venture to the tippity top of any of the towers, you’re rewarded with a bird’s eye view of rivers, lakes, trees, forested hills and the Chicago skyline lumbering gently in the distance. Apparently you can see Lake Michigan on a clear day from the absolute top of Skyscraper Tower, but it was not within my personal journey to confirm this.
The Forge strikes a balance between nature park and amusement park that feels particularly summer campy. Having been there for 10 minutes, I already felt like I’d already taken a high school field trip there in another life. All the park structures — things like check-in, equipment rental and food — are housed in slick, branded shipping containers. There is no cover here, it’s truly an outdoor experience. Portable bathrooms, movable water stations and khaki-covered staff further the vibe.
It’s the rare adventure park that seems to truly offer something for everyone. There are so many different types of activities, I don’t really know how to start explaining them. A quick glance at the range of admission prices punctuates this point further. If you’ve got time, and can swing it, I recommend opting for a day pass ($55-$70), but if you’ve got budget or time constraints, grab a single activity pass ($15-$35).
Activities included in the day pass:
- Eight Towers Adventure: Currently the park’s biggest draw, choose your own adventure on a series of high-flying ropes courses. Zoom between “hexes” on two miles of ziplines and explore almost 300 different elements including slacklines, rappelling stations and giant rope spider webs.
- Two Towers: Built for kids aged 3 to 13, this netted, harness-free course is only 12 feet off the ground but still packs fun for little ones.
- Outdoor rock climbing: Between a bouldering zone and a 90-foot auto-belayed wall route, even avid climbers will be entertained and challenged.
- Bike skills course: There are pump tracks and dirt tricks for BMX and mountain bikes. Anyone can try them out, and weekly classes are available if you’re trying to progress to the elusive footjam tail whip. BYOBike or rent there.
- Paddlesports: the flooded quarries create still waters which visitors can explore in canoes, kayaks and pedal boats. Paddle beneath the zipline as adventurous guests careen by overhead.
Activities that will run you extra:
- Tactical laser tag: off in the park’s woods you’ll play four or five missions from a catalogue of over 30, each promising to sting so much less than paintball ($25 per 60-minute session). Starting October 9, upgrade to their Zombie Apocalypse version for a Halloween twist ($35 per 40-minute game).
- AR Adventure games: like a virtual escape room, but in nature! The Forge’s augmented reality games turn the entire park into the escape room with clues hidden across the property. ($25 for their 60 and 90-minute games, $30 if you want to take on a two hour caper).
- Power Yoga: Outdoor, one-hour vinyasa flows ($20).
- Entertainment series: Includes live music, movies and other special events on a socially distanced lawn. Check the calendar for timing and pricing.
With a bounty of options before us, we spent the majority of our four-hour visit harnessed and clipped into in the Eight Towers Adventure. It’s simply the best bang for the buck; within the expansive course, it was easy to get lost, and I think it would be impossible for any two people to follow the exact same path.
I was genuinely surprised at how little oversight there is once you get into the course. The staff are super helpful and they are somehow everywhere and nowhere all at once. The initial training course (about 15 minutes long) teaches guests how to operate the safety clipping system and administer a “self-rescue.” That said, falter for a few seconds too long and a yellow-helmeted mountaineer appears from above, sometimes just as a disembodied voice, to offer guidance or a pathway out of your predicament. I heard an exchange between a climber in a bit of a pickle and one of the staff where she hollered, “You tell me spirit guide, I’m going wherever you say.”
In summary, here you will meander through a puzzling course that is complex and not built for a quick thrill.
I noticed half a dozen men going solo on the course and at first thought that was a bit odd, but now totally get it. There’s little opportunity as an adult to safely get up to trouble and genuinely lost in your own whims, even though doing so is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
As for social distancing, only one guest is allowed on an element at a time, and we found ourselves completely alone on an entire “hex” more than once. Obviously some areas are more crowded than others — Skyscraper Tower, for instance, had a traffic jam of riders looking to take on the giant zipline at sunset.
Overall verdict: The Forge is bizarre, insane and absolutely fun. It’s at once hard to describe and very easy to understand. I will happily return.
I was pleased to find out they take ADA accessibility seriously and, from trails to the boat docks, wheelchair users can participate. Employing special harnesses, handicapped individuals can even take on sections of the ropes course (call ahead to confirm it will work for your needs).
The Forge is a great option for your pod, and even the extreme social distancer would be happy to know you can rent out entire sections of the park for private parties and events — I personally love the idea of a bachelor/bachelorette party here. Before winter arrives, this is a great option to get outside and try something new.
The Forge: Lemont Quarries
1001 Main St, Lemont, IL 60439
Schedule your visit at: https://www.forgeparks.com/visit