Congratulations! You just found out the military is sending you to the third-largest metropolitan area in the United States. The largest military presence in the area is Naval Station Great Lakes, which is home to Navy Basic Training and located about 37 miles north of downtown Chicago. But if you’re an Army family like us, you’ll quickly find quite a few other Army families scattered throughout Chicagoland (the nickname for the Chicago metropolitan area), in addition to other branches of service. I figure that because our time at Fort Sheridan is coming to an end (packers come next week – eek!) I’d share some information about Fort Sheridan and the Chicago area. Read more to learn more about the housing, schools, sports, and everything else this little pocket of the North Shore has to offer.
While not the most famous North Shore in the county (hello Hawaii!), the northern suburbs of Chicago along Lake Michigan are known collectively as the North Shore. We live in Fort Sheridan Military Housing, which is part of Great Lakes Family Housing (managed by Hunt Military Communities) and located on Lake Michigan. The community is open to incoming service members E7 and above and located 20 minutes south of Naval Station Great Lakes. While there are plenty of people in the community who work at Naval Station Great Lakes, quite a few families are stationed at Fort Sheridan Reserve Center (home to various Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine units), stationed with Army Marketing Group in Chicago, or assigned to a command located within the greater Chicago area. There is a METRA station that is 3/4 of a mile from the neighborhood, so a fair amount of residents walk to the station and take the train into downtown Chicago for both military and civilian work.
If living in a military housing community isn’t your jam, there are plenty of communities surrounding Chicago (and neighborhoods in the city itself) that are wonderful places for couples and families alike. Some of my favorite include Evanston (a true college town thanks to Northwestern University), Glencoe, Winnetka, Wilmette, and Mount Prospect, if you’re wanting to go interior away from Lake Michigan. It’s hard to go wrong in the North Shore and if you watch a lot of John Hughes movies, you’re bound to recognize filming locations!
The stretch of Lake Michigan home to both Fort Sheridan Reserve Center and Fort Sheridan Military Housing has a rich military history. The Navy chose Lake Michigan as an aircraft training site during World War II because the inland lake was protected from an Axis attack. In fact, more than 100 fighter plans crashed and sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan between 1942 and 1944. When the main post of Fort Sheridan closed in 1993 due to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the majority of the land was sold to commercial land developers. The government only kept 90 acres – which is now home to the Sheridan Reserve Center and Fort Sheridan Military Housing.
Thankfully, the commercial land developers who bought the majority of the installation refurbished the original residences instead of bulldozing them. As a result, old Fort Sheridan is home to some of the most beautiful houses in the area. The actual neighborhood is a mix of refurbished military housing and new(er) homes built after the military sold the land. When walking around old Fort Sheridan, we often lament how we’d be living in one of the original gorgeous military homes situated in the area designated as a National Historic Landmark if only the Army hadn’t let it go. Typical Army, right? To read more about old Fort Sheridan and see pictures, check out my post A Walk Around Fort Sheridan.
But at least the military housing neighborhood is located right on Lake Michigan – you can’t beat these views. When we first moved in, we even had access to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve trails. Unfortunately, unexploded ordinances from WWII were found in April 2021, which prompted Openlands to close the trails and place fencing and signs along the perimeter of the neighborhood. Openlands continues to stonewall military residents who inquire about the possibility of reopening the trails and removing the fence and as of publication of this post, there is no concrete end date in sight. When we first arrived at Fort Sheridan in July 2020, we were thrilled to have access to the trails and enjoyed the uninterrupted views of Lake Michigan and really believed in the mission of Openlands. However, the behavior of the organization and the condescending tone they continue to take with both the military housing and surrounding communities really soured our opinion of the organization and prevented us from contributing financially to their misguided conservation efforts. I am keeping everything crossed that the trails will reopen soon!
That being said, there are plenty of other access points to Lake Michigan nearby. Rosewood Beach (be sure to purchase both a swimming pass and a lakefront parking pass each season) is a short bike ride away, you can legally launch kayaks and paddle boards at Park Avenue Boating Facility, and Nunn Beach and Marina is on Naval Station Great Lakes. If we had to do it over again, we would joined the North Shore Yacht Club in Highland Park. For a reasonable membership fee, you get access to a lot of watercraft and a stress-free launch experience. We also enjoyed Hidden Creek Aqua Park when we wanted to swim in a pool.
While Fort Sheridan Military Housing has a Highland Park address, it is actually nestled in between Highwood and Highland Park. Both communities are within walking distance and offer some great restaurants and fun bars. We love The Little French Guy for breakfast and Norton’s for burgers. Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins lives in the community and owns Madame Zuzu’s, a vegan restaurant and concert hall. The Mean Weiner is a family favorite (I love their Chicago hot dog) for fast casual and both Miramar Bistro and Greenwood American Kitchen & Bar are our go-to places when the four of us want a nicer meal. The tacos at La Plancha Loca are amazing (please, please, please try the Volcan, which is a crispy tortilla with carne asada melted crispy cheese and serrano salsa, onions and cilantro) and both Beermiscuous and 28 Mile Distilling are great places to grab a drink. And the best part? Every single restaurant and bar just listed are within walking distance of Fort Sheridan Military Housing.
The Highland Park Library is in a gorgeous building downtown and offers quite a few events throughout the year. While you’ll have to initially get a library card through the Highland Park Public Library, once you have it you’ll be able to use it at the Highwood Public Library, which is actually closer to Fort Sheridan Military Housing. On the Highland Park City Hall website, you can find a page dedicated to self-guided walking and biking architechure tours of the city. Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to several buildings in the area (the most famous being the Willits House from 1901 – located at 1445 Sheridan Rd) and there are also projects by David Adler, W.W. Boyington, Robert E. Seyfarth, and other famed architects.
As mentioned above, the walkability of Fort Sheridan Military Housing and the surrounding area was a huge reason why we chose to live here. There are also a ton of bike trails in the area. We often ride our bikes as a family through the Chicago Botanical Gardens, down the Green Bay Trail through Wilmette and Winnetka before turning around and ending up at Ravinia Brewing Company for post-ride sodas and craft beers. We’ve also ride our bikes up the Robert McClory Bike Trail through Lake Forest and up to Naval Station Great Lakes – you can even take the trail up to Wisconsin! Due to the lack of terrain (Illinois is the second-flattest state in the United States), this area is a great place for longer bike rides with younger kids. Turning lemons into lemonade, right?
There are no shortage of festivals and celebrations in this area. While we didn’t get to experience a lot of them because Covid-19 dominated the bulk of our almost two-years stationed year (womp womp), we’re starting to see why so many people choose to raise families in the area. There is the famed Great Highwood Pumpkin Fest and Skeleton Invasion, the Port Clinton Art Festival, During the warmer months, Food Truck Thursdays in Highland Park and concerts and Ravinia Festival, And opening this year is The Lot, an alfresco dining and entertainment space. Be sure to check the Celebrate Highwood website to keep track of all the festivals and events right outside the gates.
Elementary and Middle School. The first thing to know is that the State of Illinois charges a registration fee when enrolling a student in public school. If you choose to live in Fort Sheridan Housing and chose to send your children to public school, you will need to enroll them in North Shore School District 112, which is the local district for the elementary and middle schools. The district is quite small and has a very involved Superintendent who is committed to ensuring that military families feel welcomed and included. The registration fee per student for the 2022-2023 school year is $230 before July 28, 2022 or $250 after July 29, 2022 (source). If paying for the registration fee(s) is a hardship for your family, there are options available – you can discuss them during the registration process. Our children attended Sherwood Elementary and Edgewood Middle School. During our two years at Fort Sheridan, Patten Rd served as the dividing line as to whether children living in Fort Sheridan Housing went to Wayne Thomas Elementary and Northwood Middle School or Sherwood Elementary and Edgewood Middle School. However, for the 2022-2023 school year, all incoming families will be assigned to Wayne Thomas Elementary and Northwood Middle School.
High School. The high school zoned for Fort Sheridan Military Housing, Highland Park High School, is part of Township High School District 113 – it is common in this area for elementary and high schools to be in separate school districts. We do not have children in high school so I can’t personally vouch for the high school. Once committing to living in Fort Sheridan Housing and if you have high school students, I recommend checking out the Highland Park/Deerfield High Schools Sounding Board Facebook Group.
Preschool. Military children can attend Green Bay Early Childhood Center, which is part of North Shore School District 112. There is a morning session and an afternoon session. A school bus picks up and drops off preschool students for both the morning and the afternoon sessions. There are a handful of local private preschools as well, including Highland Park Montessori, of which one of my neighbors speak very highly.
Private. There is no shortage of private school options in the area. Lake Forest County Day School (PreK-8) in Lake Forest, IL, School of St. Mary (PreK-8) in Lake Forest, IL, North Shore Country Day (PreK-12) in Winnetka, IL, and Lake Forest Academy (9-12) in Lake Forest, IL are a few options. I know some military families have had success with receiving a tuition discount – it doesn’t hurt to ask!
Okay – let’s talk about the weather. It does get cold during the winter; bitterly cold. And the wind coming off of Lake Michigan can cause the houses to moan and creak. It is not uncommon for there to be subzero windchills during January and February and while it does snow, it probably doesn’t snow as much as you think. The average snowfall for this area is less than 40 inches. When we were stationed at Fort Drum, we experienced well over 100 inches of snow each winter so the snow here feels quite manageable in comparison. If you’re anything like me and love following amateur meteorologists on Facebook, I highly recommend Your Chicago Weather. He has by far the most accurate forecasts for the area!
As far as winter sports, there are a lot of cross-country skiing trails throughout the area. We like to downhill ski so we would drive an hour north to Wilmot Mountain (mountain is used very loosely) quite a bit due to it being part of the Epic Pass. It isn’t great skiing but when you live in a super flat area, you have to take what you can get. We did go skiing at Cascade Mountain, which is outside of Madison, WI this winter and it is a much better skiing experience than Wilmot – highly recommend!
Moving on to to sports and extra-curricular activities for kids. Our children played baseball, softball, gymnastics, and basketball through the Park District of Highland Park and we had a very positive experience with the organization – I even coached the girls’ softball team! Some people may find the registration fees higher than they’re used to (anywhere between $150 – $300 per sport per season) but we found the fees to be in line with what we’ve paid previously when stationed in other places around the country. Our daughter played soccer with Highland Park AYSO 891. One thing to note about AYSO is that you sign-up for soccer for the entire year – the fee covers both fall and spring seasons. There are a lot more activities available that our children simply couldn’t fit into their schedule – I’ve heard wonderful things about the classes and workshops for adults and children at The Art Center Highland Park. Our children also participated in Kids Rank, which is a service club for military children. They’re prides met after school, which made it a very convenient activity for them to participant in and it didn’t conflict too much with their sports schedule. Kids Rank is currently only in the Chicago area but there are plans for the program to expand nationally.
As far as dentists and orthodontists go, I highly recommend Forest Orthodontics & Pediatric Dentistry. They’re very familiar with the military dental insurance and were great with our kids! Our daughter had braces during our time here and we found the office to be extremely professional, competitively priced, and honest. They even filled out the out-of-state-dental forms for the kids’ new school district – no questions asked. We choose to be Tricare Select so our children were seen by Lake Forest Pediatrics. They have a robust online portal (my preference!) so it is easy to schedule appointment, get forms and records, and ask questions. But should you need to call the office, they usually pick up on the first or second ring, in my experience (same can’t be said for a lot of offices!). I personally saw practitioners affiliated with Northwestern Medicine attached to Lake Forest Hospital and have nothing but great things to say about the care I received.
Fort Sheridan Military Housing is about 25 miles north of Chicago so whenever we got the chance, we went to the city and would often spend the night to maximize our time. We attend Cubs games, White Sox games, Blackhawks games, and more! We also went to the ballet, the opera, and spent countless hours in both the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. The architecture cruise is one of our favorite must-dos in the city and we’re suckers for a Chicago steakhouse. To read more about our Chicago adventures, check out Traveling in Our Own Backyard, A Weekend in Chicago and Our ‘Trip’ to Chicago – Part 1 and Part 2. I highly recommend taking a staycation in Chicago while stationed in the area. You simply get to experience the city beyond what can be offered with just a day trip down.
We love to travel and very much appreciated having O’Hare International Airport only 25 minutes away. Where the Army is sending us next is two hours away from a major airport, which bums us out quite a bit – we got spoiled living in Washington DC and Chicago the past handful of years! We flew many flights out of the infamous airport and much prefer it over Midway International Airport (don’t get me started….) down closer to the city. O’Hare is a United hub so make sure to check their flights first – we found them to often have the best prices.
We also enjoy hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. To be honest, we’ve found the hiking and camping to be quite lackluster around here. You can read about some local hikes we took by checking out the Deer Grove Forest and Captain Daniel Wright Woods (not dog-friendly) posts on this blog. Our favorite place to hike has been Kettle Moraine State Park in Wisconsin. It is about 1.5 hours away and while it doesn’t not offer a lot of terrain, it has more than the trails in the North Shore. You will need to purchase a Wisconsin State Park vehicle pass either online or at a nearby gas station before you go. You can check out the posts on this blog about camping in Door County, Wisconsin and camping at Indiana Dunes National Park for more information.
Truth be told, Fort Sheridan hasn’t been our favorite place that the Army has sent us but we made the most of our time here and it’s easy to see why so many people love living in the North Shore. The majority of our two years here was dominated by Covid-19 – we simply just did not have the opportunity to experience the area to the fullest. However, our family motto is make the best with what we have and I believe that we have done that. If you have any questions or a suggestion yourself, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.