Palmisano Park Credit: Daniel X. O'Neil

When I first heard about “Mount Bridgeport” I imagined a large mountain in some magical part of Chicago I’d never seen before. I readied myself to hike up rough terrain and get a taste of the wilderness within the city limits. But when I arrived at Palmisano Park I saw that the “mount” was really more of a hill. At first, I was disappointed—it looked like I’d put my hiking boots on for nothing. However, I discovered something better: a peaceful respite from the busy city streets filled with lush vegetation, wild animals, a fishing hole, and a view of the lake and skyline, all free of the usual summertime crowds.

Before humans set foot on the land, the Chicago Park District says, Palmisano Park was a prehistoric coral reef—fossils predating the dinosaurs were found on the site, and are now staples of the Field Museum’s collection. In the 1830s the property was turned into a stone quarry, then in the 1970s it became a landfill, and finally in 2009 it was transformed into an environmentally sustainable park by architects from the Site Design Group. The waste that had been dumped was reused to create the park’s new topography. That giant hill that has since been dubbed Mount Bridgeport? It’s built on a literal pile of garbage.

The path to Mount Bridgeport’s peak (which is 33 feet above street level, nothing to sneeze at in a city as flat as Chicago) is marked with boulders from the original quarry and stonelike slates created from debris from the city’s road construction, according to the Chicago Park District’s historian, Julia Bachrach. In fact the hill’s structure consists mostly of torn-up sidewalk and other items left over from building sites, which were then covered with grass. The boardwalk that weaves through the park was created from recycled plastic, styled to mimic wooden slabs. And a fountain designed by Ernest Wong that greets guests at the park’s entrance is just one part of a self-sustaining water system that collects rainwater, which is then distributed through “wetland terraces” throughout the park before ending up in a pond that a handful of bluegill, smallmouth bass, crappie, and catfish call home—at least until they’re fished out. Palmisano Park provides one of the few bodies of water in Chicago that won’t cause mutations in the creatures who reside there.

Sure, it doesn’t take much to make it to the top of Mount Bridgeport, but once there it’s easy to forget that just a block away are cars flying down the highway, or that three miles north there are lines of people clamoring to get a view of Chicago from the top of Willis Tower. On top of Mount Bridgeport it’s possible to lay in the grass, listen to water trickle through the Palmisano Park fountain, and get a new perspective on the term “urban jungle,” snakes and all. (Watch out for the snakes!)