Photo: Patrick Williams

Have You Discovered Waterfall Glen?

Hikers, runners, and bikers will want to consider visiting DuPage County’s Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. This gorgeous setting is a great choice for a day spent outdoors exploring the site’s extensive trail system, vibrant habitats, and most of all, scenic views. Waterfall Glen is a short trip from downtown Chicago and a family-friendly destination in suburban Darien.

Waterfall Glen is managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and open to the public year-round. The site is home to a 9.5-mile gravel trail system that winds through a hilly, wooded landscape, offering educational signage and opportunities to explore nature up close. If you’re not looking for a nearly 10-mile trip, however, don’t let the longer trail intimidate you. Waterfall Glen not only offers shorter trails throughout the preserve, but you can also make a nice trip out of the short walk from a parking area to two of the site’s most scenic areas, Rocky Glen Waterfall (pictured above) and Sawcreek Mill Bluff.

The main trail at Waterfall Glen is an approachable 9.5-mile gravel path and makes for a great workout whether you’re hiking, biking, walking, or trail-running. The main trail is mixed-use for pedestrians, bikes, and horseback riding, so be sure to share the path. The trails are also open in the winter for snowshoeing, walking, and cross-country skiing. 

For the site’s natural beauty and recreation opportunities, Waterfall Glen is well worth your visit! Consider adding it to your trip this summer or check out all our recommendations for where to get outside in the region.

Photo: Patrick Williams

The Old Plank Road Trail

In 1992, Openlands purchased just over 20 miles of abandoned railroad lines for the development of the Old Plank Road Trail, which stretches from Chicago Heights to Joliet. The land acquisi­tion was made on behalf of six local and state agencies that had each agreed to develop portions of the trail. Openlands’ involvement (at the time through our affiliated non-profit, CorLands) provided a jump-start to the decade-long grassroots effort to create the trail, and ultimately saved over $1 million in taxpayer dollars.

When Openlands officially became involved in the trail, the project had been stalled for years for a variety of reasons, and we began an outreach effort to local communities to build support for this visionary trail. Local opposition was eventually addressed by inviting residents to participate in the trail planning process, and by agreeing to reroute the trail around certain areas, plant trees and shrubs, install fences, and grade the trail to ensure residents’ privacy and security.


Old plank map

Another obstacle was reluctance from the Penn Central Railroad — the original land owner — to engage in separate negotiations with the six local governments and agencies interested in purchasing its land. These local entities included the Village of Park Forest, the Village of Matteson, the Village of Frankfort, Rich Township, the Forest Preserve District of Will County, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. And in a way, their reluctance made sense: securing only five of the six trail segments would have left the entire route fractured. They needed a single entity to manage the acquisition as one purchase. They needed a land trust.

This problem was solved when the Illinois Department of Transportation, which was coordinating the purchase from Penn Central, asked Openlands to move from its advisory role to assume control over the entire project. Two years of intensive negotiations then began, with Openlands acting as an intermediary between Penn Central and the six local entities.


This arrangement was a win-win situation for all parties involved. With Openlands in charge of the negotiations, the local entities gained specialized real estate expertise while avoiding individual negotiations with Penn Central. The process was also sim­plified for Penn Central by giving the corporation a single entity to work with, and by standardizing procedures.

Openlands was able to negotiate a purchase price down, a savings of over $1 million in taxpayer dollars. Half of the purchase price was funded by the governmental entities that will develop the trail, with the remaining funding paid by a matching grant from the State of Illinois’ Bikeways Fund.

Immediately upon buying the property, Openlands placed deed restrictions on each of the parcels to ensure that the land will be permanently used as a recreational trail, regardless of a change in owners. Openlands then subdivided the property into six parcels and trans­ferred ownership to the governmental bodies that had provided funding.

The creation of the Old Plank Road Trail proved the power of partnerships: by work­ing with a land trust and with each other, the local governments were able to secure matching grants from Illinois and the Federal Government to complete one of the finest rails-to-trails conversions.


This article is from the Openlands archives and was originally published on behalf of CorLands. As a non-profit affiliated corporation, CorLands managed land acquisition, technical assistance, and conservation easements for Openlands between 1977 and 2010 when it merged back into Openlands. Learn more about some of the projects in our history.

Have You Discovered Orland Grassland?

Pack a lunch and take a trip back in time, exploring the landscapes, habitats, and views found in our region long ago! Located in the south suburbs and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Grassland is an exceptional display of the expansive prairies that used to stretch across the region. More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers left behind this rolling landscape and made Orland Grassland one of the higher elevation points in Cook County. On a clear day you can even spot the Chicago Skyline!

Orland Grassland is one of the largest grassland habitats in all of Cook County. Starting in 2002, this 960-acre preserve has been transformed from farmland back into a grassland complex with prairies, wetlands, open ponds, oak savannas, and woodlands. Openlands helped restore the landscape at Orland Grassland and today, much of the preserve is enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve system and it is a designated important bird area by Audubon Society.

A five-mile paved trail rings Orland Grassland with several unpaved trails winding through the restoration areas. The south unit of Orland Grassland also featured a 1.6-mile paved trail if you’re looking for a shorter trail (or a longer extension of the main trail). The unpaved trails are marked with handmade signs created by Cub Scout Troop #372 of Orland Park. Be sure to check out the interactive trail map from Forest Preserves of Cook County before your visit.

Have You Discovered the Salt Creek Greenway Trail?

Have you tried enjoying the outdoors along a long-distance trail yet? Our region’s recreation trails are among the easiest ways to enjoy the area’s natural landscapes. Find peace and solitude or share an experience with family and friends while you run, walk, bike, or hike in natural serenity!

One of the region’s best known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.

Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail, the latter of which is featured in our Paddle Illinois Water Trails guide. Both trails connect through the Forest Preserves of Cook County as well as the DuPage Forest Preserves.

Whether by land or on the water, you will pass under shaded canopies, through open prairies and savanna, and through protected Illinois nature preserves along the Salt Creek Greenway Trail.

Have You Discovered Illinois Beach State Park?

Just an hour’s drive from the heart of Chicago, Illinois Beach State Park is home to six and a half miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. This 4,160-acre, two-unit natural area offers abundant and scenic recreational opportunities, with hiking and biking trails replete with wildlife, access to Illinois’ largest marina, swimming beaches, picnic shelters, and campsites. With expansive dunes and swales, marshes, prairie, and black oak forests, Illinois Beach State Park’s diverse ecosystems contain over 650 plant species, shoreline birds, and rich aquatic wildlife.

The park’s northern unit is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, and offers lengthy biking and hiking trails, fishing at Sand Pond, and public access to Lake Michigan via North Point Marina. The southern unit contains extensive camping and picnic areas, nature trails along mixed wetlands and dunes, and a scenic overlook along the Dead River, a perfect spot for birding.

The Lake Michigan dunes area was originally part of the “Three Fires” of the Algonquin Nation. In 1836, the area was incorporated into Lake County as the result of a treaty with local indigenous peoples. Preservation efforts have been in place since 1888, with southern unit established in 1964 as the first Illinois Nature Preserve. Nature Preserves like Illinois Beach represent the highest quality habitat in Illinois. The northern unit was acquired between 1971 and 1982. For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for and helped to protect the shoreline ecosystems of Lake Michigan.

Located across Winthrop Harbor, Zion, and Benton Township, Illinois Beach State Park is owned and operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Have You Discovered Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?

Just over an hour from the Chicago Loop lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (IDNL). IDNL spans over 15,000 total acres, which include 15 miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline, and 50 miles of trails. The landscape of this area was shaped over 14,000 years ago by the last great continental glacier, and today includes dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, rivers, and forests. The biological diversity within Indiana Dunes is among the highest per unit of any site in the National Parks system. Over 350 species of birds have been observed, 113 of which are considered to be regular nesters, along with more than 1,100 native plant species. In addition to these plant and bird species, Indiana Dunes is home to 46 mammals species, 18 amphibians, 23 different reptiles, 71 species of fish, 60 butterflies, 60 dragonflies/damselflies, and countless other vital species. 

Conservation efforts surrounding the Indiana Dunes and its unique ecosystems date back to 1899. The First World War halted protection due to a shift in national priorities, but in 1926 the site was designated as Indiana Dunes State Park. In 1966, the site was officially authorized as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Openlands played an integral role in this designation. Today, extensive conservation work continues at Indiana Dunes in the forms of water quality monitoring, wetlands restoration, invasive species removal, and preventing shoreline erosion.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is owned and operated by the National Park Service. Entrance and permit fees apply.

Have You Discovered Glacial Park?

Just under an hour and a half from the Chicago Loop lies Glacial Park, encompassing 3,400 acres of restored open space including prairie, wetlands, oak savanna, and delta kames. Over 400 of these acres are dedicated nature preserve and home to 40 state-endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Additionally, Glacial Park is ranked as one of the top five locations in the region to view migratory birds.

The Nippersink Creek also runs through Glacial Park, providing excellent opportunities for both fishing and paddling. As McHenry County Conservation District’s most popular land holding, Glacial Park attracts over 64,000 annual visitors. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities from horseback riding to outdoor concerts near the visitor center.

Currently, Glacial Park is the best way to experience Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hackmatack was designated as a refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 and will span over 11,200 acres once complete. Hackmatack will be built around existing conservation lands such as Glacial Park. This park is a prime example of the habitat and wildlife Hackmatack aims to protect.

A Refuge in the Wild

It will come as no surprise that residents of the Chicago region all too often experience nature in fragments – at their local park, in a community garden, with a migrating sandhill crane passing overhead. But when we have space to run wild, and when nature has room to demonstrate a mighty vastness, it only takes a few moments before it speaks to us in a primeval and wordless language.

On the doorstep of Chicago, we have such a place in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The 11,500 acres of Hackmatack will soon offer the chance to explore and appreciate nature’s majesty on a whole new level. Here, we’ll be able to share our favorite activities with our families, kids will learn about and understand the value of nature, and this will be a place we can all fill with memories which will endure for lifetimes. All of this will be possible because this land is public, it belongs to all of us.

Updated: Congress has passed a budget that significantly increases support for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Learn more…


“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Wide Open Spaces

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, today encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres of public land. The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources, recreation opportunities, and support for local economies.

Hackmatack, formally established in 2012, is the first such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to the 12 million people who live within an hour’s drive of the refuge. As an urban wildlife refuge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aims to offer access and resources to America’s increasingly diverse population.

Outdoor recreation is estimated to contribute $646 billion to the U.S. economy every year, and the refuge is at the heart of that opportunity. In Hackmatack and its adjoining areas, runners and hikers will be able to explore miles of trails winding through sun-dappled burr oak savannas and prairies teeming with wildflowers. Cyclists can pause beneath its massive skies as they travel along the Grand Illinois Trail. Birders will be able to comb native grasslands for Dickcissels or restored wetlands for migrating Whooping Cranes. Fishermen and sportsmen can wade through some of the highest-quality headwater streams in the region. Kayakers and paddle boarders can slip slowly down the Nippersink Creek as it meanders through open fields, lush woodlands, and verdant flowerbeds. And photographers will be able to capture a unique landscape of glacier-carved ridges adorned with valleys of wildflowers and pierced with pristine streams, all lingering from the last Ice Age.

Public access to open space is the guiding vision for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, but the designation in 2012 was just the start of a long journey to build the refuge. We are currently restoring the first acres of Hackmatack, but public-private partnerships and local enthusiasm driving the vision forward.


Forging Partnerships

In March 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its environmental assessment for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The assessment recommended a version of the refuge that would link existing state, county, and federal conservation lands with newly acquired land and conservation corridors.

After gaining support from the public, the congressional delegations of both Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as from their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the refuge in August 2012.

Today, Openlands and our partners are in the process of developing four core areas in Illinois and Wisconsin that link existing conservation sites and create the necessary scale needed for wildlife to thrive, which translates to thousands of acres of protected wetlands and havens for recovering wildlife populations. While restoration work is concentrated in these cores, we are also working with private partners to link the cores via migratory corridors.

While Openlands is able to acquire new parcels from willing sellers andhelp restore them to be a part of Hackmatack, federal support for the refuge is critical. Federal land protection ensures that important resources are forever available to America’s future generations. It secures drinking water supplies, provides wildlife habitat, creates recreation opportunities, and maintains ecosystems that support agriculture, tourism, and other economic activity. These areas will be protected from pollution and continue supplying clean water to agriculture. These considerations drove the locals’ decision to seek federal protection as a national wildlife refuge.

This is a new approach to conservation and a new way to protect open space on the scale we need for wildlife to thrive. We have to tackle the challenge with our partners acre-by-acre, parcel-by-parcel to protect these places so everyone can share places like Hackmatack.


Hackmatack_rays

The open spaces of the American landscape have always been part of our national identity. Hackmatack is a dream built from the bottom up, drawing together the skills and talents of conservation non-profits, local business owners, sportsmen, and private citizens.

Foresight and planning for the Chicago Wilderness Region established many different and superb ways for people to be connected with and inspired by nature. Whether at the local park or forest preserve, or at vast open spaces like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, connections to nature are vital to all people. Chicago is the third largest metropolitan region in the country, but we lack equal access to America’s public lands. Cutting support of the National Wildlife Refuges will rob us of our right to enjoy America’s public lands.

The Waterway That Made Chicago

Please note: the following was written by Openlands President and CEO, Jerry Adelmann, who coordinated Openlands’ efforts to establish the nation’s first National Heritage Area along the route of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal.


Throughout the 20th Century, the Chicago metropolitan region repeatedly distinguished itself as an innovator in the fields of urban planning and open space preservation. The 1909 Plan of Chicago and the subsequent creation of the Forest Preserves of Cook County are both acknowledged as global models of open space planning.

One of these trail-blazing efforts, which Openlands led, was the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984—America’s first Congressionally-designated National Heritage Area (NHA) and the prototype for 48 additional heritage areas that have followed. NHAs tell stories about America’s past, while offering a place to enjoy nature through sightseeing and recreation. However,this innovative and wildly popular program is at risk.

In both 2017 and 2018, the White House attempted to eliminate all Federal support for the National Heritage Areas. Congress offers less than $1 million to local partners who maintain NHAs and ensure they are publicly accessible. Each federal $1 is leveraged by $4-6 in local funds. Luckily, due to sustained advocacy campaigns from organizations like Openlands, those funding cuts were beaten back both times.

NHAs are important to Illinois and one in particular, the I&M Canal Corridor, is important to me.

Photo: Canal Corridor Association (Canal Tourism Boat at LaSalle-Peru)

I&M Canal in Harpers Weekly 1871
I&M Canal at Bridgeport in Chicago as depicted in Harper’s Weekly, 1871

The Illinois and Michigan Canal: The Waterway that Made Chicago

One cannot overestimate the seminal role the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) played in the founding and early history of Chicago.  This pioneering waterway connected Lake Michigan at Chicago with the Illinois River 100 miles to the southwest at LaSalle-Peru.  First envisioned by the French explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, the hand-dug waterway provided a critical connecting link between the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. When the I&M Canal was completed it 1848, it positioned Chicago as a gateway to the West, and as America’s most important inland port and transportation hub.

Newer waterways were established paralleling the I&M, and this historic canal was finally closed for commercial use in 1933.  During the years preceding World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed the canal into a park of great natural beauty and unparalleled recreational opportunities in northeastern Illinois.  Miles of towpath were converted into hiking and bicycling trails; sections of the canal, its locks, and other related structures were rehabilitated; picnic areas and shelters were constructed along the canal’s banks; and state and local parks were developed on adjacent lands.

After the CCC was dissolved, however, most of the extensive improvements accomplished by this highly successful and popular project fell into disrepair.  In the late 1950s, the easternmost section of the canal was used for the construction of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and the State of Illinois was preparing to sell off the extension real estate holdings along the canal’s route for private development. As local interest groups along the canal looked to preserve their region’s cultural and ecological legacy, they turned to a newly-formed not-for-profit called Openlands


Operation Green-Strip

Operation Green-Strip

Openlands, one of the first conservation organizations in the U.S. to work in a metropolitan area, organized local leaders and grassroots advocates to launch a preservation campaign called “Operation Green-Strip.” These efforts culminated in 1974 with the establishment of the 60-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail.

Sections of the canal north of Joliet were excluded as they were fragmented with development that precluded a traditional linear park, yet many of these northern communities were some of the greatest supporters for preservation.  Advocates kept coming back to Openlands asking for assistance to protect sections of the canal, important remnant natural areas, archeological sites, and other significant open space and cultural assets along the lower DesPlaines River Valley.

It is in the late 1970s when I entered the scene. A sixth-generation resident of Lockport, I realized that the future of the former canal headquarters was very much tied to a broader regional strategy along the route of the I&M. Collectively the resources of the historic canal towns and adjacent landscapes represented a rich chapter in the history of Illinois and the nation and, if coordinated, could serve as a catalyst to help revitalize this classic rustbelt corridor that was experiencing some of the greatest unemployment in the nation.

Working on a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, I became involved in volunteer projects to save some of Lockport’s historic buildings and unique natural areas, including the ecologically-rare Lockport Prairie. The Forest Preserve District of Will County suggested I contact Openlands with my ideas for a regional landscape-scale approach that would include recreational trails, revitalized waterfronts and historic downtowns, and protected natural and cultural treasures throughout the five-county region.

Openlands embraced the concept and provided critical leadership to move this concept towards reality. The Canal Corridor Association was established in 1982 as an independent not-for-profit, and in 1984 President Reagan came to Chicago to sign legislation that created the nation’s first heritage area, launching a national movement.


Reagan Signing IM Canal Legislation
President Reagan signing the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor legislation at the Hilton Chicago, August 24, 1984.

Enshrining our national heritage

National Heritage Areas combine ecological, cultural, and economic goals, and take a holistic approach to living, working landscapes. The overarching goal is to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. They are “partnership parks” that leverage public and private resources, as well as civic leadership.

The role of the Federal Government is quite limited, but nevertheless crucial: federal designation elevates the significance of these areas as well as the social and cultural histories they represent. Modest funding and technical assistance over the years has supported region-wide coordination with wayfinding and interpretation. Hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been reinvested in the I&M Canal region since its designation. Tourism and community economic development projects have added countless new jobs to these historic communities.

Positive outcomes like this are seen in the other heritage areas across the nation where modest federal support leverages reinvestment while addressing much need recreational needs and underrepresented stories in the American experience.

The I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor and future NHAs, such as two proposed NHAs in the Chicago region, the Calumet National Heritage Area and the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area, deserve full support from the Federal government.

Since its founding in 1963, Openlands has played a leadership role in most of our region’s innovative open space initiatives, including the creation of the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion (the Illinois Prairie Path), the nation’s first national tallgrass prairie, and the first national wildlife refuge in the greater Milwaukee-Chicago area.

We will continue to support these projects, ensure their value is understood at every level, and most of all, defend the public’s right to access and enjoy them.


Updated: Congress has passed a budget that increases support for the National Heritage Areas. Learn more…

Have You Discovered Wolf Lake?

Sitting just over 15 miles from the heart of the Loop and straddling the Illinois-Indiana border, Wolf Lake is part of a network of recreation areas on Chicago’s south side. Over the years, Openlands has worked to expand the area’s trail system, which connects communities such as Hegewisch, South Deering and Whiting, and we encourage you to discover Wolf Lake for yourself!

The origin of the lake’s name is unknown, but local residents have offered a few theories: some believe that “Wolf” was a Native American chief while others contend that years ago the surrounding area was teeming with wolves. Neither of these claims have been verified, but they still offer an interesting look into the lake’s history.

Wolf Lake also lies in the heart of the Calumet region, a natural area of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna. Openlands has focused on empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources. As we promote a regional culture of conservation, Openlands has helped to develop an interconnected network of protected greenways and trails and to restore public access to the region’s natural treasures.

The area around Wolf Lake is home to numerous open spaces, recreational opportunities, and cultural institutions, including two sites managed by the National Park Service. The area is easy to reach no matter where you’re coming from, and there is plenty to enjoy for an entire weekend.