Have You Discovered the Palos Forest Preserves?

Whether it’s hiking or biking, camping, kayaking, picnicing, or more, the Palos Forest Preserves have something for everyone and are one of our region’s best recreational amenities. The expansive network of lakes, trails, and scenic vistas can be enjoyed at any pace and make the Palos Forest Preserves an excellent place to visit.

At 15,000 acres, the Palos Preserves in southwest Cook County are the largest concentration of preserved land in the Forest Preserves. Thanks to more than three decades of habitat restoration, they also hold some of the highest-quality natural areas in Cook County. These trails join many popular sites, such as the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Pulaski Woods, Saganashkee Slough, and Maple Lake.

We’ve highlighted some of the best activities in the Forest Preserves below, and you can check out all the places to visit and things to try using the Openlands Get Outside Map.

If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find in the Forest Preserves! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.

Have You Discovered Starved Rock State Park?

Starved Rock State Park is a trek from downtown Chicago, but one that’s worth making. Recently voted as the top tourist attraction in Illinois, Starved Rock is a pleasure to visit year-round, with scenic waterfalls in the warmer months and stunning icefalls in the winter. The park boasts an extensive 13-mile trail system, it’s home to hundreds of old oak trees, and it is one of the best places in the Midwest to see the bald eagle population which overwinters along the Illinois River.

Starved Rock takes its name from a Native American legend: in the 1760s, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa Tribe was killed by an Illiniwek while attending an inter-tribal council in southern Illinois. In a series of battles following the event, a band of Illiniwek sought refuge from a band of Potawatomi warriors (themselves allies of the Ottawa) atop a 125-foot sandstone butte overlooking the Illinois River. The Ottawa and Potawatomi laid seige to the rock, starving the Illiniwek above.

Stories like these are reminders that the lands protected today in our country are lands taken from the indigenous nations that lived here before us. We recognize that indigenous peoples across North America have looked to correct centuries of historical injustices by permanently protecting land through conservation – and that work extends to our home in the Midwest. Today we work to restore the land to health, to respect the land and the water, and to share these places with all people.

Enjoy your trip to Starved Rock, take some time to learn about the history of these lands, and respect that land wherever you go.

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 Park?

Just over an hour from the Chicago Loop lies Indiana Dunes National Park (IDNP). IDNP 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. In February 2019, Indiana Dunes was officially “upgraded” to a National Park. 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 Park 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.

Butterflies and Birds Flock to Deer Grove East

Just 35 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, birds and butterflies that once called our region home are making a triumphant return to a special place. They are attracted to this special place because of environmental restoration, the process of returning an area to its natural state in order to restore the health and vitality of the land and water. And now, through the work of Openlands and our partners, you can explore the rare and stunning bird and butterfly species that call this place home.

This extraordinary place, Deer Grove East Forest Preserve in Palatine, IL, is one of the five natural area and wetland restorations Openlands is working on as a part of the O’Hare Modernization Mitigation Account (OMMA) initiative. OMMA seeks to offset the impact on wetlands caused by the expansion of O’Hare International Airport. This project is part of a series of restorations across the Des Plaines River Watershed in conjunction with the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Chicago Department of Aviation, and other partners.

25 Bird Species Documented at Deer Grove East

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A Female Wilson’s Phalarope. The species has been documented at Deer Grove East.

As part of its Army Corps requirements, Openlands monitored and documented the plant species in the restored and enhanced plant communities at Deer Grove East. We also measured the water levels in the upper portion of the site’s soils during growing season to record how the wetlands recovered. Additionally, from 2010-2015, our project consultant Stantec Consulting Services Inc., and the Deer Grove Natural Area Volunteers monitored bird species nesting at the Preserve, along with those passing through during spring and fall migration. We knew that restoration would attract beautiful and rare animals and were delighted by the results. This monitoring confirmed that 25 birds listed under the Species of Greatest Conservation Need (as classified in the Illinois Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Plan and Strategy) either nested at or stopped by Deer Grove East during their migrations. Two bird species on the Illinois endangered list, the American Bittern and Wilson’s Phalarope, have been spotted using Deer Grove’s restored wetlands during the spring migratory season. See the list of 25 bird species recorded at Deer Grove East below.

36 Butterfly Species Recorded at Deer Grove East

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An Eastern Tailed Blue on Butterfly Weed. Both are found at Deer Grove East.

Because of the outstanding commitment of the Deer Grove Natural Area Volunteers, and our important partnerships with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Forest Preserves of Cook County, we have been able to document the enchanting butterflies that can now be found at the site. To date, 36 species of butterflies have been documented at Deer Grove East including Monarchs, Swallowtails, Skippers and more. These encouraging findings are the result of our planting plan for the Preserve. Five milkweed species recommended for our region by the Monarch Joint Venture (Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Whorled Milkweed, and Poke Milkweed) and many nectar plants were all included with the intent of providing habitat for unique butterfly species. See the list of 36 butterfly species recorded at Deer Grove East below.

Partnership

Deer Grove East reflects success as a restoration model through the critical the support of our amazing partners like the Deer Grove Natural Area Volunteers, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and the Forest Preserves of Cook County. With partnership, Openlands better connects people to the outdoors through volunteerism, and provides a richer experience for visitors to the site’s trails, picnic groves, and new camping facilities at Camp Reinberg. Learn more about Deer Grove East.

Bird species recorded at Deer Grove East, 2010-2015

American Woodcock
Bobolink
Brown Creeper
Brown Thrasher
Chimney Swift
Common Nighthawk
Dickcissel
Field Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Great Egret
Henslow’s Sparrow
Hooded Merganser
Marsh Wren
Northern Flicker
Ovenbird
Pied-billed Grebe
Red-headed Woodpecker
Rusty Black Bird
Sandhill Crane
Savannah Sparrow
Sedge Wren
Willow Flycatcher
Wilson’s Snipe
Wood Thrush
Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Total Species: 25

Butterfly species recorded at Deer Grove East from 2001-2015 provided by the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Swallowtails
Black Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Whites and Sulphurs
Cabbage White
Cloudless Sulphur
Common/Orange Sulphur

Hairstreaks/Coppers/Blues
Acadian Hairstreak
Coral Hairstreak
Eastern Tailed Blue
Spring/Summer Azure

Brush-Footed Butterflies
Ladies and Allies

American Painted Lady
Buckeye
Mourning Cloak
Painted Lady
Pearl Crescent
Red Admiral

Angel Wings
Eastern Comma
Gray Comma
Question Mark

Admirals
Red-Spotted Purple
Viceroy 

Checkerspots
Silvery Checkerspot

Fritillaries
Great Spangled Fritillary

Monarchs

Satyrs
Common Wood Nymph
Eyed Brown
Little Wood Satyr
Northern Pearly Eye

Spread-winged Skippers
Common Sootywing
Northern Cloudywing
Silver Spotted Skipper

Folded-winged Skippers
European Skipper
Fiery Skipper
Least Skipper
Little Glassywing
Peck’s Skipper
Tawny Edge

Total Species: 36

Have You Discovered Deer Grove Forest Preserve?

Whether you’re looking for a nice place to go for a walk, a place to spend the day outside with your entire family, or wanting to step back in time and feel what it’s like to wander the prairies, you can find it at the beautiful Deer Grove Forest Preserve.

Located in suburban Palatine and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Deer Grove Forest Preserve is split into to units, East and West. Deer Grove West is a heavily wooded area and supports over 300 unique species of native woodland plants along with a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Deer Grove East, pictured above, is home to an open prairie along with shaded savannas. Together they are a jaw-dropping display of what Illinois’ landscapes resembled prior to European settlement, and at 1,800 acres, you’ll have no trouble finding a spot to enjoy the peace and quiet without the busy bustling of the city.

A paved mixed-use trail wraps around Deer Grove East and some dirt trails meander through the wooded areas. Deer Grove West is home to many more dirt trails winding through the woodlands. Take the time to explore them all, it’s worth it, we promise. You can cross between the two on Quentin Rd, which bisects the preserve, but know that it can be a busy street.

Deer Grove is great for a day outside: the trails are relatively flat and there’s enough variety in the landscapes that you can easily spend a day there hiking. Picnic areas and restrooms are availabe on-site, and bring plenty of water.

#DiscoverYourPlace Photo Map

We at Openlands love that so many of you are getting outside to #DiscoverYourPlace. The social media campaign puts a spotlight on special outdoor and natural areas in northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana.

Many of you have gotten out to explore natural areas you didn’t know existed, while others are highlighting species and habitat that make our region special! These include many of the places Openlands helps to protect, restore, and create for people to connect to. So far, there have been over 300 photos of unique landscapes, vast open space, and special green areas in the Chicago region!

As the weather warms, we’d love to know, “Where are you enjoying the outdoors and discovering new and restored natural areas nearby?” Get involved by tagging your photos of parks, gardens, trails, preserves, native species, restored landscapes and more with #DiscoverYourPlace! Share your photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Check out this interactive map of some of our favorite #DiscoverYourPlace photos on Instagram so far! Do you see a place you haven’t heard of? How many of these places have you been to? Or maybe you’d like to highlight one of your favorite natural areas not represented below! Join us!

Click here for the interacative #DiscoverYourPlace map!

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