Des Plaines River Trail—Mile by Mile

IMG_4343Over the next few months, Allison and I will be highlighting one of the jewels of the Lake County Forest Preserves: the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway. We invite you to come along with us on this 31-mile journey, as we trek over miles and through seasons, exploring the natural niches and history around every bend in the river. We plan to hike the entire length of the trail in anticipation of its long-awaited completion. Preservation of this greenway has been a key priority since our agency’s founding in 1958.

After 54 years in the making, construction has begun on the final section of this regional trail and is expected to conclude this fall. The Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway spans nearly the entire length of Lake County, Illinois for 31 miles as it winds through 12 forest preserves. It is a great trail for hiking, bicycling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and snowmobiling (within a designated section).

IMG_4339 This trail and greenway protects land along more than 85 percent of the river in Lake County, providing wildlife habitat, natural flood protection and outdoor recreation opportunities. As you travel through this river valley, look for changes in the landscape. In northern Lake County, the valley is wide and the river meanders. Open areas such as prairies and savannas are common. In southern Lake County, the valley is narrow and the river runs a straighter course through beautiful woodlands.

IMG_4352 We began our adventure at the trail’s northern terminus near the Wisconsin state line and headed south. Look for the “Van Patten Woods Horse Trailer Parking” sign on Russell Road, east of Route 41 in Wadsworth, Illinois. Even we—seasoned employees—had a little trouble finding our way to the trailhead, which is located at the secondary entrance to Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve.

Van Patten Woods was the first property that the Lake County Forest Preserves purchased with the intent of protecting this greenway. In the late 1970s, the vision for a trail along the greenway began to crystallize. Over the next three decades the Des Plaines River Trail grew, section by section. This year, join us as we explore and celebrate the trail and greenway, mile by mile.

The beginning of the trail is wide and open, full of air and light, and the sun glints off the iridescent backs of tree swallows, as they swoop across the fields nabbing insects.

IMG_4472 In the fork of a tree we discovered a gray squirrel that looked to be barely breathing. We stopped to speculate how it got there. Did it crawl up, seeking refuge after being injured and dropped by a marauding hawk?

IMG_4362Perhaps it will be a good find for the scavenging turkey vultures we saw hanging out in a snag as we approached the next section of the trail. This segment took us past Sterling Lake at Van Patten Woods and on through a series of wetlands.

IMG_4441 The wetlands that surround the meandering Des Plaines River in northern Lake County are host to a variety of other critters, such as this green heron hidden among the swishing willow branches. Can you find him?

IMG_4428-crop Perhaps he had just finished this crayfish snack that we found along the edge of the trail next to its home (known as a “turret”).

IMG_4447Right before we crossed Route 173, we encountered a picture-perfect study in false vs.”true” Solomon’s seal. Hover over each picture below to find out how to tell them apart.



Heading southbound near “Mile 2″ of the trail, we entered Wadsworth Savanna Forest Preserve—characterized by huge, majestic oaks and the sweet lilt and blazing orange flash of Baltimore orioles.


We found evidence of an oriole’s nest from last year, a bit battered by wind and time, on the ground along the trail’s edge. This woven tapestry of grasses, grapevine bark and even horsehair typically hangs from a tree branch like a cozy sock. We left it where we found it for this year’s female oriole, the sole architect, who often recycles bits from old nests when creating the new ones.


We hike on, the river meandering in and out of sight, spread out wide like a wetland. As we neared our end point for the day at Sedge Meadow Forest Preserve, a low, wet field of native wildflowers greeted us. The vibrant violet hues of spiderwort and pale pink shooting stars dotted the rolling landscape like confetti.


We stopped and watched as a fat queen bumblebee, seemingly weighed down by overfilled pollen baskets, lumbered from shooting star to shooting star. Though this wildflower offers no nectar reward for the bee’s effort, the flower does provide pollen. The bee vibrated its thorax rapidly to shake the dusty pollen loose, which also benefits the flower by what is called “buzz pollination.”


And, like this hike, the spiderwort’s purple flowers only last a single day. Yet, like this trail there is more to come, as each plant has multiple buds ready to pop and will continue to bloom prolifically throughout the summer. Stay tuned for the next hike and the next bloom.


Notes from our hike:


April Fools’ bird

Post by Jen Berlinghof

It was a windy, but bright, April 1 this year. I was on a trail at Ryerson Woods with a group of volunteers. Most of our heads were focused downward, inspecting the minutiae of a bloodroot bloom. Then, someone shouted, “EAGLES!” I truly thought the next thing shouted would be “APRIL FOOLS’!” but when we snapped our heads skyward, we saw two ivory-headed eagles swooping back and forth above the trees. No joke!

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Slippery spring saga

Post by Jen Berlinghof

It was late March, fourteen years ago, when I took my first hike at Ryerson Woods. The air felt heavy with thawing snow. The sun warmed my back for the first time in many months. Standing at the edge of a small, glistening pool of water in this oak flatwood forest, I saw my first blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). About the length of a crayon, this inky black amphibian is adorned with tiny, blue confetti-like spots on a dewy body. Blue-spotted salamanders hide in abandoned mammal burrows or under logs most of their life. Each spring, warming temperatures and increased precipitation lure these creatures out of their covert caverns for a slow and steady march to their breeding ponds.

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Stories in the snow

Post by Jen Berlinghof

As the thermometer dipped to -8 degrees Fahrenheit this week, one thing was clear: the snow and cold are entrenched for a while longer. So are the stories of the animals, as told by the tracks etched in the frozen landscapes that sweep across the Lake County Forest Preserves. We may not see the animals themselves. However, each track, pile of scat, bit of hair clinging to a branch, hole in the snow and chewed acorn is an element of the tale from their winter excursions.

How do we decipher these stories? When trying to identify which animal made a particular track, it is important to look not only at the individual track but the overall pattern. Also, scan the surrounding habitat for clues.

Let’s see if you can figure out what happened in each of these nature vignettes:

mouse tracks

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Saving a globally threatened ecosystem

Post by Allison Frederick

The Chicago Wilderness alliance recently honored the Lake County Forest Preserves in Illinois for achieving the Excellence in Ecological Restoration accreditation.

From vast woodlands to rolling prairies, the Chicago Wilderness Excellence in Ecological Restoration program showcases conservation leadership and site-based restoration by recognizing high-quality natural areas and the organizations that manage them.


Natural areas are assessed by a set of rigorous, science-based standards that recognize best practices in natural resource management. Conservation experts from across the region review the assessments to determine if a site meets one of the accreditation levels: Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze.

The Lake County Forest Preserves recently received a Platinum accreditation, the highest level possible, for Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve. This accreditation recognizes the expertise, creativity and drive of our natural resource staff in forming and leading a coalition of federal, state and regional partners to restore this site.

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2014 in review

It’s been a great year. Thanks to all for reading! The stats helper monkeys prepared our 2014 annual report. See link below for details.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Favorite photos from 2014

Post by Allison Frederick

The end of another year is drawing near. To celebrate the biological diversity protected within the Lake County Forest Preserves in northeastern Illinois, I’ve put together a collection of some favorite images from 2014. We have such an amazing support system of photographers who donate their time and images to communicate our cause. Their passion for wildlife and the outdoor spaces our organization preserves is evident in each image they share. I hope you enjoy them half as much as I enjoyed choosing this set! Each photograph was taken right here in Lake County, Illinois.

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The slideshow will run on its own, but you can speed it up by clicking on the arrows. To see more amazing images from the forest preserves, or to share photos of your own adventures, join our group Flickr pool.

Thanks for following our blog. Knowing there are others who enjoy the beauty and complexity of our native landscapes is very satisfying. Have a great holiday season!

The real Thanksgiving turkey

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There is a lot of turkey talk in my house lately—from handprint turkey crafts to gobbling impersonations and heated discussions of who gets the wishbone this year. Come November, most of us think of turkeys as the centerpiece of a delicious feast. You might be surprised to learn that this symbol of our American heritage is not only found on platters but also resides in Lake County, Illinois woodlands; and their gobbling is growing!

eastern wild turkey

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Poison ivy primer

Post by Jen Berlinghof

With Halloween fast approaching, much attention is given to animals that are considered “scary.” Foreboding ravens, ominous bats, super-sized spiders and snakes are everywhere. Thankfully, many people know the benefits of these critters. However, it seems there is one thing found in nature, surprisingly flora not fauna, that remains misunderstood and maligned: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The chemical urushiol in the sap of poison ivy can cause an allergic reaction in many people that results in an itchy rash. However, wildlife is not sensitive to the plant in the same way. In fact, poison ivy is an important native plant in Illinois with a host of benefits for our natural areas—from food and shelter for birds, mammals, and insects to erosion control on shorelines.


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Acorn abodes

Post by Jen B

My family went on a bike ride last weekend at Ray Lake Forest Preserve. All afternoon, rain sputtered on and off as the clouds played tag with the sun. After climbing up a steep hill, the sky darkened again and we sought refuge under a canopy of large oak trees. One of my sons yelped,”Ouch! That raindrop hurt!” We quickly realized it wasn’t a raindrop, but a storm of acorns jiggled loose by the wind, plopping down on us. The trail became littered with acorns, and the kids began grabbing them. Upon inspection, the boys noticed tiny round holes in many of the acorns—evidence that these nuts were homes to acorn weevils (Curculio spp).

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