Halloween Hikes—30 years and counting…

Post by Jen “Blanding’s Turtle” Berlinghof


This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Lake County Forest Preserves’ popular Halloween Hikes at Ryerson Conservation Area. This event is a witch’s potion of sorts: a dash of theater, a drop of night hike, a splash of environmental education, and a heap of old-fashioned family fun.

Over the years, thousands of people have followed a trail lit by luminaries, watched nature-themed skits, and capped off a delightful evening with apple cider and a doughnut next to a cozy fire in the historic Albright Cabin.


For many of those folks, the Halloween Hikes have become a family tradition. Many visitors came to the hikes as children years ago, and now they bring their children to experience the magic. Yet, the tradition doesn’t end with the visitors. This event has become an important, long-standing tradition for Forest Preserve staff, volunteers, and their own families, as well.

Preparations begin well in advance with brainstorming for nature skits that will be performed in the woods. Each year, original scripts are created, costumes and sets are designed, and lighting and special effects are coordinated.

These short vignettes aim to teach the audiences about local nature and forest preserve projects in a fun and interactive way. Performers are by no means professional actors. Forest Preserve staff—from Department Directors to interns—and volunteers perform the skits, along with their extended families who often get wrangled into helping (but, we never have to beg very hard).





A few nights before the event, everyone involved gathers at Ryerson Conservation Area to share a pot-luck meal and carve intricate jack-o-lanterns that will dazzle visitors during the Halloween Hikes. Pumpkins fill the Ryerson Welcome Center where groups gather before their hike. Themed pumpkins line the woodland trail that stretches between the skits. The cabin, trails, and roads all glow with the light of pumpkins on this enchanting evening.





As the sun sets on the Friday night of the hikes, hundreds of luminaries are lit along the trail, and the actors take their forest stage. None of this would be possible without a behind-the-scenes team setting out the candles, fixing the lanterns just right, transporting the props, and providing those last-minute costume fixes and tarps (if we have a rainy night).



And then, it’s show time! After visiting with our live education animals for a bit and experiencing a Halloween-themed “touch” table, the first giddy group (many in costume, too) gathers with a trail guide, and off they go.

Each night, an enthusiastic horde of volunteers guides 15–20 groups along the trail to experience the magic of the woods at night, pointing out sights and sounds as everyone’s eyes adjust to the darkness. Lucky groups hear the hoot of a great horned owl or spot the shadow of a flying squirrel gliding between the trees as they hike along, skit-to-skit, crunching on the freshly fallen leaves under their boots.



After traversing the trail, participants end their experience in a log cabin, noshing on local doughnuts and sipping cider by a fire. After the public has left, staff performs their skits one last time for each other, while a volunteer records it all for posterity, and YouTube, of course.

All told:

2 two nights

700 participants

30+ performances

750 doughnuts

and 28 gallons of cider later…

…staff, volunteers, and their families head to the cabin to warm up and reminisce about the experience. While the numbers of families that have participated over the years is impressive, the number of years some staff and volunteers have been involved is just as amazing and speaks to how truly special this event is.

Looking through the vast archive of photos throughout the years of Halloween Hikes, you can literally watch this Forest Preserve “family” grow (and grow up) over these last three decades—ready to carry on this Lake County Forest Preserve tradition for many years to come.


Des Plaines River Trail Challenge

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The trail is complete! The final section of the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway was completed in late 2015. This fulfills a vision 54 years in the making—an unbroken greenway along the Des Plaines River. The contiguous 31.4-mile trail spans the entire length of Lake County, Illinois. To celebrate this amazing gem, we at the Lake County Forest Preserves are challenging you to travel the entire length as part of our Des Plaines River Trail Challenge. Last year, Allison and I hiked the entire trail and chronicled it here on the blog. This month, we’re taking you on the water with us to highlight the lifeblood of this vision—the river itself.


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Hordes of hummingbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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For me, most days on the job consist of time in my “office” outdoors—a woodland, prairie or wetland in the Lake County Forest Preserves—with my “clients”—students, teachers, and families interested in learning more about local nature. On those rare days spent plunking away at a computer indoors, the photo above is my view. Recently, this view is bustling with activity, as hordes of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzz around the feeders, bulking up for a long flight south.

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Dwindling lights

Post by Jen Berlinghof

At a recent Firefly Campfire at Ryerson Conservation Area, kids and adults alike were flitting around, as fast as the fireflies they were trying to catch. For many of the children, this was their first time experiencing the age-old summer tradition of capturing living light. While the woods that night sparkled like the fourth of July, many of the adults lamented that their yards didn’t have many fireflies—certainly not like the numbers they remembered chasing as children. Turns out they may be on to something.

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Widespread anecdotal evidence of these dwindling evening displays have prompted scientists to take a look at possible reasons. One big culprit to the demise of these bioluminescent beetles seems to be the one thing that makes them so special: light. Continue reading

Saving the Blanding’s Turtle

Post by Allison Frederick

It was [dare we say] a perfect June day. Mostly sunny. Air temperature hovering around 75 degrees with a gentle breeze blowing off Lake Michigan, a mere 600 meters from where we stood. Sandhill cranes were bugling nearby in the marsh. Yellow warblers sang from the reeds, as we approached with 99 juvenile Blanding’s turtles. The young turtles were still quite small at 8 centimeters long and a mere 80 grams, but ready nonetheless for release into their natural habitat.

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Habitat Heroes

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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A group of third-graders from May Whitney Elementary School in Lake Zurich has come to the rescue at Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve. Instead of learning their science standards solely in the classroom, Mrs. Hosteland’s class is addressing an authentic environmental issue through investigation, research and collaborative reports that offer solutions to address the issue of invasive species. These hardworking 8- and 9-year-olds then presented their reports to the District 95 School Board and Lake County Forest Preserve officials. Continue reading

Virtual wildflower walk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

April is the month when every day seems to bring a new bird flying into the woodland, a new amphibian calling from the pond, a new mammal poking along the river, a new insect hatching in the prairie, and, most of all, a new plant unfurling from the forest floor.

April through the end of May provides ideal conditions to enjoy spring wildflowers. These plants are also called “ephemerals,” which means “lasting for a very short time.” Spring ephemerals take advantage of abundant light in the woodland before leaves emerge in the canopy above. Ephemerals complete their entire life cycle before shade covers the forest floor.

If you haven’t visited your favorite Lake County Forest Preserve lately, come along with me on this virtual wildflower walk to see what’s blooming now and what’s to come.


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