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.


It was a pristine day with that misty feeling of early fall. Along for the adventure was Paul, an avid canoeist and Forest Preserve volunteer. We hauled our vessels carefully over crayfish burrows that lined the banks and into the river at the Route 60 Canoe Launch. We paddled north and glided under a bridge, which hides the intricate architecture of cliff swallow nests underneath from the unknowing drivers passing overhead.


Beyond the bridge, the river’s banks were decorated in the red confetti of cardinal flowers. These desirable native wildflowers prefer sunny spots where their roots stay a little wet. With bright red color and a late summer blooming period, cardinal flowers provide nectar that ruby-throated hummingbirds need to fuel their migratory flights south at this time of the year.


As if on cue, the next hue of the rainbow was seen on the opposite bank, signaling that autumn is already underway. The vivid tangerine of this sulphur shelf fungus was easy to spot against the rich brown of the fallen oak trees that it is working hard to decompose.


Every time we dipped our paddles into the delicate duckweed floating on the water’s surface, dozens of American rubyspot damselflies fluttered up to land on the ends of spindly snags. Female damselflies submerged themselves entirely in water to lay eggs, descending down a stem & remaining underwater for minutes on end.


Painted turtles sat silently on logs along the entire route north toward our turnabout at Oak Spring Road Canoe Launch. The sounds of snowy tree crickets and dogday cicadas seemed to make the still air pulse. The steady hum of these end-of-summer insects was broken by the “sploosh” of turtles when they had soaked up enough of the sun’s heat and dove into the cool water. Or, perhaps, we had unknowingly paddled too close…


Paddling this stretch of river we were caught up in a game of chase with a variety of birds—from small, but noisy, belted kingfishers and green herons to quiet, but hulking, egrets and great blue herons. An immature double-crested cormorant playfully dived near our boats both times that we passed it. While that experience was surprising, perhaps the most unexpected sighting was a great horned owl that quickly sneaked and sulked across the river followed in close pursuit by a mob of crows.

As we paddled south to end our adventure, we heard the faint, deep hoot of that owl and the raucous caws of the crows echoing along the Des Plaines River corridor. To enjoy these sights and sounds of the river, you can launch a canoe or kayak at one of the many Forest Preserve launches.

Help celebrate this amazing gem by using it—all of it. Bike it. Boat it. Walk it or run it. Bring along family, friends, and your dogs, too. Or, you can make a donation to help us keep it clean and safe. This fall, come join us for the Des Plaines River Trail Challenge!


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