With its beautifully landscaped parks and sparkling
lakefront, Chicago is well suited to its motto of Urbs in Horto,
"city in a garden." But residents of Chicago's densely populated
neighborhoods might be surprised to learn that it is also a city
near a wilderness: Cook County holds more acres of forest preserve
than any other major metropolitan area in the U.S.
To prove this to yourself and your kids, take a short
drive down I-55 to the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in
Lemont. There, nestled within the sprawling Palos/Sag forest
preserve system, visitors will find one of the most pristine
natural areas in the Chicago region. The preserve surrounding the
center is home to the only exposed canyon in Cook County, as well
as a rare dolomite prairie.
Because the canyon ecosystem is fragile, visitors hoping
to hike Sagawau Canyon must do so with a guide. Though the schedule
varies from month to month, guided canyon hikes are typically
offered once a week. Other naturalist-led programs take visitors
through the woods and prairie around the preserve to learn about
birds, snakes, spiders and other native species. Visitors can also
come any time the center is open to hike the prairie and woods
trails on their own.
In winter, cross-country skis are available to rent
through the Nordic Ski program at Sagawau. Skiers can follow six
kilometers of groomed and tracked trails through a majestic winter
landscape of bare oak trees and dormant grasses.
The Nordic Ski program has been around for many years,
according to Mike Konrath, director of the Sagawau Environmental
Learning Center. "It started very casually in January of 1978 and
got to be more formal around 1980 or '81," he explains. The program
evolved into its present-day format by 1985, with skis rented out
from an 1890s farmhouse within the forest preserve.
Rentals and ski instruction take place at the Sagawau
Environmental Learning Center. The center also includes a theater
where visitors can watch educational videos and a Great Lodge room
where a stone fireplace, comfortable chairs and expansive view of
the woods make an inviting spot to warm up, post-ski.
Ski rentals and instruction are available on a first-come,
first-served basis when there is sufficient snow, and skis are
available in sizes to fit the whole family. "If you can toddle, you
can do it," Konrath says of the ski program.
"It's a good place to try out cross-country skiing," adds
Oak Park dad John Blasi. His three children, age 6 to 11, are fans
of the sport and enjoyed the small hills on the more challenging of
Sagawau's trails last winter.
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