Forest Preserves of Cook County Are Your Home for Health

Take the kids to the Forest Preserves of Cook County and reap the health benefits of green space, nature, fresh air and room to roam. You’ll be glad you did.

We know that taking a walk is a healthy thing to do. But what if we learned that this walk is even healthier when it happens in a green space? Researchers at Northwestern University ran a study in the Forest Preserves of Cook County and found that walking along forested paths improves mood and builds a sense of connection to nature. Walks in the forest may also reduce blood glucose levels, compared to similar walks on suburban streets, according to the research.

This is all great news and even more reason to visit your local preserves, no matter your ability or expectations, says program specialist Jessica Becker with the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

“We have about 70,000 acres of green space and most people in Cook County live within a 20-minute drive to one of our forest preserves,” Becker says. Some of the preserves are located within the city of Chicago and are accessible by public transportation, too. The forest preserves are open from sunrise to sunset every day and are free to visit.

After a visit or two to several Forest Preserves of Cook County locations, you’ll probably find a favorite that you want to come back to again and again.

“One of my favorites is Eggers Grove, which is on the southeast side of Chicago in the industrial area of the Calumet Region,” Becker says, adding that this green space — filled with wildflowers in the spring and home to marsh grasses and water-loving birds — is a great getaway when she wants to recharge. It’s good for her physical health and her mental health, she says. “It’s like this little oasis of nature that I love to use to get away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding industries.”

Here, Becker shares some great suggestions for your family to enjoy healthy activities within the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Walking, or maybe hiking

“The Forest Preserves of Cook County have about 350 miles of paved and unpaved trails, and really, there is a trail for everybody,” Becker says. Dan Ryan Woods and Kickapoo Woods offer one-mile looped trails that are perfectly suited for a leisurely stroll, for example.

If you’re more interested in a day hike with longer mileage, consider the Poplar Creek Trail System that winds its way for nearly 21 miles through Hoffman Estates and Streamwood. The Des Plaines Trail System originates in Chicago and spreads more than 28 miles along the Des Plaines River through a dozen forest preserves across the western suburbs as far as Schiller Park and Wheeling.

More physical activities to try

In addition to cycling or mountain biking, families can run the fitness stairs at Swallow Cliff Woods and Dan Ryan Woods. “This is literally running up and down the stairs and people love it. It can be so exhilarating,” Becker says.

Some forest preserves incorporate lakes and rivers, perfect for canoeing or kayaking. The Ned Brown Preserve, also known as Busse Woods, offers one of the largest fishing and boating waters in Cook County, and there’s even boat rental.

Of course, little ones don’t necessarily need a structured plan. They just need space to let loose and run around, and the Forest Preserves of Cook County do not disappoint, says Becker.

“Families with kids love the open green spaces that go on and on and kids love to run around and be able to use their outside voices,” she says. “Parents love it, too, because it’s a great place for their children to use the energy they naturally have as kids.”

Good for you, good for the planet

One of the hidden benefits of the Forest Preserves of Cook County is the positive impact on the environment. “There is plenty of diversity across the spaces and we are working to restore them to health,” Becker explains. “The idea behind this restoration is this land can help filter water and the air and overall make the environment more healthy.”

The great news? The Forest Preserves have the capacity to absorb 1.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — the output of about 330,000 cars — per year.

Even if you don’t take advantage of the direct health-promoting benefits of the preserves, the water you drink and the air you breathe are cleaner simply because they exist.

The health-promoting properties of nature

Whether you are seeking the space to give your children room to run or you just want to take in the beauty of nature, the Forest Preserves of Cook County can be your healthy home. And the great thing about spending time in nature is that it’s a health-promoting experience, even if you aren’t pushing yourself to your physical limits.

“Health means different things to different people. Some like to run the stairs but I really enjoy the mental wellness I find in the Forest Preserves,” Becker says. “I know I can walk into the woods or into the prairie and it will be quiet. I can hear the wind in the trees and the birds. There’s no yelling, no truck honking and no background city noise that we often don’t even notice until it’s not there.”

We all need a mental getaway from time to time, and nature can really help. “It really improves your mood when you can take a deep breath of fresh air and relax and just be part of that natural system — where you don’t have to do anything but just be there,” Becker says.

How to dig in

Not sure how to get started? Visit one of six nature centers and talk with staff about all the ways you can enjoy the Forest Preserves. “If you don’t know what to do or where to go, our nature centers are good gateways,” Becker says. “Also be sure to check out events and programs because there’s something going on almost every day in the Forest Preserves. Most programs are free or very low cost.”

Learn more about the Forest Preserves of Cook County at fpdcc.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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