Create Your Own Adventure in the Forest Preserves of Cook County

Throughout Chicagoland are thousands of acres of adventures, just waiting for your family to discover. We share some of the best places to start in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Chicagoland parents who are looking to add a little adventure to family life need look no further than the Forest Preserves of Cook County — where plenty of close-to-home wildlife and nature adventures are waiting to be discovered.

“Within the Forest Preserves of Cook County, there are thousands of acres to explore and hundreds of events year-round. There’s literally something to do in every season,” says Arthur Mathews, operations manager in the Department of Conservation and Experiential Programming at the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

“Unlike a theme park, you don’t have to pay to get in because the preserves belong to the taxpayers of Cook County and are open to everyone,” Mathews says. And that means everyone.

What excites your kids about nature? Use that natural enthusiasm as your own entry point to the preserves, Mathews suggests. If you’re not sure where to start or feel overwhelmed by the prospect of finding a way to connect with nature, start with a visit to one of the six nature centers, which are located in each geographic zone of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

“The nature centers are open seven days a week and are free to visit,” Mathews says. “Every nature center has a little bit of everything offered in the Forest Preserves, and each has a unique trail system.” Naturalists are on hand to answer questions and help you take that first step in exploring the preserves. “They can explain the surrounding habitats and how we connect with those habitats and nature. They offer real educational experiences,” he says.

The Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, for instance, has live native animal displays and butterfly and interpretive gardens, plus four immersive walking trails and ongoing programming where families can learn about bugs, birds and how to capture personal wellness in the woods. (Pro tip for parents: each nature center also has a bathroom.)

What other adventures await your family at the Forest Preserves of Cook County? Read on for some ways to get started on your own adventure.

Experience a program

Rich and varied programming can help families discover all there is to do at the preserves and even help you explore something new. “This can include nature-themed arts and crafts, mental and physical wellness programs, animal encounters, paddling, camping and hiking programs, birding, you name it,” Mathews says. “Anything you’d like to learn about in the forest preserves, we have a program surrounding that interest.”

Maybe you’ve always wanted to introduce yourself and your kids to the joys of canoeing or kayaking. “There are rivers, lakes and ponds within the Forest Preserves available to you for paddling or boating, whether you are in a fishing boat, a canoe or a kayak,” Mathews explains, adding that paddling is a great way to enjoy nature from a different vantage point than you would if you were on foot.

“It’s great to get a chance to spot the many birds who live on and near the water, like cranes and herons,” he says. “If you are lucky, you will see them nesting. It’s such a great way to experience nature.”

More than two dozen boat and canoe launches and four rental locations — Busse Lake Boating Center near Elk Grove Village, Maple Lake Boating Center near Willow Springs, Tampier Lake Boating Center near Orland Park and Tower Road at Skokie Lagoons near Winnetka — make it easy to get into the water.

Never paddled before? It’s about maintaining your center of balance, Mathews says. “The best thing to do is attend a kayaking or canoeing event if you feel nervous. It’s a really safe way to try it out with us. We are here to guide and direct and help people,” he says, encouraging a visit to the Forest Preserves of Cook County website to learn more.

Members of youth and community organizations can even get trained to lead their own groups on paddling adventures. “Once they have completed the training course, they can come back and borrow all the equipment needed, or arrange to have us lead your group through a paddle down one of our rivers,” Mathews says.

Historical and research adventures

The Forest Preserves of Cook County is a great place to learn more about history that predates modern times and, according to its website, “the entire history of human life in Cook County is found in the archaeological sites preserved within the Forest Preserves.”

Native populations have been living in Chicagoland for 12,000 years and have left behind clues to how they lived and worked. That’s why archaeologists from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey are working with the Forest Preserves to protect artifacts and cultural treasures preserved there.

This is a great opportunity to have discussions with your kids about the value of studying history and following laws designed to protect archaeological and paleontological resources.

“Native people have occupied these lands long before the Forest Preserves came along and they still live in Cook County today,” Mathews says.

Coyotes also make their homes in the Forest Preserves of Cook County and that’s why it’s a great spot for biologists to do research. Currently underway is the Urban Coyote Research Program, which monitors coyotes to understand how they live and interact with humans and wildlife in urban areas. Bats, deer and raccoons in the Forest Preserves have all been studied by various researchers.

Nature bathing, camping and so much more

Within the Forest Preserves of Cook County are five campgrounds where families can have fun, close-to-home camping adventures. If you have never been camping before but would like to give it a try, this is a great way to start, Mathews says.

“Our campgrounds accommodate every taste. There are tent pads where you can set up a tent and group sites for church groups and scouts. Sometimes there is comfort in camping in a group,” Mathews says. Fees for camping are competitive and affordable, he adds.

Cabins make camping even easier, and Camp Sullivan in Oak Forest even has bunkhouses that sleep larger groups of 16 or 36 campers. “These include bathrooms, kitchens and dining areas and it’s a great way to enjoy camping for everyone,” Mathews says. “You can rough it, or go glamping, as they call it.”

Nature bathing is yet another great way to enjoy the Forest Preserves. Contrary to its name, nature bathing has nothing to do with water or bubbles, but it’s a way of intentionally engaging all of your senses when you are surrounded by nature.

“You can see the sights, listen to the sounds of nature, the birds and the frogs and even the breeze rustling through the trees. You can smell the flowers and the berries growing. You can have the sensory experience of touch — not of poison ivy! — but of tree bark. Every different tree has so many textures and layers,” Mathews says.

It’s through nature bathing that we can more fully experience all that nature and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have to offer and the result, says Mathews, is a beautiful feeling of physical and mental wellness and a calm mind.

“It’s a great way to slow your mind down and you will notice a difference right away. Your stress levels start to lower the moment you step foot onto one of our trails. Smell the smells of nature and take it all in and your stress levels decrease immediately,” he says.

How to get started

With nearly 70,000 acres of land, including 350 miles of paved and unpaved trails, the Forest Preserves of Cook County has something for everyone — but getting started can be overwhelming. Mathews suggests starting close to home and discovering the preserve in your own community.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County are divided into five zones: north, northwest, central, south and southwest, and each has a map that you can download or get from your nearest nature center. Or you can check out the interactive, mobile-friendly web map at

“Grab one and start with that zone,” Mathews encourages. “Visit the nature center, find a campground or take a picnic to one of the hundreds of picnic groves. Experience the unique habitats and begin to build your own family’s adventures.”

Learn more about the Forest Preserves of Cook County at


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