Did you know that Cook County is host to the most biodiverse area in the entire state of Illinois? Most Chicagoland families are no more than about 20 minutes from the natural wonders — and astounding variety of biodiversity and ecosystems — offered within the one of the largest forest preserves systems in the entire country. This is all courtesy, of course, to 70,000 acres of protected lands included in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
Fun fact: Those 70,000 acres of rare and protected ecosystems make up an astounding 11% of Cook County.
Completely unique ecosystems
“What is really awesome is that we have everything from savannas to prairies to wetlands, as well as accessible trails and gardens,” says Maritza Rocha, Director at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center located within the Palos Preserves in Willow Springs. “Each nature center even has different geography!”
According to Rocha, the Palos preserves area alone encompasses over 15 acres of protected natural wonders, ready for you and your entire family to enjoy, explore and experience — and it’s all practically in your own backyard!
From low and sandy ancient lake plains to rolling and wooded highlands to flowing creeks and river valleys to the savannahs, prairies and wetlands Rocha highlights, each unique ecosystem showcases its own distinct community of plants and wildlife.
Beauty in diversity
Animal and plant wildlife include red-headed woodpeckers, blue-spotted salamanders, and plants, fungi, bacteria, even microscopic lifeforms that depend on the portions of the Forest Preserves system considered to be natural remnant communities. These are places where modern disturbances such as farming, roads, logging and grazing have had minimal impact.
Remnant communities provide the additional benefit of assisting in successfully restoring more degraded areas, as well as preserving the incredibly rich natural heritage at the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
Start with nature
A nature center, that is.
“Once you explore the first time, you’ll be able to see what excites you, and the nature centers are a great starting point for families and guests from toddlers to seniors of all ages and abilities,” says Rocha. (The preserves have six nature centers, but please note the Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington Hills is closed through spring 2023.)
There’s so much variety to experience thanks to the incredible array of biodiversity in plant life, wildlife and ecosystems that visitors may do well to introduce themselves and their children to all the preserves have to offer by starting at one of the six nature centers.
“Here at Little Red Schoolhouse — and other nature centers and zones — we have something for everyone. Some of our trails are only one-eighth of a mile, making them easy to explore with toddlers,” she explains, adding that one trail features different maze-like paths to build a sense of adventure for little ones. Rocha also says that the variety in biodiversity and ecosystems extends to the trails themselves!
“We have accessible trails, trails for more intermediate hikers, and locations where visitors can bike in the summer or snowshoe in the winter,” Rocha says.
Whether you and your family are up for strolling, more advanced hiking or maybe even just enjoying the exhibits and many programs at the nature centers themselves, Rocha says you can’t go wrong.
Come with an open mind, she says, and see where the experience leads you and your kids. Your next visit might include birdwatching, kayaking, fishing or even camping!
“Drop by and discover what your inner nature is,” Rocha says with a laugh. “It is really important for parents and families to come on out and check out this green jewel that we have here in Cook County. For parents, it is so important to be out with your kids, exploring nature, enjoying playful and relaxing activities together.”
In fact, Rocha says that connecting with her youngest visitors is one of the reasons she loves her job so much. By meeting them at their level when introducing them to toadlings or spittle bugs out on an adventure walk, Rocha relishes the light of excitement she counts herself lucky enough to witness in their eyes.
“I always point out the things I see to create a connection with nature,” Rocha says. “And I believe everyone has a connection to be made — or maybe even a connection to rekindle — at the Forest Preserves of Cook County.”
Learn more about the Forest Preserves of Cook County at fpdcc.com.