Looking around Chicago, with its skyscrapers and traffic, it’s hard to believe the entire area was once blissfully tropical, with coral reefs covered by a shallow sea, its waters teeming with life.
For a chance to look back in time, visit Camp Sagawau, an outdoor education center in southwest Cook County. The past comes to life through interactive, guided tours of an ancient coral reef—and if you’re lucky, you can even bring home fossils.
When my 6-year-old son and I entered the site for a tour, we felt like we were traveling back in time: the imposing barbed wire fence (fossil hunting trespassers are fined $10,000 if they’re caught with unauthorized loot), rock formations and lush flora almost made us believe we were entering Jurassic Park and at any moment a hungry T-Rex might storm our way.
Our naturalist guide stopped our tour every so often to throw in an interactive lesson: at one point, after viewing an illustrated timeline of life on Earth, the 12 children in our group were asked to run around and pretend to be cephaloids and crinoids. Hands and feet became tentacles and antennae.
After a half-hour hike through the forest, we came to a pond carved inside an extensive rock formation. We set off on our own to search for signs of life as it was long ago. The naturalists were on hand to answer any questions and help identify our fossilized finds.
No tools are necessary for this dig: it’s easy to sort through the crumbling rocks at the edge of the pond with your hands. We managed to find several tiny fossils of crinoid stems and cephalopods. We were also able to view, carved into the ancient stone, the imprint of a cephaloid’s (the ancestor of today’s squid) cone-shaped head.
Camp Sagawau is located at 12545 W. 111th St., Lemont. Fossil hunts are free and the next one is 9 a.m. Oct. 14. Canyon hikes are at noon on Saturdays and Sundays during October, with special fall color hikes at 9 a.m. Oct. 13 and 21. At 9 a.m. on Oct. 28, take a Nature Prepares for Winter trek. To reserve your spot, or for more information, call Camp Sagawau at