Where: Red Gate Woods, Forest Preserve of Cook County-Palos Trail System
Distance From City-Center Chicago: About 23 miles (Red Gate Woods is located in Lemont, Illinois)
Visited: May 16, 2017
Quick Review: Among the highest-quality natural habitat in the Chicago area. Hiking trails that range from paved flat paths, to boggy, muddy single-person-wide trails, to challenging hilly terrain. Many lakes and sloughs (perfect for a picnic lunch or fishing). Wildlife in abundance. Camping opportunities at Bullfrog Lake. And remnants of the top-secret Manhattan Project above and below ground (bring your Geiger Counter…just kidding). There are only a few places in Chicagoland where can you walk three or four miles in the woods without crossing a road—and this is one of them.
DID YOU EVER HAVE one of those weeks in which you were so busy and overscheduled that you were going stir crazy. That was my week last week. There was Mother’s Day on Sunday, chaperoning my son’s trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden (watch for a story on this great destination in the future), an all-day trip to the hospital with my mom for tests, my son’s baseball game on Thursday, and other family responsibilities. And I started two new demanding freelance editing jobs.
I needed a break amidst all these responsibilities, and I had one free day for play amidst my busy schedule. So, I decided to head to Red Gate Woods, which is located in Lemont, a southwest suburb of Chicago. I’d hiked there frequently as a child, but only one or twice as an adult
I usually have a plan when I hike. I’ll take this branch of the trail, check out this lake or flower-filled meadow, or hike for a specified amount of time. But because I was so busy lately, I just wanted to wander wherever my legs took me. I was a blank slate in the woods (“Tabula Rasa Morkes,” if you will). I took the paths I wanted; lingered to watch hawks, ducks, and deer; wandered off trail into ravines and through dense woods when the mood hit; ignored my watch; got lost once or twice off trail; and had a terrific time in the 89-degree heat. It was a great hike, and here are 7 things you should know about Red Gate Woods:
1. There is wildlife galore. In my 3.5 hours walking hill and dale, I saw hawks, countless frogs (including some noisy bullfrogs), a convention of blue jays, turtles, a water snake, a trail snake (which I nudged into the woods after seeing his squashed friend earlier on my hike…I said to him, “you’ll thank me later”), deer, butterflies and spiders, and many other bird species. And there were also tons of wildflowers blooming. The woods were alive with motion, sound, and color, and it felt good.
2. Speaking of that dead snake, there are a lot of mountain bikers. To misquote Mark Twain: Mountain biking is a good walk ruined—at least that’s my opinion. I like to see the world at two to three miles an hour, not 10–15 miles per hour. But if you like mountain biking, you’ll love these winding trails that roam through hills and prairie. Please note: some areas of Red Gate Woods are off-limits to mountain bikers, which will provide a little peace to those who like a good walk.
3. You can camp in the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC)! I knew about other camping options in the FPCC, but I did not know about the campsites at Bullfrog Lake. There are 32 campsites and 11 cabins at Bullfrog Lake, which is near the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, which features the only canyon in Cook County—reservations are required), and other local attractions. The campsites and cabins are relatively affordable, and a good place to camp if you don’t want to leave Chicago and its collar counties.
4. You can hike for miles without ever crossing a road—and enjoy some solitude. If you hike at the right time, you might not see another person for hours. Kind of nice in a metropolitan area with nearly 10 million people.
5. There is a trail for everyone. There are flat, easygoing trails (on the Orange Trail Loop by Tomahawk Slough), wooded footpaths, grassland paths, and hilly, challenging trails (north of Bullfrog Lake on the Blue Trail and in the far south edge of the woods on the Orange Loop Trail). Click here for a trail map that provides information on trail difficulty, trail loops, and recreational activities.
6. You almost can’t get lost if you stay on the main trails. The FPCC has installed an amazing system of trail signage that tells you where you are in this vast preserve, what trail you’re on, and which direction to take if you want to stay on a specific trail or switch to another one. The signs use a numbering system that helps you find your destination. Very handy because the woods are vast, although I miss the days of wandering around and getting lost a few times in a beloved forest preserve before familiarizing oneself with its trails and layout in my head.
7. At times, you’ll walk through and over history—and you will not emit a radioactive glow thereafter (if you can believe the U.S. Department of Energy). Yes, it’s true. Buried deep in some of Chicagoland’s most rugged and dense forest are the remains of the world’s first nuclear reactor at the original site of Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), which was a major nuclear research facility for the Manhattan Project during World War II. Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi both visited ANL. After World War II, the U.S. government decommissioned the site. Between 1955 and 1956, the FPCC reports that the Atomic Energy Commission “systematically dismantled the reactors and removed the remaining radioactive fuel and the radioactive heavy water coolant to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for disposal. Other low-level waste at Site A, such as CP-3’s biological shield, was encased in concrete, dislodged with explosives, and buried in a 40-foot-deep trench.” Click here for detailed information about this era.
I tried to visit what’s left of ANL (the U.S. government calls this place “Site A”), but I ran out of time (reality did eventually creep into my day). I did visit Plot M, where nuclear waste was dumped from the laboratory. It’s sobering to think that amidst such natural beauty, radioactive material still lingers beneath the soil, although it’s hopefully still safely encased in concrete. (When I neared Plot M, my phone’s GPS started going haywire, but perhaps that was just a coincidence.)
Nearly 75 years later, it seems odd that the U.S. government would build such a top-secret installation that developed nuclear energy amidst a forest preserve filled with hikers, picnickers, and fishermen and fisherwomen, but those were different times. (Perhaps I’ll cover the effects pollution and this radioactive waste have had on the forest preserves in a future blog post. Note: the plutonium used in the atomic bombs that were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, was produced on the West Coast.)
But during this hike, I was just happy to soak up a little history, the sounds of birdsong, and the bright sunlight on my face as I hiked in some of the nicest woods in Chicago. I hope you’ll check out Red Gate Woods someday, too.
LOOKING FOR SOMETHING TO DO BEFORE/AFTER YOUR VISIT TO RED GATE WOODS? If so, check out the following options:
If You Like History and Old Churches: St. James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church sits at the far southwestern edge of Red Gate Woods, near the intersection of Archer Avenue and 107th Street. I was married at this beautiful limestone church that was built in 1853 (a log cabin church had been constructed at the site in 1833). The church was built by Irish immigrants who came to America to work on the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. A walk through the ancient graveyard tells a moving story of the Irish diaspora in America. A few gravestones provide a detailed history of certain families. This hilltop overlooking the Sag Valley has a long history of habitation. An Indian village was located there for many years and, later, a French fort was built at this site. In 1673, it is believed that Father Jacques Marquette said Mass at the French fort. St. James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is worth a visit.
If You’re Hungry: Hackney’s (123rd and LaGrange Road, Palos Park, IL 60464, 708/448-8300). Hackney’s, which was founded in the 1930s, features a cozy roadhouse feel, good food, good beer, and a good atmosphere. What more do you need after a hike in the woods?
If You’re Hungry, Like Antiques, and Enjoy History: Lemont. This canal town was founded in 1833. Its historic downtown is just a few miles from Red Gate Woods. Lemont is a perfect stop for lunch or an early dinner after hiking, a dash of history, and some antiquing.
Like Ghost Hunting: Look for Resurrection Mary. If you stay in the area late into the night, see if you catch a glimpse of Resurrection Mary, who is purported to have haunted Archer Avenue from the Willowbrook Ballroom (recently destroyed by fire and located just south of Red Gate Woods) to Resurrection Cemetery since the 1930s. She is probably Chicago’s most famous ghost. Some say that Red Gate Woods itself is haunted, but I think Resurrection Mary is a better story.
If You Want the World’s Best Ice Cream!: The Plush Horse (12301 South 86th Avenue, Palos Park, IL 60464, 708/448-0550). The Plush Horse has been one of the go-to places for fantastic ice cream in the southwest suburbs since long before I was born (it was founded in 1937). It changed my life, and it will change your’s, too!
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes