River Trail Nature Center: Birdwatching, Hiking, and Much More

IMGP3604Where: 3120 Milwaukee Avenue, Northbrook, IL 60062, 847/824-8360, Web

Visited: June 23, 2017 and April 18, 2017

Quick Review: A nature center that features:

  • Beautiful views of the meandering Des Plaines River, great birdwatching, and three easy-to-hike trails through forest and wetlands.
  • Many birds. Yes, I know I just mentioned them, but they’re worth another mention. They are everywhere. A nature center ranger gave me this report: “At the feeders, we regularly get ruby-throated hummingbird, blue jay, red-winged blackbird, mourning dove, house sparrow, woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, and hairy), Baltimore oriole, cardinal, and Cooper’s hawk. Near the river are Canada goose, mallard, tree swallow. Soaring overhead are red-tailed hawk and turkey vulture. There are also house finch, goldfinch, black-capped chickadee, and white-breasted nuthatch. Besides the regulars, there are more than 96 species recorded here and in the surrounding forest preserve. Happy Birding!”
  • A Noah’s Ark–menagerie of other animals for viewing—from flying squirrels, frogs, turtles, snakes galore, and lizards indoors, to a coyote, bald eagle, owls, and an impressive bee colony outdoors. (Sorry, no elephants or giraffes.)
  • A large children’s indoor play and exploration area where kids can climb into an “eagle nest,” crawl in a “fox den,” view Native American artifacts, play checkers on a tree stump, read nature books, climb through massive logs (just outside one of the center’s doors), and do much more.
  • Friendly and helpful staff.

The visitor center is closed on Fridays, but the grounds (including some outdoor animal displays) and trails remain open. The entire center is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.


ARE WE REALLY IN A CHICAGO SUBURB?, I asked myself as my young son and I hiked trails that brought us close to the Des Plaines River at times, then journeyed into wetlands and woodlands, which were ubiquitous with mayapples that resembled a mini-forest on the ground beneath the real trees. We were at the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, Illinois, about 11 miles northwest of our home, but which seemed like a world away. This area of the river was stunning and appeared as if it belonged in some wild stretch of America—not in the Chicago burbs. We’d come on a Friday, when the visitor center was closed, so we had the grounds mostly to ourselves. My son eventually got over his disappointment at the closed nature center as we checked out the bald eagle in his enclosure (he’d been shot in one of his wings and would live the rest of his life at the center), a curious coyote, and, stoic, but fascinating, owls.

IMGP1892IMGP3580We first hiked the Grove Portage Trail (0.5 miles), which is an easy and pleasant traipse through the woods. Then, we headed to my favorites, the Little Fort Trail and Green Bay Trail (a combined 0.8 miles). I like these trails because the terrain is a little more interesting, the paths are closer to the river and wetlands, and it seems like there are more opportunities to view birds and other wildlife. Click here for a map of the trails.

Back at the nature center, my son and I took a break from our hiking to sit and watch the river. We looked up and saw what seemed like a “winged creature superhighway.” Tree swallows periodically alit from the wetlands, and swooped down to the water for a quick bug meal. Canada geese descended and landed en-mass a few hundred feet from us. Other birds chirped and chased one another mid-air, occasionally settling down on jutting rocks and logs at this Hollywood-quality stretch of the Des Plaines River. The dragonflies were not to be outdone. They conducted their own feeding, playing, and mating games above the river and in the field between the river and the nature center. High above us, a lone red-tailed hawk circled in the warm sun, waiting patiently for lunch.

And the birds and dragonflies watched us humans below: a father and his son enjoying each other’s company—sipping water, having a snack, throwing twigs into the water, kidding around, looking for fish and other wildlife, and talking about everything and nothing. I savored the privilege of being a parent and the opportunity to share my love of nature with my son.

IMGP3601IMGP3597I could go on and tell you about the importance of the area’s wetlands to wildlife and humans, of the Native Americans who lived in these woods until as recently as 200 years ago, of the attempts to remove invasive species such as garlic mustard, and much more. But sometimes a memorable nature trip involves nothing more than time with your son hiking through wetlands and woods, and watching the beauty of a meandering river amidst birdsong as the wind gently rustles the leaves of the trees around us.

A few things to keep in mind if you visit River Trail Nature Center:

  • Bring bug repellant. The mosquitoes were fierce in shadier spots in the forest.
  • The hikes I mentioned are perfect for children of any age, but if you’re looking for lengthier trails, you can connect to the Des Plaines Trail System (DPTS) near the nature center. The DPTS follows the Des Plaines River for 22 miles south in Cook County and another 31 miles north through Lake County.
  • Click here if you want some help keeping track of all the birds you see.
  • The Center offers a wealth of educational programs for people of all ages. Use the contact information at the beginning of this article to learn more.

IMGP3180If you don’t live on or near the north side of Chicago, there are nature centers near you. Here are a few in the Chicago area to check out. I’ll cover some of these in future blog posts.

In addition to the aforementioned nature preserves in Cook County, visit the websites of the following forest preserve districts for information on their nature centers:

And if you live on or near the northwest side of Chicago, be sure to check out my past post on the North Park Village Nature Center.

Thanks for reading my blog, Nature in Chicagoland. I’d appreciate it if you could share my blog with anyone who loves nature and is looking for some great destinations in Chicagoland. Happy hiking and nature walking!

Copyright Andrew Morkes, 2017 (text/photos)

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