You won’t find a nature center or interpretive trail signs at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve in Palos Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago. But you will find beautiful oak forests, prairies, savannahs, cattail marshes, sedge meadows, and wetlands. Walking the gravel trails and footpaths in this sprawling 1,520-acre preserve is probably the closest one can get to wilderness in Chicagoland. This Illinois Nature Preserve is the largest roadless area in Cook County. Illinois Nature Preserves protect the highest quality natural lands in the state. “These lands are the last remnants of the Illinois wilderness,” according to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
Cap Sauers is my favorite hiking destination in Chicagoland. I’ve hiked there for more than 25 years—sometimes twice a week when I was in my 20s and fancy free.
At Cap Sauers, there are great hiking, biking, and horseback trails; excellent opportunities to view wildlife; and much more. Cap Sauers also holds a special place in my heart.
Cap Sauers was my place of refuge and regeneration after my father died in 1997. After he passed away, I hiked its woods constantly, regardless of the season. I loved to wade the creek shallows that shimmered with the busy activity of minnows, water beetles, and frogs. Loved the ravines that dove swiftly as if fleeing the sun. Loved to wade into Visitation Prairie’s sea of grass during high summer. And loved getting “lost” in the woods for hours, searching for fossils and arrowheads. When I found a fossil, I felt happy momentarily, forgetting the images of my 90-pound, cancer-stricken father in bed, his skin the color of ash, his voice a thin whisper. That first year after he died, I found an impressive fossil almost every time I hiked. It was like a special gift from God and my dad. This went on for a year or two, and my sadness ebbed slightly. I still hike frequently, but rarely find large fossils, which just makes those first frequent finds even more special.
But there are many other reasons to love Cap Sauers Holding:
Stunning wildflowers. When I visited Cap Sauers last week, flowers blanketed most of the preserve—from the little creek “valleys,” to Visitation Prairie, to the top of the esker trail that winds its way through the preserve. Spring and summer also feature vivid wildflower displays.
Excellent hiking. There are nearly 5 miles of paved trails and footpaths that wind through forest, prairies, wetlands, savannah, and other ecosystems.
Great exercise. Its rolling hills provide an excellent workout. It may sound strange, but I love the feeling of pushing my body to near exhaustion—my leg muscles burning, my heart pounding—as I hike its hills and valleys. Cap Sauers isn’t completely hilly, so don’t let the occasionally rugged stretch deter you from visiting.
Peace and solitude. The dense woods, beautiful prairie, and meandering streams will heal your mind and soul. If you leave the main gravel trails, you’ll most likely never encounter another person for the rest of your hike—but you’ll see plenty of deer, frogs, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, fish, and even a coyote, if you’re lucky. A feeling of peace will wash over you as the only sounds that you hear are those of your footsteps, the song of crickets, and the wind rustling the leaves of the trees and tall prairie grass.
Birdwatching. Cap Sauers is an excellent destination for birdwatching. Birders can see summer tanagers, white-eyed vireos, Louisiana water thrushes, hooded warblers, chipping sparrows, uncommon pileated woodpeckers, eastern phoebes, blue-winged warblers, ovenbirds, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and many other types of birds.
History. In the 1800s, European immigrants settled some areas of Cap Sauers. They’re long gone, but they’ve left a few traces (stone foundations, 100-year-old bottles, a rusty wagon wheel, and broken china) that you might discover during your visit. Native Americans also lived in this area for thousands of years before the white men settled this area, and they’ve also left their mark in these woods.
Winter hiking. Cap Sauers is a great destination for snowshoeing or just a hike. You’ll enjoy even more solitude in the winter months.
The joy of discovery. Cap Sauers is so vast that it would take years of steady visits to see everything it offers.
I also recommend Cap Sauers because it’s undergoing a rebirth of a sort. Until recently, some of its footpaths had become almost unnavigable (the gravel trails are always navigable) due to the thick buckthorn—the scourge of Chicagoland forest preserves—and dead underbrush. In the absence of natural fire cycles, which reinvigorated the forest and prairie in the past, some trails I used to hike became completely overgrown. But the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC), The Nature Conservancy, and dedicated volunteers are working hard to restore the habitat to its original state by conducting prescribed burns and removing buckthorn and other non-native plants and trees. On my recent trip, I learned that they’ve made great progress. What an improvement! In the areas where this work has been done, the forest floor is awash with flowers, sunlight beams down on the forest floor, and, from the forest canopy, a virtual never-ending chorus of birdsong “played” as I hiked. It was really beautiful to see and hear. I look forward to the continued rebirth of my favorite hiking spot.
My Favorite Spots at Cap Sauers Holding
If you visit Cap Sauers Holding, you can certainly enjoy a great day hiking the crushed gravel trails that wind through the preserve. I suggest parking your car at the Teason’s Woods parking lot at 104th Avenue and Route 83, then cross 104th Avenue and head west from the parking lot to enter Cap Sauers.
But for a really enjoyable time, venture off the gravel trails, and take the foot trails that wind through the preserve—on 30-foot bluffs overlooking meandering streams, through beautiful meadows and prairies, and through dense forests. The trail signage is not always perfect, but it does the job in most instances.
My first suggestion: hike to Visitation Prairie in the middle of Cap Sauers. But before you enter, revel in the riot of white and yellow wildflowers that seem to go on forever along the trail as you approach the prairie. This area used to be a dense labyrinth of European buckthorn. Thanks to the work of staff and volunteers, it’s now an awe-inspiring example of what can be done to make an unhealthy forest area into something more natural and beautiful.
Take some time to savor the wildflowers, then hike to Visitation Prairie, which offers peace and solitude that can rival the remotest monastery; prairie grasses that grow as tall as LeBron James in the summer; Evening Primrose, Goldenrod, Prairie Sunflower, New England Aster, and other striking wildflowers as beautiful as my wife. In fact, many call Visitation Prairie the most-isolated spot in Cook County (quite an achievement in a county with 5.2 million people). Last Thursday, I spent about an hour at Visitation Prairie, taking in the beautiful wildflowers, getting lost in the tall grass, and watching dozens of dragonflies hunt other insects above the prairie.
Next, exit Visitation Prairie to the east and hike north on the esker trail. An esker is a narrow ridge made of sand and gravel that, thousands of years ago, was a river bottom on top of or at the bottom of a glacier. The FPDCC says that the esker at Cap Sauers is “one of the best examples of this rare feature in Illinois.” As you walk the esker trail, you’ll travel through dense forest, wetlands, and marshes, which are filled with wildflowers of varying types during the warm seasons. You’ll hear spring peepers (a type of chorus frog), cricket song, and other animals in the wetlands and forests on each side of the trail. It’s a stunning walk (especially in late spring, summer, and fall), and I wish this esker was my own. I would walk it every day if I could. [Note: If you follow the esker trail to its northern terminus and make a right, you’ll take a series of foot trails that cross a creek, gradually climb from the creek bed into the forest, and eventually link up with the main gravel trail (turn left when you reach the gravel trail)—bringing you back to your car at the Teason’s Woods parking lot.]
Another option: Head off the gravel trails to traverse one of the many footpaths that travel along the pretty streams that meander through the preserve. Some of these streams flow year-round, while others shrink to tiny little pools of frogs, turtles, and fish during times of drought. In some areas, 30- to 40-foot hills loom over these creeks, and it’s almost as if you’re in a deep canyon. Of course, the only true canyon in Cook County is Sagawau Canyon, just northwest of Cap Sauers on Route 83. It can be visited by appointment. These creek “canyons,” actually ravines, are a wonderful place to explore for fossils, enjoy a picnic lunch, or simply watch nature. Some of my favorite creek-hiking experiences include:
Discovering pretty mini-waterfalls during winter hikes
Seeing a Great Blue Heron along one of the creek beds
Taking a break for lunch along the banks of a creek and suddenly seeing a 10-point buck emerge from the woods and splash through the water just feet away
Coming upon thousands of pollywogs in a pool of water; any time I made a motion the future frogs churned the water as if a shark was below them
Hiking with my wife and seeing a coyote emerge from her den about 20 feet away. She was unaware of us for a few minutes, and it was breathtaking to see this animal in the wild.
In case you’re wondering, Cap Sauers Holdings is named for Charles “Cap” Sauers. He was the first general superintendent of the FPDCC. Sauers served as superintendent from the early 1930s to the early 1960s, and is credited with expanding and improving the preserves. Because of his wise stewardship and the vision of others, more than 70,000 acres have been acquired and are currently managed by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Chicagoans are blessed to have such a diverse range of preserves (including Cap Sauers) to enjoy in their back yard. Cap Sauers Holding is special place to me, and I hope it becomes one for you.
Check out the following links to learn more about Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve:
Keep the following in mind when you visit Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve:
If you visit during the warm season, bring bug spray and sunscreen.
Bring an ample supply of water; no potable water is available once you enter the preserve.
Wear waterproof hiking boots if you plan to hike off the gravel trails; low-lying areas can be wet and muddy after heavy rains.
Bring your binoculars. There is good birdwatching.
Early morning and late afternoon/early evening are the best times to take photographs.
Remember that it’s against the law to remove fossils, arrowheads, and other historical or natural resources from forest preserves.
Tell someone where you’re going before you head out for a hike; Cap Sauers is a big place and, if you head off the gravel trails, it’s easy to get lost. Of course, getting lost is relative at Cap Sauers since it’s surrounded on all sides by roads. If you get really lost, just pick a direction, and you’ll eventually reach a road. Or use GPS to navigate.
Copyright [text (except quoted material)/photos] Andrew Morkes
Map: copyright Forest Preserve District of Cook County
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