11 Things to Do at Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens

Where: 7402 W. Lake Katherine Drive, Palos Heights, IL, 60463, 708/361-1873, Facebook, Map
Open: Nature Center: Weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The park is open daily from dawn until dusk.  
Quick Review: A beautiful nature area with easy trails, a nature center with live animals and a play area for children, and much more. There is something for everyone at this beautiful south suburban destination. A good place to spend a few hours or even a day.  

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I spent a lot of time chasing adventure in the national parks and monuments of the western and southwestern United States. When I sought to enjoy the outdoors in the Midwest, I’d head to Cap Sauer’s Holding Nature Preserve, which I believe is the wildest spot in Cook County; to other destinations with rolling hills, plunging ravines, and isolated creeks and wildflower-filled prairies (i.e., places you could get happily “lost”); or up to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to hike and camp along the towering bluffs above Lake Superior. I didn’t have much interest in visiting manicured botanic gardens and nature centers. But as I near age 50, I’ve come to also embrace visits to more serene and relaxing nature spots. It also helps when you have an 8-year-old son who is not yet up for 6-hour hikes–after which you come home achy, muddy, and occasionally bloodied by invasive buckthorn, yet recharged and exhilarated by an adventure in Chicago Wilderness.       

One day recently, I decided to take my 8-year-old son to check out Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens, a much-beloved nature and recreational destination in Palos Heights (a southwest suburb of Chicago). Although I lived in Chicago’s south side neighborhood of Beverly for the first three decades of my life, I’d passed by Lake Katherine many times, but never visited. After our visit, I realized how much I’d missed all of these years.  

Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens is a bucolic, serene (if you visit at the right time), and thoroughly enjoyable destination that offers trails and other features for people of all ages. The 85-acre park includes woodlands, wetlands, prairie, gardens and a 10-acre lake. Here are 11 things you should do at Lake Katherine:

1. Take a hike, go for a run, or walk your dog along the 1-mile lake loop trail or on other trails along the Cal Sag Channel.

2. Go birdwatching: look for warblers of many types, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, white-crowned sparrows, scarlet tangiers, herons, trumpeter swans, and many other species. 

3. Search for a variety of other creatures such as painted lady butterflies, twelve-spotted-skimmer dragonflies, snapping turtles, northern water snakes (one of which we almost walked right over as we hiked…it was pretty big!, and we jumped pretty far in surprise), bullfrogs, blue spotted salamanders, coyotes, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, and dozens of other animals.  Check out the center’s Field Guide for a complete list.

Northern Water Snake

4. Rent a canoe or kayak and wile away the day exploring the lake. You’ll get the chance to see a variety of birds depending on the season, and may even see turtles, muskrats, and beavers. Boats are available from late-May through October, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. $8 per person, per hour. Contact the center for complete details.

5. Cycle or walk the Cal-Sag Trail. Lake Katherine is a stopping-point on the 26-mile-long trail, which runs from Lemont to the west to the Burnham Greenway near the Indiana border.

6. Visit the Children’s Forest (west of the lake), which features a salamander mound, a spider maze, and wetlands.

7. Visit the nature center to view fossils, rock samples, reptiles, and fish; check out a variety of other exhibits for kids; and enjoy the children’s play area.

8. Explore the Buzz N’ Bloom Prairie (especially in June, July, and August) to view Indian grass, compass plant, bee balm, and other plants, as well as a variety of dragonflies, butterflies, and other insects.

9. Participate in a variety of classes, workshops, summer camps, and other events for families or adults. Upcoming opportunities include:  

  • Stories at the Lake (free event for kids): the first Thursday of every month, 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.  
  • Stargazing: Events are held throughout the summer and fall
  • Brews & Bullfrogs with Open Outcry: Wednesday, June 12, 2019, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Family Yoga with Nature Walk: Friday, June 28, 2019, 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
  • July 3rd Bash: Wednesday, July 3, 2019, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Wine and Nature with Cooper’s Hawk Winery: Thursday, July 18, 2019, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Monarch Butterfly Festival: Sunday, September 15, 2019, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Click here for a calendar of events. Note: A fee is required for some events; many events and activities are free.

10. Enjoy the soothing sounds and sights of the human-made waterfall. This is no modest waterfall, but a series of four separate falls. The waterfall travels a distance of more than 300 feet from its source 30 feet above the ground.

11. Do nothing but sit on a bench and soak in the sun, the sights and sounds of nature, and recharge from the challenges of the modern world.

Lake Katherine is a beautiful spot for hiking, pondering, canoeing, kayaking, creating art, animal-watching, celebrating life events (several venues for weddings, birthday parties, baby and bridal showers, etc. are available), and simply enjoying nature. I highly recommend a visit.

While you’re in the area, consider checking out these nearby nature spots that I’ve covered in past articles at Nature in Chicagoland:  

LOOKING FOR SOMETHING TO DO BEFORE/AFTER YOUR VISIT TO LAKE KATHERINE? 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 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 the site. In 1673, it’s 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, Like Antiques, and Enjoy History: Lemont. This canal town was founded in 1833. Its historic downtown is just 11 miles west of Lake Katherine. 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 (which was destroyed by fire a few years ago and is 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. For more on Chicago’s ghosts, check out my article, A Personal Ghost Story, Ghosts of Chicago’s Southwest Suburbs, and 11 Spots for Post-Ghost-Tour Fun.

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!

If You Want Fantastic Deep-Dish Pizza: Louisa’s (14025 Cicero Ave Crestwood, IL 60445, 708/371-0950) frequently appears on “best pizza” lists, and it’s one of my favorite pizza parlors in the Southland along with Aurelio’s in Homewood.

If You Want to Visit an Old-School, Nearly 100-Year-Old Steakhouse: Jack Gibbons Gardens (147th & Oak Park Avenue, Oak Forest, 708/687-2331) is a popular dining destination in the south suburbs. Try my favorite heart-attack-on-a-plate meal: chopped sirloin the size of a giant’s hands, au-gratin potatoes, and a big salad covered with enough blue cheese to take two years off of your life. Plus, you’ll get to enjoy a relish tray that would make any Wisconsin supper club diner jealous. Wonderful.

If You Want Great Beer and Tasty Food in a Historic Chicago Neighborhood: Horse Thief Hollow Brewing Company (10426 South Western Avenue, Chicago): This Beverly gem offers tasty craft-beer and food. Art adorns the walls, live music is featured on certain days, and there is just a wonderful vibe at this great destination. Open Outcry Brewing Company (10934 South Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60643, 773/629-6055) is another must-visit destination in Beverly/Morgan Park. I would never have left Beverly if Horse Thief and Open Outcry were around when I lived there. Looking for something haunted in Beverly? Then drive by the Givins Irish Castle (10244 South Longwood Drive, Chicago), which is now the home of Beverly Unitarian Church. Some of its hauntings include a young spectral girl in a long dress roaming the rooms and strange moving lights and sounds when the castle is supposed to be unoccupied.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes, Founder & Author of Nature in Chicagoland

When I’m not visiting Lake Katherine and other nature destinations in Chicagoland, I write books and newsletters about careers for teens and adults who want to change occupations. I also write college-planning books and newsletters, including They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition. You can learn more about my newsletters and books by clicking here.

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