I’ve traveled thousands of miles to visit national parks, visited more than 100 natural and historic spots in Chicagoland, and lived in Chicago for 50 years, yet I’d still not visited the “tree-rific” (bad pun intended) Sand Ridge Nature Center (SRNC) (15891 Paxton Avenue, South Holland, IL 60473, 708-868-0606, Facebook) that’s less than 2 miles from my mother-in-law’s house and not too far from my childhood home in Beverly on Chicago’s South Side.
Until, that is, last month—when I checked off this south suburban gem on my “nature bucket list.” I spent several hours enjoying the nature center and its grounds on a cool, but sunny, day and the space-time continuum maintained its equilibrium. There was no antimatter (me) meeting matter (SRNC) explosion. Instead, I was greeted by peace and solitude and had a wonderful time exploring the nature center and its trails that travel through forests of white and black oak, wild black cherry, hickory, sassafras, and black gum; wetlands; prairie; savannas; and the remnants of what was once the shoreline of Lake Chicago (which covered most of what we now know as Cook County after the end of the last great Ice Age).
If you’re looking for a good hiking destination in the south suburbs, the 235-acre SRNC should be one of your first choices—especially if you’re seeking easy trails that provide nice views of oak savannah, wetlands, prairies, and other ecosystems. I first hiked the 1-mile Dogwood Trail, which alternated between dirt paths and wooden boardwalks, taking me through forest and wetlands. I hiked in solitude, the bright sun keeping me company and warming me as I walked. When the clouds or trees blocked the sun and the wind picked up, I was reminded that I was hiking on an unseasonably cold day in early November. I was glad I’d bundled up. Sand Ridge is surrounded by roads, but I was amazed at how peaceful it was once I began hiking. You know you’re hiking in solitude when your steps on the slightly frozen ground are the loudest sounds you hear.
I also hiked the 1.5-mile Long Beach Trail, which I also highly recommend. This and the Dogwood Trail are the two longest trails at Sand Ridge. Other trails at the nature center—which may be better for small children—include the Redwing Trail (0.3 miles) and the Pines Trail (0.3 miles). Click here for trail maps.
There’s a lot more to Sand Ridge Nature Center than just excellent hiking. Here are a few other things you can do during your visit:
View exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the Calumet region, and see a variety of live animals (fish, turtles, etc.) in the nature center.
Check out a wide range of creatures outdoors; click here for a list of insects, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, arachnids, and other living organisms spotted at Sand Ridge recently.
Enjoy the kids’ activity area in the center with your children—perfect for a snowy or rainy day.
View the 65-million-year-old leg bone of a duck-billed dinosaur.
Enjoy great birdwatching—especially in the spring and fall.
View the butterfly and interpretive gardens during warm weather.
Learn about the many varieties of trees at Sand Ridge by flipping up the numbered placards that appear along the trails.
Check out a pioneer homestead that depicts life in the early 1800s.
Attend annual festivals and events such as the Underground Railroad Interactive Hike, Juneteenth Celebration, Archaeology Day (which celebrates Native American culture), Settlers’ Day, and Christmas Past. Click here for a list of weekly events.
Enjoy the spring wildflowers and fall colors.
Spend a night or two just down the trail from Sand Ridge at Camp Shabbona Woods, which features small, three-season cabins and mulch tent pads.
Nature recharges our batteries. It calms us and improves our health. It gives us a glimpse of the wonders of the natural world before European settlement. Nature centers are islands of biodiversity and beauty amidst the concrete jungle of our city and suburbs. They offer dozens of free programs, classes, and other activities each year that educate us, allow us to experience nature, spend time with family, and have some fun. They’re great places to take your kids, learn a new skill (such as painting, writing, or meditation), and see a variety of ecosystems, plants, and animals—some that are even rare or endangered. I encourage you to visit Sand Ridge Nature Center, or nature centers in your area, soon. You won’t be disappointed.
Sand Ridge Nature Center Facts
- Open (nature center building): March-October: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Fridays; November-February: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Fridays
- The nature center and grounds are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
- No fishing or dogs allowed.
- There is ample parking.
Sometimes on a cold late fall day you receive a grace note as you walk alone in the woods. As I was returning to the nature center on Lost Beach Trail in the increasing chill, I rounded a curve on the trail and saw a young woman walking a few hundred feet ahead of me. Not wanting to ruin her solo hike, I stopped to take more photos and enjoy the view to give her time to get far ahead of me. I started walking again, but as I rounded the bend and arrived at the spot where the dirt trail met the boardwalk, she was waiting for me. It turned out she was a Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC) employee. We spent about 10 minutes walking and talking as we journeyed through the woods toward the nature center. She told me that she’d recently moved back to the Midwest after living in the Seattle area. She said that when she moved to Chicagoland, she was worried that there would be no real nature, but she soon realized she was wrong. I mentioned that Cook County is the most-forested urban county in the United States (or so I’ve heard). We talked about how much we loved the outdoors, and we exchanged hiking suggestions. When we reached the nature center, we parted ways. It was so nice to have such an enjoyable impromptu meeting in the woods, and to meet someone who seemed to really love her job.
A hike in the woods is not just about beautiful trees, lakes, pretty flowers, and cute animals. It’s sometimes also about the joy of making a new friend on the trail. It was even better that the woman I met worked for the FPDCC. Her thoughts about Sand Ridge as we walked really added to my experience. I also met another very friendly FPDCC employee in the nature center, who provided me with more information about the nature center’s offerings and some hiking suggestions. Without these dedicated workers, the Forest Preserves of Cook County would be far less enjoyable places to visit. The next time you visit a nature center, thank the workers for their dedication and expertise.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes, unless otherwise credited
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