Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake: A Unique Dune and Swale Landscape, Fishing, and an Exciting Restoration Project

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake is a nature gem tucked amongst rail yards, industry, and city and suburban neighborhoods on the far South Side of Chicago. There are two main Powderhorn properties: a 48-acre human-made lake with 7,000 feet of shoreline (which is located in Burnham, IL) and Powderhorn Prairie and Marsh Nature Preserve, which is the only state-dedicated nature preserve within Chicago city limits. The preserve protects a rare dune and swale landscape (parallel sandy ridges alternating with low wetlands that were formed by the retreat of glaciers and other processes 10,000 to 15,000 years ago; they often contain rare plants and animals). 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.

I visited Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake (which is located on South Brainard Avenue, east of South Burnham Avenue/south of Avenue O, Burnham, IL 60633) last week on a windy, summer-like day and was not disappointed. Although this area is not large, here are a few things you can do during your visit:

Hike the trail that meanders through the Powderhorn Prairie and Marsh Nature Preserve (the trail begins at the back of the parking lot). There are numerous subtrails, so be prepared to wander a bit or simply check out things that catch your fancy.

Enjoy the ecological diversity: the preserve is home to about 250 plant species, 2,500 insect species, and 40 to 100 bird species. Two state-endangered species—Franklin’s ground squirrel and Blanding’s turtle—have been sighted at the preserve. According to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC), trees in the preserve include black oak, white oak, pin oak, sassafras, among others. There are also woody plants such as hazelnut, elderberry, and buttonbush and lower-growing plants such as prickly pear cactus, nodding wild onion, Indian hemp, partridge pea, purple love grass, cinnamon willow-herb, rough blazingstar, Turk’s cap lily, and slender false foxglove.

Look for the aforementioned prickly pear cacti. It might surprise you to learn that prickly pear cactus can be found in the Chicago area, but areas near the lake used to be covered with cacti before the area was developed. I searched for the cacti during my hike, but did not find any. It was still fun to go on a prickly pear cacti quest.

Fish for largemouth bass, bluegill, northern pike, bullhead, perch, crappie, sunfish, and channel catfish. Ice fishing is also popular in the winter.

Try kayaking, canoeing, or otherwise ply the waters.

Picnic along the pretty shore of Powderhorn Lake.

Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake is a beautiful property, but like many nature areas in our highly industrialized society, it is out of whack ecologically if I may use complex scientific terminology. Powderhorn Lake (which was once a large marshland) and nearby Wolf Lake (which connects to Lake Michigan through the Indian Creek pathway to Calumet River) are currently isolated from one other, but historically were connected as part of a massive wetland complex in the Calumet region. When the areas were connected, they served as a vital marsh ecosystem that hosted least bittern, common gallinule, pied-billed grebe, and other waterfowl, as well as fish, amphibians, mammals, and other creatures. In recent years, water levels at the lake have been high, which have caused damaging water flows into the swales of the nature preserve, flooding in nearby neighborhoods, and too-high water levels at the lake’s northern end, which, according to the FPDCC, “is no longer shallow enough to provide an effective fish nursery, impacting the stock of species like northern pike, largemouth bass, yellow perch, and American grass pickerel.”

But there’s good news. Big things will be happening at Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake in the next three years. Audubon Great Lakes, the FPDCC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Great Lakes Commission have launched a three-year project to restore more than 100 acres of wetlands at Powderhorn. The project will install a water control structure to control water levels, re-establish the fish hatchery at Powderhorn Lake, re-link the Powderhorn and Wolf Lake ecosystems, and hopefully reduce flooding in adjacent neighborhoods. “This project builds on a large partnership in the Calumet region of Illinois to restore marshes to their former glory, providing refuge for threatened and common wildlife and improving resilience to heavy storms and lake level fluctuations,” said Chip O’Leary, Deputy Director of Resource Management at the Forest Preserves of Cook County, in a news story at Audubon.com. “These improvements will provide more habitat for fish to spawn, which should make those who fish at Powderhorn—both marsh birds and people—very happy.”

The restoration project is great news in a year that has not provided Chicagoans (and people across the world) with much good news. I look forward to revisiting Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake to follow the progress of the restoration project. Kudos to all of the organizations and environmental professionals that are making this restoration dream a reality.

The following articles provide more information on the restoration project:

Powderhorn Lake Habitat Restoration

Habitat Restoration in Priority Coastal Areas: Powderhorn Lake

More Than 100 Acres of Wetlands to be Restored on Southeast Side of Chicago

Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake is a relatively small area that you will probably spend no more than an hour or two visiting. But there are several destinations nearby that you could add to your itinerary to make a day of it, including:

  • Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve (about 1.1 miles west): A small Illinois Nature Preserve that is a birdwatching hotspot.
  • Hegewisch Marsh (about 2.5 miles northwest): I have not yet visited the marsh, but why not check it out since it’s so close to Powderhorn?
  • Sand Ridge Nature Center (about 4.7 miles south): One of my favorite nature centers in Chicagoland (although the indoor areas—except the washrooms—are closed due to COVID-19). Great trails, excellent birdwatching, knowledgeable and friendly staff, and a cool 1880s pioneer homestead. 

Copyright (text/all photos) Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland

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2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT

Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. 

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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES

I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. 

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies. I’ve written and edited many books for Infobase including the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series.

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