Indian Ridge Marsh Park: A Bird Haven and a Story of Environmental Rebirth

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

Surrounded by steel processing plants and busy railroad lines and roads lies a place of wild beauty and an oasis for migrating great egrets, double crested cormorants, and little blue herons, among many other birds. Park No. 565 is a Chicago city park that’s nothing like the well-manicured, picnic-benched– and baseball-diamonded green spaces that Chicagoans are familiar with. And that’s a great thing!

Indian Ridge Marsh Park (11740 S. Torrence Avenue, Chicago, IL 60617), as it is better known, features 154 acres of native marsh and wet prairie habitat. It is a great destination for hiking and birdwatching, among other activities. The park has north and a south sections; both have parking lots and walking trails.

When I visited in late October, I parked in the north section off Torrence Avenue. Semi-trailers roared by. A freight train chugged across the golden-red-brown landscape to the west on the Norfolk and Western railroad tracks—a landfill looming above it in the distance. And I heard the big clanks and warning bells of heavy machinery operating somewhere nearby. It was not a promising start to a hike, but once I walked for a few minutes on the wood-chip trails, I was transported into a surprisingly peaceful place. Indian Ridge Marsh is just one of many small—but important—marsh and wet prairie habitats in the Calumet Region. Amidst the south suburban industrial sprawl, this is a key area for wildlife, especially migrating birds. Not only egrets, cormorants, and herons as I mentioned earlier, but also pied-billed grebes, blackcrowned night herons, yellow warblers, ospreys, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, belted kingfishers, common moorhens, and yellow-headed blackbirds, according to signs at the marsh. In fact, Indian Ridge Marsh is home to nearly 200 bird species. Many of these birds visit the area as they migrate along the Mississippi Flyway, the second-largest north-south route for migrating birds on the continent. During your visit, you might also see deer (I saw some prints as I hiked), coyotes, muskrats, frogs, turtles (including the state endangered Blanding’s turtle), snakes, and dinosaurs (not!…just checking if you’re still paying attention). 

Wetlands and marshes once existed throughout southeast Chicagoland. But as manufacturing plants (especially those built by the steel industry) began to be established in areas adjoining or near Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Southland, these vast green stretches shrunk to islands of biodiversity. Areas that were not protected became forgotten and polluted places in which slag from steelmaking operations and dredged materials from Calumet Harbor and River were dumped. Indian Ridge Marsh was once one of these despoiled places. But as the steel industry died (the last major steel manufacturer closed in 2001), visionary planners and environmentalists began to dream of restoring these areas and creating a connected patchwork of marshes, lakes, and wetlands that—once restored—could be home to migrating birds and their year-round friends, as well as other animals. The marshes also provide flood protection, cleanse pollutants, and have other benefits. The restoration process is a story in itself, but too complex to cover in a short blog. For those interested in learning more, I suggest checking out “Avian Oasis: Restoration at Indian Ridge Marsh has Turned a Wasteland Into an Important Home for Wildlife,” by Sam Joyce, and “Brownfield Redevelopment: A Hidden Opportunity for Conservation Biology,” by Lynne M. Westphal, et al.   

Environmental restoration is ongoing at Indian Ridge Marsh and its neighbors Big Marsh and Burnham Marsh, but this is a long process. You may see occasional slag on the ground as you walk, and there is still work to do to clean up the chemicals that were dumped in the area, but Indian Ridge Marsh is already a beautiful place and worth a visit. Since restoration (including the removal of invasive plants) has begun, bird populations have skyrocketed. It’s inspiring to see some good come from bad.  

Head to Indian Ridge Marsh for:

  • Easy and enjoyable hiking
  • Beautiful views of the marshes and prairies
  • Excellent birdwatching (especially during the spring and fall migrations)
  • Stunning fall colors
  • Spring and summer wildflowers
  • A picnic; a few picnic tables are available
  • Snowshoeing
  • A chance to see environmental restoration in progress
  • Solitude, at least when I visited; I say it a lot, but there’s nothing like being alone in a beautiful nature spot.

Indian Ridge Marsh is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Final Thoughts

I’ve spent the last several months visiting nature spots on Chicago’s South Side and in its south suburbs, and I’ve been impressed by the vast range of ecosystems and wildlife. Too often, people write off Chicago’s Southland as industrial, crime-ridden, drive-by territory on the way to the harbor towns of Michigan—but that’s a mistake. I encourage you to visit Chicago’s Southland—my homeland—for some great nature adventures. In addition to visiting Indian Ridge Marsh Park, I suggest checking out the following nearby destinations:

  • Big Marsh Park (entrances about 2.3 miles to the northwest; enter only at 103rd Street and Doty Road, or at 122nd Street and Torrence Avenue) has an amazing and still partly-under-construction bike park; 5 unique bike tracks to ride, including a paved pump track and both beginner and expert jump lines; more than 150 bird species; some call it Chicago’s “Hidden Birding Mecca”; and a variety of formal and informal hiking trails that will take you along its many ponds, marshes, and other natural areas.
  • Hegewisch Marsh (about 1.7 miles south): I have not yet visited the marsh, but why not check it out since it’s so close to Indian Ridge?
  • Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve (about 3.7 miles south): A small Illinois Nature Preserve that is a birdwatching hotspot.
  • Sand Ridge Nature Center (about 5.7 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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