Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve: “Forests” of Wildflowers, a Rare Prairie Ecosystem, and Great Birdwatching

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester, Illinois, is a stunning 82-acre preserve that will overwhelm you with its colorful native wildflowers; acres and acres of big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, and prairie dropseed; a cattail-filled wetland; and a bur oak savannah that features a 250-year-old oak. More than 370 species of native plants and over 140 species of birds have been documented at the preserve, according to the Salt Creek Greenway Association. Click here for a list of birds spotted at Wolf Prairie.

When I visited earlier this week, I was surrounded by a bright yellow “forest” of prairie dock, sawtooth sunflower, and tall coreopsis—some of which easily reached 7 feet in height. The rattlesnake master, goldenrod, and other wildflowers that I saw weren’t too shabby either. I said to myself, “remember this colorful display this winter when you’re surrounded by feet of snow and the only blooms available are those indoors.”

Wolf Road Prairie is the largest original prairie left in Illinois, and walking its narrow trails allows you to travel back in time to pre-settlement Illinois when 70 percent of the “Land of Lincoln” was comprised of prairie. Today, only about 2,300 acres of high-quality prairie remain in Illinois. The prairie is one of the best examples of undisturbed black-soil grassland east of the Mississippi River. Wolf Road Prairie is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, which protect the most ecologically valuable lands in the state. It is co-owned by Forest Preserves of Cook County and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Historic Prairie House

I began my hike after parking at the north end of the prairie near the Franzosenbusch Prairie House (11225 Constitution Drive, Westchester, IL 60154, website) that houses a visitor center and the Save the Prairie Society (https://savetheprairiesociety.org. (There is also parking on the far south end of the preserve on 31st Street.) Since its construction in 1853, the building has served as a school, church, and farmhouse—with additions and a second floor built over the decades as its usage needs changed. The Save the Prairie Society offers events at the house and on its grounds (such as its annual Old Fashioned Prairie Fest…which will be held on Saturday, September 11, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.). Before you begin your hike, enjoy views of the prairie from the house’s long porch.

Alone in Nature

In a metropolitan area with a population of 9+-million, it is wonderful to be alone in nature—and that’s what I was for the entirety of my hike. Cars zoomed by in the distance on Wolf Road, but I was the only one who saw the prairie dock, sawtooth sunflower, and tall coreopsis wave in the breeze. People fueled up at the nearby gas station, but no one but me was able to spot the young buck amidst the wildflowers just a few feet off the path. We stared at each other until he turned and bounded deeper into the grassland. And as people loaded their cars with groceries just a few blocks away, I was the only one who saw five or six monarch and other butterflies fluttering in seemingly perpetual motion above the prairie. I felt very small as I walked amidst seven-foot-tall wildflowers with a bright blue sky as a background and it felt good. Communal experiences (not getting gas or grocery shopping, of course) can be wonderful, but solo experiences can be exquisite.

I learned later that mid-September is the time to visit Wolf Road Prairie because thousands of monarchs stop there on their annual southern migration. Yet another reason to re-visit the prairie.  

Ghost Subdivision

I hiked through a prairie and a wetland (where you might see red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teal, great blue herons, and Canada geese) on narrow dirt trails, but halfway through my hike I stepped from dirt path to a sidewalk. Yes, sidewalks. Sidewalks from an abandoned 1920s subdivision crisscross the southern portion of the prairie. There were so many sidewalk paths to explore but I only had so much time since I was heading to more nature destinations that day. 

Bur Oak Savannah and Heading Back

I eventually reached the far end of the preserve right before 31st Street. There is a bur oak in this grove that is approximately 250 years old. The trees in the grove were surrounded by goldenrods and woodland sunflowers. If you visit in the spring, you might see pink wild geraniums, white rue anemones, and pale blue wild hyacinths. Some say nothing can grow under the thick leafy canopy of burr oaks in the summer, but I’ve never visited Wolf Road Prairie in high-summer, so you’ll have to investigate that for yourself (not a bad assignment!).

I soaked in the peace of the grove and then began re-trace my steps north to my car. But I took my time traveling back north, passing the footprints of failed 1920s subdivisions until the sidewalks gave way to dirt prairie paths, a bit of wetland, prairie again, and the prairie house. My next nature destination that day was Theodore Stone Preserve, which is better known for its stunning prairie than its woods. I’ll cover this great place in a future blog post.  

Final Thoughts and Tips

  • Wolf Road Prairie is open year-round, sunrise to sunset
  • No pets are allowed.
  • I started my hike from the north end of the prairie at the Franzosenbusch Prairie House. From this direction (at least in late-summer), the view was more natural than if you begin your hike from the south—where there are a small number of parking spaces on 31st Street.  
  • Be sure to wear long pants and long sleeves to protect yourself from the sun (there is no shade except in the bur oak grove) and the possibility of bringing a tick or two home with you. I didn’t encounter any ticks during my hike.
  • The prairie is at its most lush and verdant from mid-summer (where you’ll see blue-violet spiderwort and white Culver’s root) to fall, but in the spring, you’ll see golden Alexanders, brilliant orange puccoon, and dainty pink shooting stars.
  • Don’t shy away from visiting the prairie in winter and early spring. Each season offers its own type of beauty, and it a lot of fun to visit a prairie several times a year to follow the progress of the wildflowers and grasses that reside there, as well as view its full-time and seasonal avian residents and other animals.  In addition to deer, you might see Western chorus frogs, fox snakes, woodchucks, raccoons, and red foxes.
  • In the 1970s, the Save the Prairie Society literally saved what is now Wolf Prairie from becoming just another suburban subdivision or shopping center by purchasing lots in the complex. It continues to care for the prairie. Click here to learn more about volunteering to help care for the prairie (cutting and removing invasive brush, pulling weeds, collecting and scattering seeds) and the Franzosenbusch Prairie House and its grounds.  
  • Click here to take a virtual tour of the prairie.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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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 25 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 including Infobase (such as 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) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

5 thoughts on “Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve: “Forests” of Wildflowers, a Rare Prairie Ecosystem, and Great Birdwatching

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