Santa Fe Prairie Nature Preserve: a Red Caboose, Pleasant Trails, A Rare Prairie, and More Than 225 Native Plants

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

Santa Fe Prairie Nature Preserve (7300 River Road, Hodgkins, IL 60525, Facebook) is a rare mesic (wet) gravel prairie tucked between noisy Interstate 55, railroad tracks, warehouses, LaGrange Road, and the Des Plaines River. A gravel prairie is one that grows on a gravel bar that was deposited by the melting waters of glaciers thousands of years ago.

One of the first sights you’ll seen as you arrive is a charming red caboose, which serves as the preserve’s visitor center. It’s open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m, although it may stay open longer at times. One of the first smells you’ll experience (at least on certain days when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction) is the overwhelming scent of sewage being treated at a nearby waste treatment plant. But resist the urge to get back in your car or put a clothespin on your nose (as my mom used to do when my dad would slow roll through the old Union Stockyards on Chicago’s South Side) and enjoy the caboose and the prairie, one of only two gravel prairies in Illinois.

The land that is now Santa Fe Prairie was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway in 1886, which hoped to sell it to developers. Instead, the prairie remained in its original state—although the railroad filled in some of the prairie to raise the height of the tracks to prevent damage from floodwaters. Biochemist Robert Betz and botanist Floyd Swink played a major role in preserving and protecting the prairie, which had shrunk to 10.8 acres before it was eventually protected. In 1997, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad donated the land and the caboose to the I&M Canal Civic Center Authority. The preserve was also named an Illinois Nature Preserve in that year. Metal sculptures of Betz and Swink at the site commemorate their hard work to preserve this beautiful place.   

Santa Fe Prairie is well cared for. There is a freshly mowed grass trail that travels through small areas of prairie and the edge of the main prairie. There are picnic tables where you can enjoy lunch or take a break before getting back on the short trail, which travels northwest then journeys north along a fence that separates the property from the nearby rail yard.

As I walked, dragonflies darted above the prairie, then swooped low to inspect me, before they finally landed on the footpath and fence nearby. I resumed hiking and surprised two deer on the opposite side of the fence. They bounded off into the brush, and I kept walking. I enjoyed the great view from the trail: beautiful prairie plants, a small pond, and the red caboose. In addition to dragonflies and deer, you might also see Northern banded water snakes, turtles, muskrats, herons, and frogs in or near the pond, as well as butterflies, redtail hawks, bobolinks, meadow voles, and threatened Franklin ground squirrels. It’s estimated that more than 225 species of native plants (including Indian grass, Joe Pye weed, shooting star, milkweed, Turk’s cap lily, and purple coneflower) grow on the prairie.

The trail dead-ends at what looks like a seasonal creek or swale, so I retraced my steps back to the caboose, where I checked out the viewing platform that overlooks the pond and prairie. It was another great visit to a beautiful prairie (I’d recently visited the prairies and wetlands at Wolf Road Prairie and Theodore Stone Forest ), and a chance to see what Illinois looked like (at least to some extent) before European settlement.

Santa Fe Prairie is a hidden gem and well worth a visit—especially on weekends when the visitor center is open. After your visit, walk across the street to the Des Plaines River, where you can picnic, fish, and launch your canoe or kayak.

You’ll probably spend about an hour visiting Santa Fe Prairie–perhaps more. Pair a visit to Santa Fe Prairie with stops at nearby Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve and Theodore Stone Forest.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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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 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.

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