Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve: Ravines, Rolling Hills, and a Historic 1862 Church/Nature Center

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

If Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve was a baseball hit, it would be a majestic home run walloped by Babe Ruth or “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron at the height of their powers.

If it was a streaming success, it would be The Wire, one of my favorite shows of all time, for its diverse cast of characters and fascinating storylines.

And if it was a literary gem, it would be Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, a wonderful and moving story about fly fishing, the love of family and nature, and sometimes not being able to help those whom you love.

But Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve (247 Monee Road, Park Forest, IL 60466) does not have to be any of these things except its beautiful self because it is a wonderful place that will wow you with its “wilderness” (at least from this Chicagoan’s perspective) and give you a great workout as you traverse its hilly terrain, trek across its winding boardwalk, explore its creek bottoms (if you choose), and journey through its forests of 150-year-old red and white oaks and their younger siblings, sugar and black maples, and basswoods; prairies; savannas; and wetlands.

The 997-acre preserve is part of the Thorn Creek preservation system, which protects approximately 1,600 acres. It is jointly owned and managed by four Thorn Creek Woods Management Commission members: the Forest Preserve District of Will County (FPDWC), the village of Park Forest, the village of University Park, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. An 884-acre portion of the site receives special protection as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve is one of the largest forested areas in northeastern Illinois, and it is the fifth-largest site in the Illinois Nature Preserves system.

I recently visited Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve on a warm, sunny day that was in the 80s. Here are six things you can do at the preserve.

Visit the Thorn Creek Nature Center

The nature center is housed in a historic Evangelical Lutheran 1862 church. The church was built several miles northwest of its present location and moved to its current spot in the 1970s. The nature center is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Fridays. It hosts a variety of educational offerings and hikes throughout the year. Upcoming events include:

Afternoons With Friends of Thorn Creek Woods: Bees, Saturday, October 9, 1 to 3 p.m.

Seasons at Thorn Creek Woods: Birds: Saturday, October 16, 10:30 a.m. to noon

Prairie Sampler and Trail Workday: Tuesday, October 23, 1 to 3 p.m. A great volunteer opportunity; the preserve always needs volunteers.

Drawing Owls: Sunday, Novemmber 7, 1 to 2 p.m.

Registration is required for the programs. Some programs are free, while others require a small fee. You can learn more about the preserve and nature center at the Friends of Thorn Creek Woods’ website and its Facebook page.

Enjoy a great Hike

There are 3.5-miles of paths (if you hike from the nature center to the Wetland Trail and back) and four trails:

Nature Center Trail: This 0.5-mile loop trail is a good place for birdwatching.

Woodland Trail: This 1.5-mile trail crosses winding Thorn Creek, gradually rises and travels atop bluffs that overlook the creek and 50-foot ravines, and then traverses a variety of forested areas. There is an extensive boardwalk on this trail that the kids will enjoy.

Owl Lake Trail: This 1.25-mile (round trip) spur trail starts at a red and jack pine plantation on the Woodland Trail (another great place for birdwatching) and takes hikers to and around the marshy Owl Lake, which developed from a glacial pothole.

The Wetland Trail is a short 0.25-mile sojourn from the Owl Lake Trail that leads to an observation platform that overlooks a large wetland. 

I spent most of my time alone as I hiked the trails, and the experience was peaceful and beautiful. It was my first visit to Thorn Creek, so it was especially fun to make discoveries (the boardwalk, bridges, wildflowers, and wildlife) as I walked. A basic trail map can be accessed at the FPDWC’s website.

Enjoy birdwatching

More than 175 species of our avian friends have been observed at the preserve, according to Ebird.com. They include red-winged blackbirds, black-billed cuckoos, eastern bluebirds, indigo buntings, black-billed cuckoos, willow flycatchers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, orchard orioles, Baltimore orioles, pileated woodpeckers, summer tanagers, various types of hawks and owls, brown thrashers, yellow-throated vireos, marsh wrens, ring-necked pheasants, and northern waterthrushes. Click here for a complete list.

see other wildlife

You might see white-tailed deer, coyotes, foxes, opossums, raccoons, frogs, turtles, southern flying squirrels, and blue spotted and spotted salamanders (in the wetlands), among other creatures.

copyright Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland

Check out the spring wildflowers and vivid fall colors

During the spring, you can see yellow trout-lily, columbine, jack-in-the-pulpit, asters, and many other beautiful blooms. Other beautiful flowers that you might see include cream false indigo, butterfly weed, spiderwort, lead plant, Canada anenome, purple coneflower, compass plant, evening primrose, flowering splurge, blazing star, and lance-leaved coreopsis. In the fall, the heavily forested preserve provides an explosion of fiery reds, awe-inducing oranges, and vivid yellows.  

Enjoy winter activities

It might be tempting to hit the couch during our cold winters, but resist the urge and get out for a peaceful hike amidst the snow or enjoy a snowshoeing adventure. Note: Be extra careful in hilly areas when ice and snow are present.

final thoughts and Tips Before You Go

  • No dogs or other pets are allowed.
  • No bike riding is allowed.
  • The natural surface trails are rugged and demanding at times, while relatively flat and smooth at others. Be sure to wear proper footwear. 
  • Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve is a big place. Maps (with “you are here” arrows) are located in several locations in the preserve, but it’s still possible to get turned around or wander off trail. For this reason, it’s a good idea to share your hiking plans with friends or family.
  • Bring water and wear sunscreen and bug repellant when appropriate.
  • The Metra Electric Line University Park station is located about 1.8 miles from the preserve should you choose to take the train and a ride share or hike from the station.    
  • Earlier in this article, I mentioned A River Runs Through It and not being able to help someone you love. The opposite happened with Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve. In the 1960s, a group of people who lived near what is now the preserve began meeting to try to preserve its open spaces. Without their diligent efforts and the continuing work of volunteers, the land would never have been protected and preserved. Click here to learn more about this preservation effort.   

Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes

Copyright (credited photos) Andrew Morkes

Copyright Shutterstock (bird photos): from top left going clockwise-Fiona M. Donnelly, John L. Absher, Brian A. Wolf, James W. Thompson, and Marcin Perkowski

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Looking for some 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. The book has 306 pages and 210+ photos and is only $18.99.

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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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