On the Joys of Hiking for a Hike’s Sake and Saying Goodbye to My Favorite Chicagoland Nature Spot for the Year

When you spend the last several years writing a book—Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit—you don’t get to spend as much time visiting your favorite nature destinations (because there are always new places to see) and rambling through the woods with no cares in the world.

But all that changed last week, when I went for a fantastic 5.3-mile hike over nearly 4 hours at Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve—the wildest place in Cook County and my favorite hiking spot for the last 25 years. (Click here for my full article on this amazing place.)

It was an odd October day. 70 degrees. Very humid. Completely cloudy most of the time, the sky an ashen gray. It almost felt like a massive volcano had erupted a few hundred miles away and the sun would be blotted out for months. When I returned from my hike, I said to my wife that this would be the perfect day to film a horror movie in the forest preserves. The woods were full of shadows, the crickets sounded tired, a light wind barely moved the leaves of the tree and tall grass, and every tree branch creak seemed amplified in the stillness.

But I was energized by the chance to explore a nature destination with no book research goal and excited to roam wherever my legs took me in this hilly preserve filled with ravines, meandering creeks, a beautiful hidden prairie, and a rare glacial esker. 

Unlike the front yards of Chicagoland homes—with their colorful displays of chrysanthemums and begonias—the colorful flower displays at our area’s forests, prairie, and grasslands are almost gone. There was a green groundcover left at Cap Sauers (which is near Palos Park, Illinois), but only the yellow and purple asters (which were beautiful) and a few other floral strays remained amidst yellow and red prairie grass and the dead, brown blooms of the July, August, and September prairie and woodland wildflowers.

As I said earlier, Cap Sauers is my favorite nature destination in Chicagoland because it’s wild, it has a diverse range of ecosystems, it’s one of the largest nature preserves in the area, and because you can get lost in the “wilderness” if you so choose. If you venture off the gravel paths onto the foot paths, you will most likely not see another person most of your hike. But be careful, it’s easy to truly get lost in these woods. More on that later.   

I like to visit Cap Sauers throughout the seasons. It’s wonderful to stop at Visitation Prairie in early May when the prairie is just sprouting and follow its progress to early fall when the prairie grass and plants tower over your head as you walk and you have to push the grass aside as you walk the narrow footpaths. And I like to visit Cap Sauers before all the plants die off, the leaves fall from the trees, and much of the wildlife hibernates or becomes scarce. In a way, I feel as if Cap Sauers were an old friend that I need to check in on every once in a while—especially before winter—to make sure he or she is okay. Although I’ve hiked at Cap Sauers in late fall and throughout the winter, something made me feel like this would be my last chance to visit this year. So I embraced my time at this southwest suburban spot, wandering the preserve and soaked in the sights and sounds of early fall. Here are a few random thoughts about my visit.  

Less Buckthorn, More Wildflowers and Wildlife

I parked at Teason’s Woods, walked west across 104th Avenue, and took the gradually rising, main gravel trail through the preserve. I was amazed at how different this entry area looks from the days when I first hiked there in the early 1990s. Forest Preserves of Cook County and volunteers have done an amazing job of clearing invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle, which grew so dense—and thorny—that a trip off trail was nearly impossible. Today, much of this area has been cleared, one can walk through the beginnings of an oak savannah, and the sunlight can once again reach the ground (which will gradually help return a more diverse group of plants to the forest floor). In the restored areas, flocks of birds—including dozens of robins, were resting mid-migration, and it was wonderful to hear their happy song in the newly cleared woods.

The Creeks Were Still Full of Life

Small seasonal creeks wind their way through the preserve, and I walked a bit along their banks and in the dried out areas. I once saw a blue heron fishing in one of these little waterways, as well as big buck cross the creek, but not during this visit. I did see maybe 20 frogs hanging onto to their summer lives before hibernating, as well as minnows and water bugs.

I Savored My Secret Spot

I found my favorite creek spot that I’ve been visiting for 25 years. It takes a lot of work to get to this location (which is one of the furthest places in Cook County from a road). I like to sit and take a break, have a snack, listen to the sounds of the water rolling over rocks and logs, watch the frogs and minnows, and savor the solitude. 

I Climbed Some Hills…and the Fall Color Show is On Its Way

Fifty- to 60-foot cliffs tower above my favorite creek spot and when I was done creek walking, I made my way up to the tops of the cliffs and enjoyed the views below. The leaves are just starting to turn red, yellow, and orange in the preserve, and I’ll bet there will be a great color show in a week or two.

Thoughts of a Loved One…and the Future

I was on a bit of a tight schedule because I was going to care for a loved one after my hike, so I decided to head toward my last two destinations at Cap Sauers: Visitation Prairie and the nearby glacial esker. My relative was a mighty, physically active person in her heyday—chopping wood, painting walls, gardening several blocks in our Beverly neighborhood…all in one day—but old age has slowed her daily steps to perhaps 50 or so. She spends much of her day in a wheelchair and that hurts me deeply. But there is nothing that can be done, and our goal is to help her retain as much of her health and independence as possible, while keeping her safe. Between my hike that day and a 2-mile speed walk earlier in the day, I’d walked more than 20,000 steps, and because of my relative’s challenges, I have come to both appreciate and feel guilty about this personal physical freedom I have to walk in the woods, climb hills, jump 7 feet or so from a creek bank to a creek bottom, and otherwise explore the world. My relative’s health situation has made me treasure my hiking adventures and also cognizant that these adventures are not finite and that one day my steps will also slow and diminish in number. It has also, of course, made me appreciate the finite number of days that I have with her.  

I Got Lost

Despite having hiked more than 100 times in all seasons at Cap Sauers, I truly got lost. Perhaps it was my rush to see everything I wanted to see before I had to head to my relative’s house. It was not Jon Krakauer-level Into the Wild lost, but I wandered through buckthorn, other dense foliage, and hilly terrain for about 20 minutes before I recovered my bearings. I don’t think city people (with their endless grids of sidewalks and streets) realize how easy it is to get lost in nature. It’s a humbling experience and another reason you should always come prepared with a compass, extra water, a light poncho, a phone recharger, and other tools that will help you should get lost and take a fall or experience another misadventure.    

Fall Makes Me Appreciate Nature Even More

Appreciating nature at this time of the year changes in a way for me. Nature is slowly going to sleep, so there are fewer flowers, more golden hues, and fewer animals (except the migrating birds). While much of the year—from early spring to mid-summer is about the promise of nature, the remainder of the year is about nature’s gradual denouement. I look at the forests, prairies, and wetlands with an Impressionistic mindset, appreciating the swathes of orange and yellow prairie greases, stretches of green, and islands of the last wildflowers in a panoramic view. Another side of me micro-focused on the small wonders that remain—the aforementioned asters; the one bumblebee I saw the entire day busily pollinating an aster; the oddly shaped rocks in the creek; the fungi on the trees; a deer antler that I came across as I climbed a hill; the piles of oak acorns that sat on the sides of the steep hills; and, of course, the color show that had just begun in the trees. 

  

Coda: Visitation Prairie and the Glacial Esker

I had about an hour before I had to care for my relative, so I hiked quickly toward Visitation Prairie, which many believe is the furthest place (about 1.2 miles) from a road in Cook County. As I approached the prairie, a flock of sandhill cranes flew over the gold and red prairie grass. The sights and sounds of cranes and other birds mid-migration always moves me—especially in a place that has no roads, no electric power lines, and little human infrastructure (except for a dirt path) as far as the eye can see. 

Much of the prairie was spent, but the golden and orange hues—mixed with the still-vibrant asters—created a vivid color field. But my time was dwindling, so I exited the prairie (taking one last look before I turned away), then headed north on the esker trail. Perhaps you already know what an esker is, but if not, an esker is a narrow ridge made of sand and gravel that, thousands of years ago, was a river bottom on top of or at the bottom of a glacier. Forest Preserves of Cook County says that the esker at Cap Sauers is “one of the best examples of this rare feature in Illinois.” As you walk the esker trail, you’ll travel through dense forest, wetlands, and marshes, which are filled with wildflowers of varying types during the warm seasons. It’s a stunning walk (especially in late spring, summer, and fall), and I wish this esker was my own. I would walk it every day if I could.

If you follow the esker trail to its northern terminus and make a right, you’ll take a series of foot trails that cross a creek, gradually climb from the creek bed into the forest, and eventually link up with the main gravel trail (turn left when you reach the gravel trail)—bringing you back to your car at the Teason’s Woods parking lot. And that’s what I did because my time was short.

Final Thoughts

I might make it back to Cap Sauers this year, but it’s 25 miles from home and there are so many other places to visit. And, this year, I kind of want to leave it suspended in time—the leaves just turning color, the asters valiantly hanging on, the cranes flying above the golden yellow and orange grass, and the frogs and minnows still pretending it’s a summer day. If you love the outdoors like I do, it’s the kind of moment that you freeze in your head for the days when the real freeze and snows come to Chicagoland in January and February.

Head out to Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve this fall to experience one of the wildest spots in Cook County. Take a good hike and soak up the memories that will sustain you throughout our often cold winters. You won’t be disappointed.   

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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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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