Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary: Great Birding, Wide-Open Spaces, and Enjoyable Hiking and Cross-Country Skiing

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

Beautiful hilly grasslands. Big skies. Enjoyable hiking trails. The opportunity to see more than 100 bird species. If these phrases catch your attention, you should visit Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary (559 E. Rush Creek Road, Stockton, IL 61085) in Jo Daviess County, Illinois. The 409-acre preserve has been recognized as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International and National Audubon because it provides critical breeding habitat for grassland bird species in greatest need of conservation. The Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF), which owns and manages the sanctuary, says that “notable Illinois species of conservation concern include the Henslow’s sparrow, bobolink, red-headed woodpecker, and northern harrier.” Protected areas such as Valley of Eden are critical to counter shocking declines in bird counts throughout the United States and Canada in the past five decades.

Henslow’s sparrow (© Rich Mattas)

Here is a jaw-dropping statistic. A large-scale study released in 2019 found that there were 29 percent fewer birds in North America than there were 50 years ago. This amounts to 3 billion fewer birds than there were in the United States and Canada in 1970 (the year after I was born). The loss of birds is most strongly tied to the destruction of habitat due to land development and a move toward industrialized farming techniques (including increased use of pesticides). The study was conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the Georgetown Environment Initiative.

Parent feeding young red-headed woodpecker (© Barbara Baird)
Eastern meadowlark (© Barbara Baird)

In addition to possibly seeing Henslow’s sparrows, bobolinks, red-headed woodpeckers, and northern harriers at Valley of Eden, you might also spot eastern meadowlarks, song sparrows, eastern bluebirds, American goldfinches, dickcissels, red-tailed hawks, Baltimore orioles, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, owls, and many other birds, along with deer, coyotes, and other animals. Click here for a bird species list.

My wife, 11-year-old-son, and I visited Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary on a very windy, but mild (high-50s), day last month as a first stop on our mini-vacation to the historic town of Galena, Illinois. My goal was to hike on all three days of our trip—and Valley of Eden was our first destination. There are more than 6 miles of trails at Valley of Eden, which traverse tall- and short-grass restored prairie, forests, wetlands, and Rush Creek.

At the information kiosk at the trailhead, we picked up a trail map; a laminated, color flyer that listed popular birds cited at the sanctuary; and other information, and then began hiking. The mowed trails provided an easy walk, although many paths traverse hilly terrain. As we hiked, we were buffeted by wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour, and I kept thinking that my wife and son would want to turn around, but they were troopers. I think we all felt joy at being on vacation and elated to be outdoors on a spring day. We hiked. We looked for birds (and saw a few—primarily hawks gliding far overhead). The JDCF says that the prime viewing season for birdwatching is April through August; I think we were a little early given the cold spring that most of the Midwest is experiencing. My son investigated Rush Creek. I loved the juxtaposition of the rolling hills (mostly still covered with yellowed grass and a few new green shoots) and the big skies, which alternated between ashy gray and signs of storms to the west to moments of bright blue. We enjoyed the landscape and made memories. As I watched my wife and son walk ahead of me, I marveled at how tall my son is now and recalled the days after he was born prematurely when he was the size of a loaf of bread and I could carry him everywhere. (For more on these memories, please see my essay, On the Joys of Carrying My Son.)

The skies gradually darkened, and we decided to head to the car and toward our final destination of Galena. The dark skies were a false alarm, and the firmament grew blue again as we traversed the steep and winding back roads of Jo Daviess County and marveled at the open spaces. We passed bright red barns, greening fields, pastures filled with cows and horses, the occasional agricultural field turned to a massive solar farm, tired-looking hamlets, a former roller rink with a sign that promised it would become a toy museum in 2023, meat packing plants, and lonely country graveyards and prairie churches. Only about 21,600 people (a number that would fill a little more than half the seating capacity of Wrigley Field in Chicago) reside in this 619-square-mile county.

But before heading to Galena, we had lunch in historic Stockton, Illinois. We’d hoped to check out the Mud Run Beer Co. (124 S. Main Street, Stockton, IL 61085), but it was closed that day. Next time. Then we stopped in charming Elizabeth at the E-Town Coffee Co. (147 N. Main Street, Elizabeth, IL 61028). We stop at E-Town on every trip to Galena because the staff is so friendly, the café has a zen-like charm, and the sweets, food, and coffee are tasty. E-Town also has a small section of local crafts and other products for sale.

Then we headed to Galena to check into our hotel. There was a swimming pool calling my son’s name, a Jacuzzi calling mine, dinners and hiking trips to plan, and other vacation adventures ahead. Galena, which was founded in 1826, has more than 1,450 buildings on the National Historic Register, including President Grant’s home. Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary is just one of more than 25 natural destinations in the Galena area, and larger Driftless Region, that I cover in my book, Nature In Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. Only one town in my book receives the full chapter treatment, and that’s Galena. I did so because I love visiting it; it’s a special place, and it is the perfect home base for many nature and historical adventures in eastern Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, and northwest Illinois.  

The Milky Way as seen from the bird viewing platform at Valley of Eden. The sanctuary is not currently open after dusk, but the JDCF plans to offer evening events in the future. (©JDCF)

We’ll visit Valley of Eden again as it gets warmer. Deb Kelly, the director of communications at the JDCF, tells me that more than 400 additional acres will be added to the sanctuary by the end of the year. I’m excited to hear this news and eager to see what the JDCF, which owns and stewards seven beautiful natural areas in Jo Daviess County, does to expand nature exploration opportunities at the property. I visited one of these natural areas, Galena Gateway Park, on day two of our trip.

©JDCF

Things to Know Before You Go

  • Valley of Eden is open daily dawn to dusk.
  • The only entrance is from the main drive off of East Rush Creek Road that leads to the parking lot.
  • Cross-country skiing (call JDCF at 815/858-9100 to check the trail status before heading out) and snowshoeing are allowed.
  • The following activities are prohibited: littering, fires, camping, hunting, biking, motorized vehicle use, dogs/dog walking (from March 1 to September 30—to protect nesting birds), entering cow pastures, opening gates, removing vegetation (including picking flowers), and crossing fence lines
  • The name, “Valley of Eden” is a tribute to the Eden family, who settled in this valley and have farmed the area for four generations.

Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes

Copyright (photos) as credited

Main photo credits copyright (from top right going clockwise): ©Andrew Morkes; ©Barbara Baird; ©Barbara Baird; ©JDCF; MBardusk; ©JDCF; ©JDCF; ©Rich Mattas; ©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. Click here to purchase the book.

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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. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.

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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