Bluff Spring Fen: A Fen-tastic Nature Experience in Far Western Cook County

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

If you only read one sentence of this entire story, it should be this one:

Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve is an amazing place that is at the height of its summertime wildflower show, and you should visit today, tomorrow, or very soon to see stunning prairies and hilly terrain crowned with flowers.

I’m sure Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois, is also wonderful in the spring, when the wildflowers bloom on the prairie and in the woodlands before the towering burr oaks leaf out. Late fall must be great, too, with the prairie grass turning a reddish-golden brown and the late-season wildflowers (such as asters) providing winter-wary hikers one last warm-weather memory. And then comes winter. I bet the kames (large hills of sand and gravel that were deposited by glaciers about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago) and towering oaks at Bluff Spring Fen look beautiful blanketed in snow.

It’s hard to believe that 160-acre Bluff Spring Fen was once a dumping site filled with old cars, roofing shingles, and other garbage and blighted by a gravel quarry. Today, after years of restoration and hard work by volunteers (including Friends of Bluff Spring Fen), this beautiful combination of prairie, ponds, streams, wetlands, woodlands, kames, and a rare graminoid (“grassy”) fen is a wild and spectacular place. What is a fen, you might ask? According to Forest Preserves of Cook County, a fen is a “type of wetland fed by mineral-rich springs” [in which] “spring water stays a constant 50 degrees, so streams flow year-round, supporting an unusual assortment of plants and animals adapted to these steady, alkaline conditions. Its 25 acres of graminoid fen represent just under 20 percent of the 133 acres of high-quality graminoid fen that survive in Illinois. Calcareous seep fens, where groundwater visibly bubbles to the surface, are even rarer than that. Only 14.5 acres survive in Illinois, about a half-acre of it at Bluff Spring Fen.”

I visited Bluff Spring Fen last week on a sunny, 82-degree day. I’d spent much of the day on the South Side of Chicago in Beverly helping my mom. But then I headed 50 miles northwest through heavy traffic to Bluff Spring Fen. I’d been wanting to visit the preserve for years, and I wasn’t going to let another day (or summer) pass without seeing it.

You can only enter Bluff Spring Fen through historic Bluff City Cemetery (945 Bluff City Boulevard, Elgin, IL 60120). (Here’s a map of the cemetery.) I either missed the signage or there was none directing visitors toward the fen through the winding roads of the hilly cemetery, but I eventually located the fen’s parking lot in the far southwest corner of the cemetery.

I arrived at about 4:00 p.m. amidst the beginnings of magic light for photographers and headed into the preserve with rows of 120+year-old gravestones at my back. I had the preserve to myself for much of the time, and it felt great.

When you first enter the preserve, you’ll hike through wetlands (sedge meadows, marshes, floodplains, and fens) and then a savanna comprised of bur oaks and shagbark hickories. As you hike, you’ll pass more wetlands, the largest kame (which has a short side path to the top) at the preserve, and more wetlands. (Sedges are grass-like plants that have a sharp, triangular shape.) Click here for a trail map.   

At the stepping-stones (see the map), I encountered at least 10 small leopard frogs swimming in one of the cool and narrow streams that flowed through the tall grass and sedge marsh. I continued hiking up and down hilly terrain and through prairies that were graced with a bonanza of blooms. The wildflower show was amazing. The prairies and woodlands were filled with purple coneflowers, rough and prairie blazing star, Missouri ironweed, butterfly weed, showy tick-trefoil, swamp thistle, wingstem, smooth false foxglove, flowering splurge, tall boneset, leadplant, brown-eyed Susan, spotted and purple Joe-pyeweed, cup plant, and parasol whitetop. Some of these I identified by sight, while my Picture This app helped me with the others.  

In addition to a diverse range of plants (450 species in all), Forest Preserves of Cook County reports that volunteers have counted 57 butterfly species, more than 20 dragonfly species, and almost 100 migratory and nesting bird species (including migrating warblers, red-headed woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, wood ducks, blue-gray gnatcatchers, willow flycatchers, woodcocks, and yellow-breasted chats) in the preserve. You might also see small mammals, snapping and painted turtles, and a variety of insects, including the six-spotted tiger beetle. Twelve species that live or visit Bluff Spring Fen are listed as threatened or endangered in Illinois. Click here for a list of threatened and endangered species by Illinois county.   

I continued to hike deep into the prairie, passing Transplant Hill—a site where an entire remnant hill prairie (Healy Road Prairie) that was going to be mined for gravel was moved early in the site’s restoration process. The prairie grasses eventually overwhelmed the trail—reaching 8 to 10 feet in the sky and nearly blocked the path due to their density. I felt like a tiny speck of humanity as the prairie grasses and flowers waved in the wind. The sun gradually inched toward the horizon, and I decided to turn back because of the thick overgrowth and the late hour (I was still about an hour’s drive from home).

As I walked back to my car, the sun occasionally sparkled through the thick branches of the oak trees. It was almost as if nature was smiling at me. (I assure you that no alcohol was ingested before or during my hike!) I explored a few areas that weren’t so overgrow. I was sad to leave but happy that I’d only explored about half the preserve. I have something to look forward to for my next visit.

Bluff Spring Fen is a special place. It’s been designated an Illinois Nature Preserve, which means that it contains some of the “highest quality natural areas in the state by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.” It is a symbol of what can be done to restore nature and protect beautiful ecosystems and rare and endangered species. Bluff Spring Fen is part of a larger 225-acre area of green space that’s managed by the City of Elgin, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.

Head to Bluff Spring Fen before the wildflowers say goodbye for the season. Or enjoy an adventure in another season. You won’t be disappointed if you like hiking in a wild area without any trail signage, but clear footpaths to carry you along. The sight of the cemetery to your north and industry to the south will also help you navigate at some points during your hike.

Before You Go

Since the only entrance to the preserve is in the cemetery, preserve hours are set by Bluff City Cemetery and the City of Elgin. The preserve is open from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. from April to October, and from 7 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. from November to March. Check with the Bluff City Cemetery/City of Elgin (847/931-6135) for current hours before visiting. When hiking, wisely manage the amount of time that’s required to return your vehicle or bike so you don’t get locked into the cemetery. The terrain is rugged and there are many side trails, which makes hiking a little challenging for first-time visitors (i.e., you might get lost a bit during your first visit).

Wear pants and long sleeves in warm weather to protect yourself from ticks and the sometimes sharp prairie grasses.

The hiking can be rugged and hilly at times, so wear hiking boots or shoes with good traction. There are plenty of flatter areas of the preserve, too, if you’d like an easier hike.  

The parking lot only has eight spaces, so plan accordingly if there is an event or volunteer activities at the preserve.

Be sure to bring ample water and bug repellant. I didn’t encounter any ticks, but this is definitely “tick country.”

Wear sunscreen, when necessary, because there are many wide open areas in which the sun is very fierce.

NO:

  • picking wildflowers
  • dogs
  • bikes
  • fishing or hunting
  • geocaching
  • alcohol
  • camping

Copyright (text, except quoted material) Andrew Morkes  

Copyright (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 (306 pages, 210+ photos) is only $18.99. Click here to learn more and 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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