Middlefork Savanna Nature Preserve: Great Blooms, Biking, Hiking, and Nature Experiences

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

How lucky we are to have such natural places as Middlefork Savanna Nature Preserve, where the saw-toothed sunflowers grow tall as fairytale giants (OK, maybe not that tall), the plentiful asters prettily mark the end of wildflower season, and the birds seem to sing a constant chorus of  “I’m happy, there’s plenty of food, and acres and acres of wildland not blighted by suburban sprawl.” The hiking, biking, and birdwatching are also superb, so now you have absolutely no reason to skip a visit to this gem of a nature spot in the Lake County Forest Preserves.

Middlefork Savannah (1401 Middlefork Drive, Lake Forest, IL 60045) is a 687-acre rare tallgrass savanna that was once part of a large glacial lake. This Illinois Nature Preserve features a mix of oak woodlands (including trees that were present when Europeans first arrived there in the mid-1800s), sedge meadows and marshes, and wet and mesic prairies. Illinois Nature Preserves protect the highest quality natural lands in the state. “These lands are the last remnants of the Illinois wilderness,” according to the commission, which calls Middlefork the “best surviving mesic or black soil savanna in Illinois.”

Middlefork Savanna is a splendid natural area in the Chicago area. I visited the preserve about 2.5 weeks ago, and here are five activities to do there. 

Go Hiking

There are 5.5 miles of gravel trails (trail map) and two short boardwalks that protect sensitive wetland areas. From the parking lot, you will have the option to travel north for 2.3 miles to the northern edge of the preserve, take a one-mile loop trail that combines a portion of the main gravel trail and a 0.5-mile mowed grass path, or travel south for about 1.4 miles to the southern edge of the preserve. I hiked the north section for a while before reaching a bridge over the North Branch of the Chicago River, then took the loop trail, which traverses some of the wildest areas of the preserve. As I walked, I noticed a great white egret in a tall tree in the distance surveying its domain. A stunning sight.

I had to cut my Middlefork hike short, but I will definitely be back. I had a busy day ahead. After Middlefork, I planned to head to Illinois Beach State Park (click here for my article about this Lake Michigan gem), then Kenosha Sands, and then to central Wisconsin to see the art studio of my friend Dave, who passed away suddenly this summer. (Click here for my remembrance of Dave, who was a great artist and an even better human being.) Time constraints kept me from visiting Kenosha Sands, but I hope to soon check out this birdwatchers’ paradise with a two-mile trail system.  

LOOKING FOR MORE PLACES LIKE MIDDLEFORK SAVANNAH? IF SO, CHECK OUT MY BOOK, NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND. 120+ destinations, 306 pages, 210+ photos, and just $18.99 (with free shipping)

“Andrew Morkes gets the options, information and places right on where to recreate in the natural world near Chicago and beyond in his ‘Nature in Chicagoland.’”–Dale Bowman, Outdoors Writer, Chicago Sun-Times

Go Biking

There are 4.2 miles of flat, gravel trails for biking. As I walked, I was jealous of the many cyclists who were zooming by, with fields of yellow, gold, and purple wildflowers on each side. Caution: The trail is occasionally winding, so keep an eye out for cyclists as you round the bends of trails.

The north end of the main trail connects to the North Shore Bike Path. From this spot, you can also bike or hike:

1.5 miles west to Old School Forest Preserve

2.4 miles west to the Des Plaines River Trail

1.0 miles east to the Skokie Valley Bike Path

2.1 miles east to the Robert McClory Bike Path

Enjoy Birding and Other Wildlife Watching

More than 230 bird species have been observed at Middlefork Savannah, according to eBird, including sandhill cranes, great blue herons, green herons, broad-winged hawks, red-headed woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, blue-headed vireos, golden-crowned kinglets, double-crested cormorants, great egrets, belted kingfishers, bald eagles, yellow-breasted chats, and American white pelicans. There is excellent birdwatching from the trail that travels on the edge of the wetlands, which feed into the North Branch of the Chicago River. From a footbridge over the river, I saw a great white egret patiently fishing in the water near its banks, where you might also see American mink and snapping turtles. In the water, you might see Iowa darters, an Illinois state threatened species. Their presence indicates clean water and a diverse aquatic community.

Go Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing

The largely flat terrain and open expanses provide excellent winter adventures.

Visit The Wildlife Discovery Center at the Elawa Farm

At the Discovery Center, you can view approximately 85 species of animals. Regular hours are Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10-4. Check with the center for the latest information. 

Originally the home of the A. Watson Armour family, Elawa Farm “gathers community through food and agriculture with a sustainable farm, weekly market, learning kitchen, and educational programming… and is considered architecturally significant as a rare representative example of a Lake Forest gentleman’s farm.” It also has a Garden Market that is open Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. from mid-May through October. Click here for more information on the farm.

Things to Know Before You Go to Middlefork Savannah

Hours: 6:30 am–sunset, daily

Dogs must be leashed and kept on the gravel trails at all times.

The entrance is on Waukegan Road (Route 43), north of Route 60 and south of Route 176. Turn west onto Middlefork Drive. Proceed to the end of Middlefork Drive, bear left at the fork to enter the preserve parking area.

No fishing, horses (or fishing horses), snowmobiling, hunting, camping, or use of off-road vehicles.

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 (including for birding) 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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