BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER AND AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
Nestled near steel processing plants, a massive landfill, and busy railroad lines and roads lies a beautiful nature area that is an oasis for both resident and migrating birds. Hegewisch Marsh Park (13200-13298 S. Torrence Avenue, Chicago, IL 60633) features 129 acres of native marsh, wetland, and wet prairie, as well as forests of cottonwoods and other trees.
Wetlands and marshes such as those found at Hegewisch Marsh Park (HMP) once existed throughout southeast Chicagoland. But as manufacturing plants (especially those built by the steel industry) began to be established in areas adjoining or near Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Southland, these vast green stretches shrunk to islands of biodiversity. Areas that were not protected became forgotten and polluted places in which slag from steelmaking operations and dredged materials from Calumet Harbor and River were dumped. Hegewisch Marsh was once one of these despoiled places. But as the steel industry died (the last major steel manufacturer closed in 2001), visionary urban planners and environmentalists began to dream of restoring these areas and creating a connected patchwork of marshes, lakes, and wetlands that—once restored—could be home to migrating birds and their year-round friends, as well as other animals. The marshes also provide flood protection, cleanse pollutants, and offer other benefits. The restoration process is a story in itself, but too complex to cover in a short blog. But let me pass along a few quick facts. In the process of restoring the marsh, local restoration workers removed the following debris from what is now HMP that were illegally dumped: seven cars, 10 tons of tires, 160 tons of construction debris, and 18 tons of miscellaneous refuse (according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
The Southland has many ecologically diverse areas (including wetlands and marshes) and it is becoming a premier birding area because of environmental restoration efforts and because it sits on the Mississippi Flyway, on which, according to Audubon, “more than 325 bird species make the round-trip each year…from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and in Central and South America.”
When you visit HMP, you might see moorhens, yellow-headed blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, bald eagles, black-crowned night herons, great egrets, double crested cormorants, little blue herons, and migrating songbirds, among many other species of birds. In addition, pied-billed grebe and the common gallinule—species that are considered important indicators of an ecosystem’s health—have been spotted at HMP. In fact, an estimated 210 avian species have been sighted in the Lake Calumet/Hegewisch Marsh areas, according to eBird. A sign at the park reports that 23 state-endangered and -threatened birds use the marsh. In addition to a Hitchcockian-level of birds, you might also see state-endangered Blanding’s turtles, snapping turtles, beavers, muskrats, coyotes, deer, and other animals.
More than a mile of hiking trails are available at HMP, some of which pass close to the marsh and travel near the Calumet River (a good spot for eagle watching).
Hegewisch Marsh Park is part of the Calumet Open Space Reserve, a larger natural area of 3,900 acres that Openlands says “holds great potential to become a regionally and nationally recognized place for wildlife habitat restoration and wildlife conservation. Forty percent of Illinois endangered plants can be found in parks, preserves, and open land within [the] Calumet region.” Environmental restoration is ongoing at Hegewisch Marsh and its neighbors Indian Ridge Marsh, Big Marsh, Burnham Prairie, and Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake but this will be a long process. You may see occasional slag on the ground as you walk, and there is still work to do to clean up the chemicals that were dumped in the area, but Hegewisch Marsh Park is already a beautiful place and worth a visit. Since restoration (including the removal of invasive plants) has begun, bird populations have skyrocketed. It’s inspiring to see some good come from bad. In late 2022, the federal government awarded $500,000 to the Chicago Park District that is earmarked to improve 60 acres of hemi-marsh and upland habitats at Hegewisch Marsh with a goal of helping to create improved ecosystems for migratory waterfowl at the park. Click here and here for more information on the Calumet Region and restoration efforts.
Head to Hegewisch Marsh Park for:
- Easy and enjoyable hiking
- Beautiful views of the marsh and prairies
- Excellent birdwatching (especially during the spring and fall migrations); the Chicago Ornithological Society organizes bird walks and cleanup days throughout the year
- Spring and summer wildflowers
- Stunning fall colors
- A chance to see environmental restoration in progress
- Solitude, at least when I visited; I say it a lot, but there’s nothing like being alone in a beautiful nature spot.
Hegewisch Marsh park is open from sunrise to sunset daily.
I encourage you to spend a day on Chicago’s East Side and in its south suburbs by visiting other nearby nature spots. Here are some articles I’ve written about these areas.
Big Marsh Park: Spectacular Bike Tracks, Bountiful Birding, and Much More
Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve: A Birdwatching Hotspot
Sand Ridge Nature Center: Indoor and Outdoor Education and Fun in All Seasons
Visit Sand Ridge Nature Center for a Wonderful Winter Experience
Indian Ridge Marsh Park: A Bird Haven and a Story of Environmental Rebirth
Steelworkers Park is a 16.56-acre site on the shores of Lake Michigan. It features a towering rock climbing wall that is built on a historic ore wall that remains from the South Works steel plant, hiking trails with beautiful views of the lake and prairie, and opportunities for shore fishing and birdwatching. Two massive blast furnace bells and an ingot mould pattern from SouthWorks now serve as public art at the park. Parking is easy, and there are good opportunities for biking (a Divvy site is located at the parking lot).
Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake: A Unique Dune and Swale Landscape, Fishing, and an Exciting Restoration Project
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos): Andrew Morkes, except for the following photos:
Bald Eagle (Ron Holmes, USFWS); Black-Crowned Night Heron (Sandra Uecker, USFWS); Blanding’s Turtle (Courtney Celley, USFWS); Common Gallinule (Keenan Adams, USFWS); Doube-Crested Cormorants (Matt Poole, USFWS); Marsh Wren (Tom Koerner, USFWS); Pied-Billed Grebe (Sandra Uecker, USFWS); Yellow-Headed Blackbird (Kimberly Emerson, USFWS)
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.
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 Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They 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 titles. They 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 Careers, What 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.