Illinois Looking Local

Finding Fun in Nearby Forest Preserves

boy using rocks to cross creek above small falls

The kid’s summer schedules left us with very little time for an extended road trip this year. We were going to be limited to three-day trips, overnighters and day trips. This limitation presented me with the challenge of finding places to go that we haven’t been before within a day’s journey. For a family that likes to explore, I was worried this would be difficult. It turns out that I’ve barely scratched the surface locally. I hadn’t expected our local forest preserve to have so much to offer.

Both of the kids are scouts so I also wanted to catch up on some badge work. K is both a Venturing Scout and an independent “Juliette” girl scout. As an independent scout, we look for opportunities to work in badgework and add some fun patches too. Looking for summer fun also means looking for ways to cross stuff off those requirement sheets. I started out looking for hiking patches, like the ones I used to get as a girl scout when I hiked specific trails. This search lead me to several local forest preserve websites. I didn’t find much for scouting, well not for older scouts anyway, but I did find more than I expected.

I was surprised to find not only extensive trails but a variety of amenities like canoeing, kayaking, camping, and archery. Of the three counties I looked at, my own plus two neighboring, I found a plethora of preserves throughout each of them. Some were simple; hiking trails, maybe a lake or two, playgrounds, and perhaps a picnic area. Some were filled with hidden gems like nature centers, historic homes, and working farms. Many of them had classes and events for all ages, including lots of options for scouts, school groups, and other youth groups. I was also surprised to find campgrounds that not only had tent camping but offered cabins too.

I found options for camping that were inexpensive and a short drive from home. These options are great if you have kids that haven’t camped before, have limited time, or you want the option to bug out early. If you have to break camp because someone is just not into it or the weather goes bad, you’re not going to have to drive home with cranky kids for very long. It also means a short drive to civilization for provisions if you’re missing anything.

Many of these locations offered gear for rent or purchase. This way you can rent a tent for a weekend instead of having to buy one. Some sites offered cabins, both large and small, equipped with bunk beds. I even saw bunkhouses for large groups. Many others had spots for RVs, usually just with electricity but no water/sewage hookups. Nearly every location had a fire ring, picnic table and portable toilets nearby. You can even find electricity, showers and flush toilets.

There’s not hiking and camping; many offer boating and fishing. You can rent a rowboat, canoe, kayak, or bring your own. There are stocked lakes for fishing, and some have fishing related events. Check your local preserve for rules about fishing license requirements. Some preserves have horseback riding and others have water parks. I even found one with an indoor climbing wall we should check out. Another one nearby offers a free archery range, something I can’t wait to try out. Into model boats and model planes? There’s a place in the preserves for that too.

So far we’ve been to one preserve in the next county and found a gorgeous walk through the woods along a creek that led to a small but pretty waterfall made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The path to the Rocky Glen falls was a tiny fraction of the trails available at Waterfall Glen, we were short on time since a thunderstorm was moving in. We’ve been trying to return to do their orienteering course, but the weather has either been stormy or dangerously hot on the days we planned to go. It’s still on the docket for this summer; it looks like fun and both kids can work on a scouting badge.

There are also lots of events all year long that we can’t wait to check out. There’s so much we want to try like observing bird banding, astronomy nights, paddling adventures, full moon hikes, identifying frog calls, and learning about then looking for bats!

The preserves hold events all year long which reminded me that the forests don’t close after labor day, there are lots of things to do even in the winter months. K and I walked through a local park covered in snow this past winter, and it was gorgeous. We should make sure to check out the preserves even in the dead of winter.

If we chose only to visit all the mid-sized and up preserves within a 30 min drive, we’d be busy all year long. I have a long list of nature centers we can’t wait to check out. Checking out your local county forest preserve is as easy as finding their website and checking out all the amenities. You can find printable maps, brochures, and guidebooks. Your local library may have info too.

The great thing about local preserves is they provide so much for very little expense. You can have a fantastic family outing for only the cost of the drive there and anything you bring from home. Many of the events are free, and even the paid events like summer camp are reasonably priced. You can also check out forest preserves nearby your next vacation location. You might find something fun to add to your trip and perhaps some local history too.

Here are some photos of our trip to Waterfall Glen in Darien, IL. Waterfall Glen is not called this because of the waterfall below but named after Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of the District’s Board of Commissioners

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