Take a closer look and you might find remnants of the past, from prairie landscapes and early settlements to industrial and cultural wonders, all hiding in plain sight at our region’s nature preserves.
Glacial Park Conservation Area
Elon and Mary Powers headed west in search of a new life with their five children in 1845. They built a log cabin near a spring and settled down on the wide-open prairies.
In 1854, the growing family constructed a Greek Revival-style house, which they sold nine years later to their neighbor, Samuel Walker. The Weidrich family established a dairy farm in the 1900s, electricity arrived in 1953, and the surrounding land eventually became a private residence and a corporate hunt club/lodge. The Powers-Walker House remained relatively unaltered over the generations.
The remains of the Weidrich farm were passed down to the McHenry County Conservation District in 1975 and 20 years later restoration began on the old house, a portion of which was still in good shape. What’s now the Lost Valley Visitor Center came under conservation district control in 2006. Today, the Powers-Walker house hosts public programs and events and is surrounded by 3,400 acres of prairies, savannas and Nippersink Creek floodplain.
The grounds also feature more than 8 miles of trails and more than 40 endangered and threatened species.
Pleasant Valley Conservation Area
Long after the glaciers receded, this area was inhabited by indigenous tribes such as the Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi and Kickapoo before Irish immigrants established dairy farms here.
This particular area was once home to a summer camp called Pleasant Valley Farm, which operated from 1952 to 1998 and provided inner-city youths an opportunity to explore nature and learn about farming. It later became a retreat center, and it at one time hosted Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, who wrote and planned the Chicago Freedom Movement during their stay here in the late 1960s. The camp became a strategic retreat center for many Civil Rights activists over the years.
The McHenry County Conservation District bought the center in 1994 and closed it four years later. Today, this 2,080-acre conservation area still bears the camp’s outdoor amphitheater, which overlooks rolling hills, lush valleys, winding streams, diverse wildlife and a variety of rich ecosystems.
South Branch Prairie
This 60-acre site in DeKalb County was once home to the Hoppe family, who farmed here for generations. Today, it transports hikers back to those early pioneer days, thanks to its restored prairie landscape and the reconstructed Miller-Elwood log cabin.
William A. Miller built it in 1835 when his family was among the area’s first settlers. His son-in-law, Isaac Leonard Elwood, bought it in 1873.
The Nelsons bought the cabin from the Elwoods in 1912 and held it for 93 years, during which they built a larger farmhouse around the old cabin. Their descendants worked with the DeKalb County Forest Preserve to dismantle and move the cabin to the Hoppe Heritage Farmstead around 2010.
Today, the prairie preserve offers recreational activities such as fishing, hiking, picnicking and cross-country skiing amidst five native plant communities and portions of the South Branch of the Kishwaukee River.
Elburn Forest Preserve
Lt. James Watson Webb traveled to this site in the early 1800s along what became known as the “Old Oregon Trail.” He was on a mission to warn soldiers at Fort Armstrong, around what’s now the Quad Cities, about potential attacks by American Indian warriors. This route later became a well-trod path for settlers who moved westward in their covered wagons.
Today, portions of this path sit in the Elburn Forest Preserve, which was established in the 1920s and sits on land that divides the Fox and Kishwaukee watersheds. A stone picnic shelter on site was built during the Great Depression using stone from the old St. Gall Church in Elburn, which was built in 1871 and razed in the late 1920s.
The preserve also features a savanna woodland with the county’s largest shagbark tree and various spring ephemeral plants like trillium, buttercups and violets.
LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve
Bryant Durant was born in Ware, Mass., in 1808 and was the eighth child in a family of 12. At the age of 13, he became an apprentice bricklayer. He left his home in 1837 to join his older brother, who owned a store in St. Charles. He later bought 195 acres from his brother and built a brick house and farm where he lived until 1881. Godfrey Peterson bought the home and added a Victorian kitchen.
The home was neglected in 1964 when the Kane County Forest Preserve District bought it and the surrounding land, and in 1974, what’s now known as Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley stepped in to restore it.
This so-called “Little House on the Prairie” today features interactive history programs with costumed docents who re-create an old pioneer homestead amidst LeRoy Oakes’s prairie and woodland, which encompass 9 miles of trails and Ferson Creek.
Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve
The Fox River Line railroad was established in 1901 and became part of a 40-mile interurban railway connecting Carpentersville and Yorkville with the streetcar systems of busy Elgin and Aurora.
Declining ridership and the rise of automobiles led to the line’s retirement in 1935, though the railroad tracks remained in use for several more decades.
In 1966, rail enthusiasts opened the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin to preserve the memory of those halcyon days.
The rails now extend from the museum south to the Jon. J. Duerr Forest Preserve, but recreational bicyclists may know the old train route better as the Fox River Trail. As it passes the trolley museum and Duerr preserve, the recreation path traverses the old railroad bridge over the Fox River and heads into Tekakwitha Woods, where there are forested ravines, amazing autumn foliage and grass footpaths.
Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve
This site was once a camp used by Gen. Winfield Scott’s troops during the Black Hawk War in 1832. This series of skirmishes brought the U.S. Army in conflict with warriors from Sauk Chief Black Hawk’s tribes who had been displaced from their traditional homeland in Illinois.
After 15 weeks of fighting, Black Hawk surrendered in Wisconsin on Aug. 2, 1832, in a move that finally opened northern Illinois to American settlement. Today, the Duerr preserve features a wood statue of Black Hawk and a memorial to two unknown soldiers who died of cholera. Legend holds the soldiers are buried on site.
Visitors can enjoy a variety of activities including hiking, bird watching, picnicking, boating and fishing. The preserve also boasts an 8-foot natural waterfall that cascades and pools into a clear, rippling creek south of the Riverbend Bike Trail, which branches westward from the Fox River Trail.
Spring Valley Nature Center
What’s now Schaumburg was once a community of German immigrant farmers who thrived in their grain production and animal husbandry. In fact, historical records show that at one time almost all of Schaumburg Township was owned by Germans and their descendants.
The Depression and postwar housing boom radically changed the area, and by the 1980s local resident Fred Volkening was determined to preserve one of the area’s last working farms.
The local farmer’s donation of $500,000 helped preserve what would become Spring Valley Volkening Heritage Farm. Volunteers gathered for a barn raising in 1993, and the farm was formally dedicated in 1997.
Today, the farm looks much as it did in the time of those early German settlers, and the public is invited to join in seasonal chores, family activities and games. The surrounding area boasts 135 acres of fields, forests, marshes and streams, with more than 3 miles of accessible trails.
Prairie Stone and Spring Lake Forest Preserve
This next hike is a little different, with walking trails and preserved natural land set amidst a buzzing corporate park. At its heart is no ordinary headquarters. This was, at one time, the nation’s largest retailer.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. got its start when Richard W. Sears and Alvah C. Roebuck started selling watches. They moved to Chicago in 1895 and launched a mail-order catalog. It was an instant hit, and eventually just about anything – watches, clothing, appliances, furniture, even houses – could be ordered and delivered to customers. Sears’ first retail store opened in 1924, and five years later there were more than 300 locations. Over the years, Sears begat new brands including Allstate Insurance and Craftsman tools, and in 1973 it opened the world’s tallest skyscraper in downtown Chicago.
But the party wasn’t to last. As the world’s retail trends shifted, Sears struggled to remain relevant. In 1992 it left its home in the Loop and moved to Hoffman Estates’ Prairie Stone development, where its massive corporate complex was set amidst the prairie landscape.
Sears declared bankruptcy in 2018 and put its corporate headquarters up for sale in 2022.
Today, the Prairie Stone area surrounding the former headquarters is crisscrossed with paved walking trails that are accessible to the public. Just to the north of Higgins Road, Spring Lake Nature Preserve covers 560 more acres of woodland, prairie and marsh, with bird-watching areas and hiking trails.
Raceway Woods Forest Preserve
The 122-acre preserve that now houses a track for walkers and cyclists was once the cornerstone of Meadowdale International Raceway, founded by real estate developer Leonard W. Besinger in 1958.
The raceway attracted sports cars, car clubs, motorcycles, kart racers and snowmobiles, making it an international destination for up-and-coming racers throughout the 1960s. However, financial difficulties and safety concerns ended events in 1968 and the track remained mostly unused until 2000 when the Kane County Forest Preserve, Dundee Township and Dundee Park District took over.
Today, little remains of the raceway except for the 3.27-mile paved trail, a steel overpass for spectators and a Pure Oil silo visible from Ill. Rt. 31. The terrain inside the track now offers hiking and mountain bike trails as well as hidden horseback trails.
Fox Bluff Conservation Area
Camp Algonquin was established in 1907 as part of the “Fresh Air in the Country” movement, which aimed to alleviate inner-city problems by encouraging retreats to rural environments.
The camp was situated on 20 acres along the Fox River and was designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen, whose surviving renderings show a dairy barn, a swimming pool, a counil ring and vegetable gardens, among other structures. The camp welcomed visitors for nearly a century until financial difficulties forced its owners to sell to the McHenry County Conservation District in 2004.
The camp now lies within the boundaries of Fox Bluff Conservation Area, which consists of woodlands, wetlands and 3,530 linear feet of shoreline. The northern part of the park is open to the public, but the southern section where Camp Algonquin once sat is closed to visitors. Many of the camp’s structures have been demolished.
Camp Tomo Chi-Chi Knolls
For more than seven decades, this area has been dedicated to youth camping and recreation. Since the Boy Scouts of America bought it in 1954, the 260-acre camp has welcomed generations of suburban boys as they learn to pitch tents, start fires and build character while embracing Mother Nature.
The camp was sold to the Kane County Forest Preserve District in 2007, and today the entire property’s 2 miles of hiking trails are opened to the public. However, its best-known assets – a tent campground and lodge – are reserved particularly for youth campers with Scouts, churches and other organizations.