With its beautifully landscaped parks and sparkling lakefront, Chicago is well suited to its motto of Urbs in Horto, "city in a garden." But residents of Chicago's densely populated neighborhoods might be surprised to learn that it is also a city near a wilderness: Cook County holds more acres of forest preserve than any other major metropolitan area in the U.S.
To prove this to yourself and your kids, take a short drive down I-55 to the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in Lemont. There, nestled within the sprawling Palos/Sag forest preserve system, visitors will find one of the most pristine natural areas in the Chicago region. The preserve surrounding the center is home to the only exposed canyon in Cook County, as well as a rare dolomite prairie.
Because the canyon ecosystem is fragile, visitors hoping to hike Sagawau Canyon must do so with a guide. Though the schedule varies from month to month, guided canyon hikes are typically offered once a week. Other naturalist-led programs take visitors through the woods and prairie around the preserve to learn about birds, snakes, spiders and other native species. Visitors can also come any time the center is open to hike the prairie and woods trails on their own.
In winter, cross-country skis are available to rent through the Nordic Ski program at Sagawau. Skiers can follow six kilometers of groomed and tracked trails through a majestic winter landscape of bare oak trees and dormant grasses.
The Nordic Ski program has been around for many years, according to Mike Konrath, director of the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center. "It started very casually in January of 1978 and got to be more formal around 1980 or '81," he explains. The program evolved into its present-day format by 1985, with skis rented out from an 1890s farmhouse within the forest preserve.
Rentals and ski instruction take place at the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center. The center also includes a theater where visitors can watch educational videos and a Great Lodge room where a stone fireplace, comfortable chairs and expansive view of the woods make an inviting spot to warm up, post-ski.
Ski rentals and instruction are available on a first-come, first-served basis when there is sufficient snow, and skis are available in sizes to fit the whole family. "If you can toddle, you can do it," Konrath says of the ski program.
"It's a good place to try out cross-country skiing," adds Oak Park dad John Blasi. His three children, age 6 to 11, are fans of the sport and enjoyed the small hills on the more challenging of Sagawau's trails last winter.