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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Rare Ravine-Bluff Nature Preserve Open at Fort Sheridan

Sep 28, 2011 09:30AM ● By Gail Goldberger

Photo: Openlands

Years of planning and a huge commitment by a Chicago nonprofit, Openlands, to raise money, restore and manage a major piece of public property are bearing fruit. A rare and beautiful habitat encompassing three ravines and more than a mile of Lake Michigan bluff and shoreline is now open to the public at the former Fort Sheridan, located between Highland Park and Lake Forest.

Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is, “…a unique addition to our natural treasures,” says Gerald Adelmann, president and CEO of Openlands. It is family-friendly, splashed with art, fun for all ages to visit and a place to see and learn about little-known local nature.

Lakeshore ravines are unusual in Illinois, and so are the natural communities that form there. “The ravines cut the bluff perpendicular to the lake and provide a microclimate suitable for… northern plants not otherwise found here,” writes Joel Greenberg, in A Natural History of the Chicago Region.

The preserve lies on part of the Highland Park moraine, formed as glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Stretching from North Chicago through Winnetka, the moraine has steep ravines and high bluffs, through which streams tumble to the lake. Thirty ravines are located along this stretch, and most of them are located on private property.

Six ravines lie within Fort Sheridan’s boundaries, and three of them are located in the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve: Bartlett, Van Horne and Schenck. Bartlett Ravine alone sustains more than 150 varieties of native plants, including six state-designated threatened and endangered species. One hundred and fifty species of birds reside in or migrate through the preserve, with the restored lakeshore habitat providing critical food, shelter and water. The ridges are lined with oaks, and the ravines with maples and basswood. Paper birch and juniper trees more typically found in Wisconsin and northern Michigan thrive here.

In one of the least understood of habitats, Openlands is studying ravine-bluff ecology to better know how to restore and maintain it. “It is a learning landscape,” Adelmann states. With major grants of $4 million from the Grand Victoria Foundation and $2 million from the Hamill Family Foundation, Openlands began restoring the preserve in 2007.

The bluffs and ravines are even rarer when considered in relation to nearby natural areas along Lake Michigan—Illinois Beach State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Both are dramatic lakefront landscapes, but their ecology is situated on sand dunes and interdunal wetlands, rather than glacial-clay bluffs and steep ravines.

The repercussions of not preserving, restoring and taking care of this kind of habitat are manifold. Storm runoff from rain pours down ravines and into the lake; developed areas add contaminants that end up polluting the lake; and runoff erodes ravines, taking down soil and plants with it. By restoring and maintaining plant life, erosion is lessened and water quality improved. Plants that would disappear or never reappear are added to our ecosystem. These restored habitats offer people the opportunity to experience, enjoy, study and steward a landscape otherwise privately owned and off-limits.

The 77-acre preserve includes an interpretive trail through Bartlett Ravine, a walkway along bluffs that rise 70 feet over the beach, and a shoreline trail. There are podcasts, signage and art installations at points of entry for learning about the local ecology. Look for a towering mural under the Patten Road Bridge and sculptures down ravine slopes.

Openlands has been operating educational programs at the preserve for two years, and now has 20 participating schools of all grade levels, from Waukegan to Chicago. The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is open free to the public every day from 6:30 a.m. to sunset

Openlands, founded in 1963, protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help enrich and balance the lives of citizens.

Location: 25 miles north of Chicago, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is in the town of Fort Sheridan. From North Sheridan Road, park on either Lyster or Westover roads and proceed east by foot to reach the top of Bartlett Ravine, the main entry to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. To organize a tour for a group or organization through Openlands Lakeshore Preserve or for more information, visit

Gail Goldberger is a communications professional and writer living in Chicago. Her work spans health care, human services, ecology, nature and the environment.