Guided Nature Hikes Offer a Sneak-Peek at SpringMar 31, 2022 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Guided nature hikes are led through spring woods in April. Photo credit Steven D. Bailey
Hiking on our own in the many natural areas across the Chicago region can be rewarding and provide outdoor exercise. In the spring, naturalist-led hikes offer an extra dose of knowledge and discovery. As the natural world re-awakens in April, local forest preserves offer guided hikes for the public to witness the signs of a new season and get some exercise.
“It’s the budding wildflower, the call of a nuthatch or a little hole in a tree where an insect burrowed to lay its eggs,” says Nan Buckardt about naturalist-led experiences at the Lake County Forest Preserve District, where she serves as director of education. “The advantage to these hikes is that you get great physical rewards, as well as mental exercise and knowledge from experts,” she explains. “Your body responds so positively to being in nature that without you knowing it, you produce hormones that make you calmer and enhance awareness.”
Forest preserve districts in recent years have added fitness hikes to program rosters. For example, the Forest Preserve District of Will County offers a five-mile fitness hike in April and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County hosts three-to-five-mile hikes in their preserves. The Forest Preserves of Cook County offer fitness hikes, as well. “Some of them are designed to get your heart beating, but then also to learn or appreciate something in nature,” says Brian Winters, a Forest Preserves of Cook County naturalist at River Trail Nature Center, in Northbrook.
Even on the active fitness walk where a specific pace is set, Winters stops to point out something interesting. At River Trail Nature Center, that something interesting is a 300-year-old bur oak tree, one of the oldest in the preserve. “I like to use that real, living, thing to reflect on the history of people being in the region, right by the river, which has its own history,” Winters says. “This kind of hike has a fitness component, and it still has the interpretive component.”
More leisurely walks with naturalists to search for signs of spring abound in April. “One of the things we like to do on naturalist-led hikes is to have people slow down,” Buckardt says. They may search for buds on trees or listen to birds singing or notice the fresh green leaves of spring leeks on the forest floor.
“Slowly walking with a naturalist provides that understanding of the habitat and that ecosystem, what plants are there, how do you look at this little trodden path and know it’s a deer trail?” she says. “It is a little bit of serendipity, in that you don’t know what you’re going to find until you look. When they discover something, they experience wonderment,” and that will often prompt a nature story from an adult or child.
Winters agrees. “Everybody has a story about nature that they’re dying to share,” he says, recalling the time when visitors were looking at fox scat and began talking about the fox that comes to their yard.
People come to the same spring hikes ever year at some of the preserves. “Our wildflower walks, people attend again and again and again. Sometimes flowers are in bloom for such a short time; until you see them three or four years in a row, it doesn’t stick in your brain,” Buckardt says. “As we go along we talk about the folklore of plants, why this is found here, that this plant likes it better in the sun,” she explains.
Guided April walks in the woodlands give the hiker a chance to notice, for example, that the spring flower hepatica can have purple, pink and white flowers. Buckardt has pointed out that insects see the dark pink stripes in the spring beauties. They follow them like a landing strip to the center of the flower.
Winters says spring flowers are tiny and assuming, and all of them have wonderful stories of their own. Pointing out an early blooming wildflower, Dutchman’s breeches, in April, he’ll discuss how the plant got its name. Or he’ll say, “Here’s a prairie trillium, and guess where it doesn’t grow—in prairies.”
April hikes also include guided bird walks. Buckardt says she enjoys taking new birders on walks in spring. “You can say, ‘There’s an oriole up there in that tree to the right of the trunk on a heavy branch, and it’s sitting on that branch.’ They’ll look, and all of a sudden you hear the gasp, and you know they saw the bird. You know they can see the texture of the feathers and the brilliant orange and hear that singing. That is just so cool.”
Buckardt adds guided hikes are great for those that don’t want to walk through forest preserves alone. They find safety when going with a naturalist and other people. “We talk about restoration along the way with guided hikes,” she continues. “We love it when people ask questions. When I go on a hike with people, even if I have set things I want to talk about, I want people to engage me in a conversation. I don’t want to be the lecturer. These guided walks let you discover places you’ve never been before.”
Winters says talking to other people about nature is probably the oldest human activity. “I like to think that the first conversations people had were about plants or bugs,” he says, adding, “Going for walks in nature with a knowledgeable guide transcends the things that sometimes divide human society, such as age, gender and politics.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on
science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories
for national and regional publications. Read more at SherylDeVore.wordpress.com.
Guide to April Naturalist-Led Hikes
Forest preserves in the Chicago region offer
guided hikes in April to welcome spring. Most are free, some have a nominal
fee. Some are for adults, others for children with adults. Here are a few
selected guided hikes. Registration is required. Visit the preserve websites,
noted below, to register and to discover many other guided hikes in April.
Lake County Forest Preserves
April 13. 10-30-11:45 a.m., Adventures in Nature.
Greenbelt Cultural Center, North Chicago.
Free. For children of all ages with caregiver.
April 19, 1-2 p.m. Searching for Insects. Greenbelt
Cultural Center, North Chicago. Free. All ages.
April 16. 8-10:30 a.m., Walk with A Naturalist.
Grant Woods, Monaville Road. Ages 18 and older.
April 22, 7-9 a.m., Spring Bird Walk, Fort
Sheridan. All ages, child supervision required.
April 27, 2-3p.m., Seniors Spring Wildflowers. Ryerson Woods, Riverwoods. Ages 62 and older. Free for county residents, $5 for others.
April 2 1 p.m., Signs of Spring, Sagawau
Environmental Learning Center, Lemont. Free. Call 630-257-2045 to register.
April 7, 8 a.m. Bird Walk. Eggers Grove, Chicago.
Free. Call 312-415-2970 to register.
April 10, 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Spring Stroll, River
Trail Nature Center, Northbrook. Free. Call 847-824-8360 to register.
April 14, 10 a.m., Walk and Talk, Teason’s
Woods near Palos Park. Free. Call 312-533-5751 to register.
April 27, 10 a.m., Walk and Talk, John Husar I&M Canal Bicycle Trail Parking Lot, Willow Springs. Free. Call 312-533-5751 to register.
Forest Preserve District of Will County 815-722-9470
April 2, 10:30-Noon, Wildflowers, Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve, Park Forest. Free.
April 8, 6 to 7 p.m., Hike With Your Hound.
Four Rivers Environmental Education Center, Channahon. Free.
April 9, 1-11 a.m., Spring Bird Migration Hike.
McKinley Woods, Channahon. Free. Ages 12 and older.
April 24, 7-9 a.m. Morning Bird Hike, Messenger Woods, Lockport. Beginners welcome. Free. Ages 16 and older.
McHenry County Conservation Area
April 7, 2-3:30 p.m., Hike for the Health of It.
Hollows Conservation Area, Cary. Free for residents. $5 for others. Ages 14 and
April 27, 3-4:30 p.m. Spring Wildflower Walk,
Coral Woods conservation Area, Marengo. Free for residents. $5 for others.
April 28, 6-8:30 p.m. Woodland
Wandering for Birds. Glacial Park
Conservation Area, Ringwood. Free for residents. $5 for others. Ages 14 and