Scenes from the natural wonders of suburban Chicagoland (Jay Readey/H-F Chronicle)
Opinion

H-F nestled in Chicago’s green playground

Jay Ready

When was the last time you were completely lost in the woods? Enveloped by trees and the sounds of birds? The amazing thing is how easy it is to do in Cook County, the seat of the world’s next MegaCity –you guessed it, Chicago, the next global metropolitan area to cross the 10 million mark for population.

With 70,000 acres preserved, the Cook County Forest Preserves are one of the largest systems of metropolitan preserved nature in the world. And, with those 70,000 acres, the Forest Preserves are larger in acreage than 10 of the 61 parks in the United States’ national park system. It’s literally like we have a national park in our backyard.

Even better, living in Homewood and Flossmoor, we are surrounded by the jewels of the Forest Preserves.

Between Lansing Woods and the Tinley Creek Preserves, we are able to enjoy 20,000 acres of the Forest Preserves within 15 minutes’ drive of Homewood-Flossmoor High School. Another 25,000 acres in the Palos Hills, the largest section in the Preserves, are just a 20-minute drive northwest from us. Plum Creek in the very Southeast corner of Cook County flows south to the Goodenow Grove preserve in Will County, a quiet corner of uncrowded nature.

Scenes from the natural wonders of suburban Chicagoland (Jay Readey/H-F Chronicle)
Scenes from the natural wonders of suburban Chicagoland (Jay Readey/H-F Chronicle)

In these pages of the H-F Chronicle, I have been writing a series of columns about how special the Homewood-Flossmoor community is as a place. The way that we are situated in the heart of the South Suburbs’ outdoor recreation opportunities is one of our richest assets.

The Southland Development Authority, a new nonprofit backed by Cook County government to grow the economy of the South Suburbs, calls the South Suburbs Chicago’s “Green Playground,” because there is such a high concentration of recreational assets in the region.

Maybe you have heard of Thorn Creek, but can you place it on a map? It runs along the west edge of Homewood-Flossmoor and into eastern Will County, where the Thorn Creek Nature Preserve hosts events and a nature center with wonders for your children on the south edge of Park Forest.

It’s much less likely that you have heard of North Creek, which starts in headwaters in Lansing and runs west until it joins Thorn Creek near Glenwood Oaks restaurant just east of Homewood.

Butterfield Creek may be somewhat more familiar, as the namesake of a plaza, condos, and a Homewood park. It, too, joins Thorn Creek in a confluence just south of Glenwood School for Boys and Girls. To the west, we have Midlothian Creek and the Tinley Creek system.

In the South Suburbs, Cook County has preserved so much land because so much space is in flood plains from these waterways.

In a world where we are pressed to understand sustainability and reverse climate change for the future of our planet, this green good fortune is to our great benefit. Last week I joined a group on a kayak trip along the Little Calumet River just north of Homewood-Flossmoor. Our 3-hour paddle was magical from Gouwens Park in South Holland to the Forest Preserves’ Little Calumet Boat Launch on Blue Island’s border – a trip down a channel almost completely hidden from the bustle of Chicagoland, a corridor of bountiful nature and peaceful quiet.

There is no easy infrastructure for canoeing and kayaking the stretch, but renewed attention to these resources will change that. In the midst of 10 million people, the Little Calumet is absolutely a river that will please outdoor enthusiasts.

Immersing ourselves in greenery and waterways has not only physical and mental health benefits, but economic development opportunities for the region, too. A few years ago, I was part of a group that created a 210-mile nature trail that rings Chicago, at www.outerbelt.org. Again, some of the richest stretches of the Outerbelt, albeit primitive and unmarked, pass by and around Homewood and Flossmoor. The dirt trail on the north edge of North Creek, from Cottage Grove and Sweet Woods parking lot to the bike path bridge over 394, is a hidden jewel that must be seen to be believed. 

By comparison, one study showed that 13 miles of trail created in Southwest Virginia brought $30 million a year in local economic benefit. Imagine the multiple in greater Chicago if we realize the potential of the outdoor recreation right outside our doorstep!

The best part of the Green Playground is that it’s free. To enjoy it, all you need to do is step into green space. And it’s challenge by choice – out Flossmoor Road, you can enjoy a stretch of the paved path in the Vollmer Road Grove preserve (although I recommend 192nd Street as a quieter, safer way to ride there). 

But if you want to explore beyond the pavement, foot travel in small groups is allowed anywhere in the Forest Preserves. You don’t need to drive to Starved Rock to be blown away by nature’s bounty; it’s right here around us, especially if you’re willing to step into the unknown a little. 

Try Tryner’s Pond on Central Avenue just to the west, which can’t be found on Google Maps but is listed on Apple Maps. Fishing is promoted, and there are primitive unmarked trails circling two ponds. Catch a setting sun from the back side of the pond.

You won’t be disappointed.

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