The Skokie Lagoons are a prime destination for water exploration in northern Cook County. This network of pools, channels and islands winds between Winnetka, Northfield and Glencoe. With public boat access (boasting some of Cook County’s best fishing), biking and hiking trails and picnic areas, this well-loved, wooded preserve offers peaceful retreats and activities around every bend.
The Skokie Lagoons Forest Preserve covers 894 acres. Originally one of the region’s largest and richest marshes, much of the area was drained by settlers for agriculture. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps dug out the current lagoon system, in part to address flooding and increase recreational use. The massive effort was the largest CCC project in the nation.
Enjoying the Lagoons
Boaters can wind their way through the Skokie Lagoons’ waterscape in canoes, kayaks, sailboats and rowboats. Launch your own craft at the public boat launch on the south side of Tower Road, just east of I-94. Or rent a boat from Chicago River Canoe and Kayak just east on Tower Road. The launches provide direct access to Lagoons 3, 4 and 5. While most boaters stick to these main lagoons, canoeists and kayakers can access the other lagoons by portaging around low dams and dikes.
Fishing by boat and from the shoreline is allowed with a state license. The Lagoons provide some of the best fishing in Cook County, with excellent walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass, and catfish as well as very good crappie, bluegill and bullhead populations.
Segments of the North Branch Trail wind around the Lagoons. The 4.4-mile “black” paved loop trail circles the northern section of the lagoons between Dundee Road and Tower Road. In addition, about 1.5 miles of the 13-mile “red” paved trail follows the southern lagoons from Tower south to Willow Road. About 1.5 miles of the “yellow” unpaved trail also picks up near the Tower Road boat launch, crosses the Willow Road Dam, and continues south for more than 6 miles. Paved trails are open for hiking, biking, in-line skating and cross-country skiing. Gravel trails are open for hiking, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.
The Erickson Woods Picnic Grove is on the north side of Willow Road, just east of I-94. Another picnic grove is located along Forestway Drive, about a mile north of Tower. There is no parking for this grove except along the shoulder of the road.
North of Dundee Road, the network of lagoons continues as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Nature at the Lagoons
Known to American Indians as the “great marsh,” the area that is now the Skokie Lagoons was well known as wildlife habitat. When sections were drained for farmland and the remainder later dug and dredged into the present lagoons, much of the original habitat was destroyed. Yet volunteers have been working to remove invasive plants such as buckthorn, garlic mustard and Canada thistle from remnant areas. As restoration continues, more distinct and healthy woodland, savanna and prairie habitats will emerge.
Northern pike, largemouth bass, bluegill, sunfish, bullhead, channel catfish, carp, walleye and crappie share the lagoon waters with around a dozen species of migrating ducks. Coyote, mink, gray and red fox have been spotted in the preserve, as have warbling vireos, cormorants, common loons, black-crowned night-herons, green herons and prothonotary warblers.