Swallow Cliff Woods is best known for its dramatic “front lawn,” which leads up a steep, 100-foot-tall bluff. The bluff creates one of the best sledding hills in the county and also one of its toughest and most scenic stair workouts. On top of the bluff, trails pass through this quiet 800-acre preserve. Hikers enjoy wandering the hilly, forested terrain complete with stream crossings, grand old oaks and flocks of migratory birds around the numerous wetlands.
Enjoying Swallow Cliff
Constructed in 1930 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, 125 limestone stairs lead to the top of a former toboggan run at Swallow Cliff North. Although the runs were closed in 2004, the stairs remain a popular exercise destination for fitness buffs and casual walkers. (Some stair climbers build pebble piles at the top of the stairs to keep track of their trips up and down.)
During the winter, the bluff still serves as an active sledding hill. Visitors provide their own sleds. (Learn more about sledding in the forest preserves.) The stairs are cleared and salted.
Hikers and trail runners can access the brown and yellow trails via a short connector trail from the top of the stairway. The full yellow loop is roughly eight miles, extending west to Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve and east to Palos Park Preserve. Hikers can cut the loop in half by using the white connector trail to cut back to Swallow Cliff North. These trails are part of the Sag Valley unpaved trail system, which is open to hiking, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.
Swallow Cliff Woods South has small and large open-air shelters with picnic tables for family gatherings and special events. Groups of 25 or more must purchase a permit; otherwise, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Trail users can access the yellow trail at the Swallow Cliff South entrance as well. For a 4.75-mile loop, head west on the yellow trail.
Nature at Swallow Cliff
Swallow Cliff is a 100-foot-high bluff formed 12,000 years ago when glacial meltwater carved out the Sag Valley, leaving behind steep walls and a varied landscape of morainal hills and pothole lakes. As it did across the region, fire shaped the natural communities here. More frequent fires in some areas maintained prairie openings, while woodlands developed in more protected areas. Wet marshes and sedge meadows are scattered throughout the landscape.
There are a variety of migrating and breeding songbirds active in the preserve, including woodpeckers, great crested flycatchers and summer tanagers. Other birds seen in the area include red-eyed vireos and eastern wood-pewees.
Concessions at Swallow Cliff
The Swallow Cliff Pavilion was completed in October 2015. It includes an indoor rental space, warming shelter and restrooms. The concession area sells food and beverages (including sandwiches and smoothies) as well as work-out gear and supplements.