Near the historic homes of Oak Park and River Forest lie 245 acres of woodland along the Des Plaines River known collectively as Thatcher Woods. From North Avenue south to Madison Street, the greater Thatcher Woods complex is made up of Thatcher Woods, Thatcher Woods Glen, GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Woods and Thomas Jefferson Woods. Oak savannas cover the uplands, with floodplain forests sweeping the low river valley. Visitors can learn about it all at the charming, historic Hal Tyrrell Trailside Museum of Natural History.
Enjoying Thatcher Woods
These 245 acres are primarily used for nature exploration and bird watching. An unmarked trail system follows the bends of the east side of the Des Plaines River. The footpaths, which can be muddy, provide access for hikers to the floodplain and bluffs. (Bicycles and horses are not permitted on these paths.) They go about two miles before ending at Madison Street. Elevations in the upland regions can reach 625 feet, dropping, sometimes abruptly, into the river floodplain.
Visitors can explore native wildlife up close at the Trailside Museum of Natural History, just south of Chicago Avenue. This nature center is open year-round and is free. The museum is next to a large pond near Thatcher Woods Glen.
Thatcher Woods can serve as a lovely bit of nature intertwined with sight-seeing excursions. Combine a visit here with a trip to Trailside Museum and the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District in Oak Park.
Nature at Thatcher Woods
The sites that make up the Thatcher Woods complex represent a cross-section of the Des Plaines River Valley and support remnant floodplain forest, savanna and prairie. The complex is one of the only remaining examples of quality floodplain forest left in the Northeastern Morainal Division of Illinois.
More than 250 native plant species populate the Thatcher Woods preserves. In the north, floodplain forest gradually leads to a scenic river bluff. Views open up to colorful summer wildflowers in a prairie on the west side of the river. Some areas flood in the spring and summer, offering expanded feeding grounds to great white egrets, painted turtles and kingfishers, while pileated woodpeckers tap in the trees above.
At the southern end of Thatcher Woods, swamp white, red, white and bur oaks comprise the canopy of an oak savanna. Native grasses and wildflowers such as bloodroot, white trout lily, wild coffee, yellow pimpernel and spring beauty live beneath the trees.
At least 45 bird species are nesting residents in this extensive forest habitat. They include the wood thrush, ovenbird, great crested flycatcher, scarlet tanager, red-headed woodpecker, black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos, broad-winged hawk, and kingfisher. The endangered sharp-shinned hawk, veery and red-shouldered hawk have also been observed as nesting residents in the woods.
Volunteers interested in joining regular habitat restoration workdays at Thatcher Woods can visit the Forest Preserve District’s volunteer page for opportunities.