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Winter in the Preserves: There’s Still Plenty to Do!

a person cross-country skiing at Sagawau Environmental Learning Center

Winter in Chicagoland is typically considered a time for staying cozy inside and drinking a hot cocoa. If families are thinking about the Forest Preserves of Cook County, it’s often reminiscing warmly about (or looking forward to) adventures during the balmier seasons. But when you and yours are in the mood for some fresh air and get away from the built environment, the preserves have plenty of fun, educational and contemplative activities to offer.

Here are just a handful of suggestions on how to enjoy the Preserves throughout winter. Check our website for other locations for these activities—and there are plenty more ideas in our Winter Guide, too!

  • Sledding at Caldwell Woods on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The sledding hill at Caldwell Woods opens for thrill-seekers whenever the ground is frozen and covered with at least three inches of snow. As with all preserve sledding sites, your sled must be in good repair with no sharp edges; and no metal rail sleds, skis, non-winter tubs, carpets, or toboggans are allowed. Hills at Caldwell Woods are lit up and staffed from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Adjacent to Bunker Hill, Caldwell Woods also features a warming shelter, access to the North Branch Trail, and habitats from floodplain forests to open savanna.

  • Ice fishing at Powderhorn Lake in Hegewisch, or at several sites near Palos Hills and Tinley Park. Senior fisheries biologist Steve Silic recommends Powderhorn Lake for northern pike, perch and bass; Turtlehead Lake and Arrowhead Lake near Tinley Park for bass and perch; and several sites in the Palos area, including Saganashkee Slough and Tampier Lake, which “are all good for different things … and if you’re not doing well at one of them, you can drive five minutes to another one.” For safety’s sake, with all ice fishing sites, look for at least four inches of solid ice, away from moving water, dams and culverts. Clear ice is typically safer than cloudy or snow-covered. A valid state fishing license is required, with each angler limited to two poles and two hooks per pole.

  • Cross-country skiing at Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in Lemont. Anytime there’s enough snow for skiing between mid-December and early March, this site transforms into Sagawau Nordic, a full-service facility with ski rentals, groomed trails, and lessons at all levels from a PSIA Gold Medal Ski School. The facility is open seven days per week, with skis, bindings, boots and poles available for use at Sagawau only. As with all preserve sites, skiers are urged to use courtesy and common sense, keep to trails, stay a safe distance from others, and overall, don’t get in over your skis! Sagawau also offers educational programs and interpretive hikes about the natural environment; and exhibits on human and natural history, geology and habitat management.

  • Snowboarding at Dan Ryan Woods on Chicago’s South Side. This preserve has a separate snowboard hill distinct from the sledding area, where only snowboards with no sharp edges can be used—no skis, sleds, non-winter tubes, carpet or toboggans. As with other snow-dependent activities, frozen ground and at least a few inches of snow are necessary for snowboarding to be permitted. In addition to the snowboarding and sledding hills, the 257-acre Dan Ryan Woods offers historic aqueducts, fitness stairs, picnic groves, and a mile-long paved loop that intersects with the longer Major Taylor Trail, as well as a pleasing spectrum of native plants, animals and migratory birds.

  • Snowshoeing at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs. This site offers live animals and exhibits in addition to three unpaved walking trails and a paved accessible garden trail for a wooded snowshoeing experience that connects to the Palos Trail System, notes Jacqui Ulrich, conservation and experiential programming director. Snowshoeing also requires at least three inches of snow. It’s free, first-come and first-served, with all sizes available, and at all nature centers except Sagawau Environmental Learning Center.

  • Bunking down at Camp Sullivan in Oak Forest. Hardier souls still can tent-camp in the winter, but those who want minimal creature comforts can try one of four cabins with bunk beds accommodating eight people, fire rings, picnic tables, porches and ceiling fans. Those who want less rusticity can try the 16-person bunkhouse or one of two 36-person bunkhouses, which add heat, indoor plumbing, kitchens and dining areas to the list of amenities; the bunkhouses and two of the cabins are accessible for people with disabilities. The site offers opportunities for nature exploration along with its iconic red barn featuring a climbing wall and other activities. Veterans and nonprofit groups can book accommodations for half-price on weeknights.

  • Kayaking and canoeing at Schuth’s Grove and Miller Meadow along the Des Plaines River near Maywood. You’ll need to dress warmly—and be especially careful you don’t capsize—but you can take advantage of the newest canoe and kayak launch located along the Des Plaines River. The new launch provides accessible features including parking, a paved path to the landing, and a firm, stable surface right up to the river’s edge. Miller Meadow also offers an off-leash dog area (membership required), model airplane flying field, outdoor shelter, and connections to two miles of trails where you also can walk your dog (but a leash is required).

  • Taking a long walk on a quiet trail in the snow at Sauk Trail Woods near South Chicago Heights. This preserve features the 3.5-mile Black Paved Loop trail that starts and ends at the central parking lot. Visitors can enjoy in-line skating and cross-country skiing in addition to hiking along the trail, which connects to the larger Thorn Creek Trail System. Sauk Trail Woods also features a 29-acre lake for fishing and bird-watching under towering oak trees. With the ravine overlooking the lake, Sauk Trail Woods “can be pretty amazing on a snowy day,” Ulrich says, not only for contemplation but also for photography. “You get a black-and-white, grayscale view of nature, vs. the green” of other seasons, she says. “How do you look differently at the forest in the winter? Sauk Trail Woods is a great place for that.”