Woodlands and wetlands on dramatic glacial topography
Most isolated spot in Cook County, winding esker
1,520 acres, 4.5 miles of hiking/biking trails, connects to 17-mile Sag Valley trail
Take I-55 to La Grange Rd south, then west on Rte 83. For Esker Trail, park in gravel pull-off on Rte 83 .25-mile west of 104th Ave. Enter trail near FP sign describing restoration. Parking also at corner of Rte 83 and 104th
Into the Wild
Cap Sauers Holdings
Cook County, IL
Photo: Rob Curtis/The Early Birder
Walk down the trails at the Cap Sauers Holdings Nature Preserve (also see our previous profile, CW Winter ’98) and the surrounding suburban landscape will soon seem far away. At 1,520 acres, this Cook County Forest Preserve site is the largest dedicated state nature preserve in northeastern Illinois and the most remote point in the county. It offers a variety of habitats — oak savannas, upland forests, ponds, and wetlands — all set amongst some unusually dramatic glacial topography.
Cap Sauers’ rolling landscape features one of the state’s best examples of an esker, a long snaking ridge formed by sediment from a river that once ran on or inside a glacier. Bob Arentz, the volunteer steward for the site, recommends starting your visit by walking the Esker Trail, which starts as an old access road off Route 83 at the northeastern end of the preserve and runs as a narrow track along the top of Visitation Esker. Ascending along the esker’s backbone, hikers can see deep into the open woods while immersed in trailside wildflowers.
The Esker Trail is also a great place to see the results of restoration efforts in the preserve. According to Arentz, a great deal of work has been done along the Esker Trail during the past decades, as volunteers have been working with the Forest Preserve District to remove invasive plants. The area has less brush and more sunlight, and native grasses and wildflowers are starting to replace the invasive buckthorn thickets. Visitors have noticed the change. “I’ve had numerous people come by and thank me and say how much better it looks in the areas where we’ve been working,” Arentz says.
Photo: Roger Keller
Much of Cap Sauers was disturbed by farming and grazing before the site was set aside as a forest preserve, but wildlife has firmly reclaimed it. In the woodlands, visitors might hear chorus frogs, spring peepers, and other frog species calling from low areas along the trail. Scan the trails for signs of coyotes, and peer up tree trunks for the showy pileated woodpecker. During the spring, look for plants such as Jack-in-the-pulpit, red trillium, bloodroot, and green dragon, scattered below a canopy of white, red, and bur oaks, bitternut and shagbark hickories, black walnut, and hawthorn. At the “summit” of the esker, the trail emerges into Visitation Prairie, a remote clearing in the middle of the preserve and a hushed place for a quiet lunch. Keep an eye out for the remains of a boys’ camp that closed around 70 years ago, as well as eastern kingbirds that have been observed ruling the clearing.
While hiking is the main activity at Cap Sauers, mountain biking is allowed on marked trails. (Bikers should avoid Esker Trail.) Visitors can explore the many branches of the unpaved Sag Valley Trail, which winds for 17 miles through Cap and surrounding Palos Preserves. Workdays are the first Saturday of every month at 1 p.m. To volunteer, call (708) 598-2234.
— Stephanie Folk