Best woodlands in McHenry County, check out the wetlands,
trails, nature center
Hills State Park is well named. Glacial moraines, hills
left by the Wisconsonian glacier about 12,000 years ago,
dominate the landscape. But the glacier's retreat also created
a variety of wetlands. This beautiful 1,700-acre park in
eastern McHenry County offers visitors a hands-on encounter
with glacial topography as well as many recreational opportunities.
The moraine's soil is gravelly and doesn't hold much water,
conditions favored by the oak-hickory forest that grows
there. A 1995 study by Marlin Bowles of the Morton Arboretum
found Moraine Hills to be the best woodland of its type
dominated by red oak, with a gravel substrate
in Illinois, based on factors like diversity and understory.
The endangered pinweed and the threatened pale vetchling
also grow on the moraines; many deer forage beneath the
canopy of trees.
the south: Take Rte. 53 to US 12; head northwest.
Exit at 176 and turn left (west). Just after the small
town of Island Lake, turn right on River Rd.; the
main park entrance is on the right in two miles. To
reach the southern section, continue on River Rd.
for another mile and turn left at the sign. For more
information, call (815) 385-1624.
the park is more than its hills; wetlands give the area
added biodiversity. Rare orchids and ladyslippers grow in
many areas, and Leatherleaf Bog, a dedicated Nature Preserve,
features a floating mat of sphagnum moss and leatherleaf.
Many of the wetlands are kettles, formed when chunks of
ice lodged beneath the glacial till and later melted. The
48-acre Lake Defiance is slowly filling up with peat, a
regular stage in the life of glacial wetlands. A melting
piece of the glacier also formed Pike Marsh (another Nature
Preserve) which is farther along in the natural process
of filling in. Cattails and bulrushes grow in the interior,
while the outer fen is home to Ohio goldenrod and Kalm's
wide range of plants attracts a similarly broad variety
of birds. In winter you may find red-bellied woodpeckers,
Cooper's hawks, nuthatches, great horned owls, and an occasional
northern shrike. Many migrating birds stop over here, including
rare black terns, sandhill cranes, least bitterns, and pied-billed
birds are especially attracted to Black Tern Marsh near
the Fox River. The marsh's water levels and conditions are
monitored and controlled to keep the marsh half open water
and half emerging vegetation, conditions many birds find
ideal for nesting.
the park office, a recently opened nature center has excellent
displays illustrating the natural and human history of the
area. Outside, more than 10 miles of trails wind over the
moraines and along the wetlands.
is great year round, and Moraine Hills is one of the area's
best sites for cross-country skiing (rentals are available).
Boardwalk paths skirt the edges of some of the wetlands.
Unfortunately, one of the best boardwalks, through Pike
Marsh, is closed for rehabilitation; it will reopen later
fishermen can cut through the ice on Lake Defiance to angle
for large northern pike. As spring approaches, the broken
ice of the Fox River in the southern section of the park
is a great spot to catch walleye.