An intimate preserve of oak-hickory forests, tallgrass prairie, and natural wetlands
Exhibits and meeting space, outdoor amphitheater, picnic areas, log cabin warming house
97 acres, with 3 miles of marked trails. Great for jogging, walking, and cross-country skiing
Behind the Scenes
Heller’s apiary of honeybees includes 22 colonies totaling more than one million bees. This fall, staff and volunteers harvested 2,300 pounds of honey. Sales help support educational programs at the center
Entrance is at 2821 Ridge Rd in Highland Park, a quarter-mile north of Half Day Rd (Rte 22), and just west of Skokie Valley Hwy (Rte 41).
Into the Wild
Heller Nature Center
Photo: Heller Nature Center
Nestled in a residential neighborhood between Highland Park and Lake Forest, Illinois, the Heller Nature Center in winter is a study in contrasts. Bounded by two busy roads, the preserve’s 97 acres are surprisingly quiet. And when temperatures dip below zero, the center’s honeybee colonies — which help pollinate plants during growing season — cluster in hives. Their body heat holds the hive close to 85 degrees.
“Heller is enchanting in winter,” says Rebecca Grill, natural areas coordinator for the Park District of Highland Park, which manages the preserve. As snow slowly covers the oak-hickory woods, the flashes of color from a blue jay, cardinal, or downy woodpecker stand out vividly against the blanket of white. Raptors and flying squirrels have made occasional appearances, and the hoots of great horned owls often punctuate the predawn silence.
The nature center sits on land that once belonged to family farmers, including the acres owned by the family of financier Water E. Heller, the preserve’s namesake. Several rustic structures dot the property, including a Jens Jensen-designed cabin, a Jensen-inspired limestone council ring, and a log-cabin style shelter.
The Heller property is primarily oak-hickory woodland, with prairie clearings in the center section, and beside a small pond in the southeast corner. There is also prairie in the northern end near tall, planted stands of Scotch pine, which nature center staff will allow to transition to native habitat as time passes. Rattlesnake master, prairie dock, and compass plant stand out in season in the prairie areas. Throughout the oak woodlands, visitors can find wild geranium, May apple, bottlebrush grass, Culver’s root, and bottle gentian. With brush clearing and regular controlled burns, the center’s staff and an active corps of volunteers have opened the canopy and given such native species room to thrive. “This winter, we’ll be cutting lots of brush and burning brushpiles, so visitors shouldn’t be surprised to see a little smoke in the woods,” Grill says. “They’re always welcome to stop by and warm up. Sometimes we even have hot dogs to roast.”
Photo: Ed Reschke
Cross-country skiers can wind through the three miles of trails when the snow base is four inches or greater. The center rents skis, boots, and poles (one day is $12 for adults, $7 for children, with special lunch-hour rates). Joggers, walkers, and birders also enjoy the trails.
The soon to be renovated Interpretive Center offers exhibits, a classroom for children’s programs, and a room for gatherings and warming up. Interactive programs for all age groups occur year-round and in winter include a maple syrup celebration, night sky viewing, and nature appreciation. Customized programs can be arranged: “whatever you can dream up that our naturalists have expertise in,” says manager Jeff Smith.
The Heller Nature Center grounds are open every day from dawn to dusk. The Interpretive Center is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dogs on a leash are welcome. Bicycles are prohibited.
— Terry Stephan