Good quality oak woods surround a lake in a narrow and steep creek valley
Beautiful views from the loop trail looking down the ravines surrounding the lake and one of the largest CCC-constructed shelters
640 acres, 3.8-mile loop trail
Behind the Scenes
A large percentage of land alongside Thorn Creek is in public ownership. Sauk Trail Woods is within a proposed macrosite to be called Thorn Grove
Take I-394 South to Sauk Trail. Turn right on Sauk Trail and continue west 4 miles through South Chicago Heights to Forest Preserve Drive. Turn right and continue north to the two preserve entrances on the west/left.
Sauk Trail Woods
by Gary Mechanic
Photo: Gary Mechanic
BACK WHEN THE Chicago Wilderness was truly a wilderness, a great interstate highway ran across the southern edge of what is now Cook County. The Great Sauk Trail was 400 miles long — and one foot wide. For centuries before Joliet and Marquette carried their canoes across the Chicago Portage, bands of American Indians traveled it in single file, on missions of peace and war, until they had beaten a narrow path deep in the soil.
The Indians and later travelers would rest or camp where the trail crossed Thorn Creek, in the midst of what was an ancient 4,000-acre forest, perched between the grasslands to the west and the marshes and dunelands to the east. A monument on the south side of Sauk Trail near the creek marks the location of the settlers’ campground. Today the old trail is the southern boundary of the 640-acre forest preserve known as Sauk Trail Woods. Thorn Creek bisects the preserve, which lies between Park Forest on the west and South Chicago Heights on the east.
Running north from the highlands of the Tinley Moraine, Thorn Creek drops nearly 200 feet in its 20-mile course to the Little Calumet River on the Chicago Lake Plain. In 1930, 26th Street, which forms the northern boundary of Sauk Trail Woods, was paved across the creek. The Forest Preserve District took advantage of the construction to dam the creek, which backed up to form the long, narrow Sauk Trail Lake between its steep valley walls. The lake — a central feature of Sauk Trail Woods — provides dramatic vistas from the 3.8-mile multi-use paved trail that encircles it. The dam, however, trapped sediments that continue to fill the lake, while the ten-foot-high spillway presents an unsurpassable obstacle to the fish that swim up the creek from the Little Calumet River. Consequently, the fishing is virtually limited to carp.
Photo: Joe Nowak
On the east side of the lake the trail skirts some of the largest ravines you’ll find between Highland Park and Starved Rock. On the west side of the lake the trail dips deeper into a young oak woodland interspersed by small pockets of “go-back” prairies. Fragrant pioneer plants such as wild bergamot and mountain mint grow in abundance along with grey-headed coneflower, liatris, rudbeckia, and bull rushes.
The considerable assemblage of preserves that flank Thorn Creek have attracted the attention of local conservationists. Groups including Governors State University, with its 750-acre campus, much of it open space, have discussed better unifying the “Thorn Grove Macrosite” with trails, possible land purchases to link fragmented sections, and cooperative efforts such as habitat restoration, creek cleanup, and watershed protection efforts.
Sauk Trail Woods hosts good birding in the late fall and early spring.
Wood duck boxes scattered throughout the site attract a small flock. Towhees,
thrashers, white-eyed vireos, yellowthroats, wood thrush, and osprey are common
visitors, along with migrants that follow the ancient Thorn Creek flyway.
Two nearby Forest Preserve nature centers bookend the Thorn Creek corridor, providing easy access to local cultural history, interpretation, and environmental education.
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s Sand Ridge Nature Center, (708) 868-0606, on the north side of 159th Street, has 235 acres with three miles of hiking trails through prairies, marshes, and a wooded ancient beach ridge with sarsaparilla and sassafras trees. Sand Ridge explores American Indian cultural history through archeological displays and traditional storytelling. The Christmas Past celebration features a quiet pioneer Christmas with berries on the mantle, popcorn over an open fire, and homemade ornaments and toys.
Will County’s Thorn Creek Nature Center, 247 Monee Road in Park Forest, Illinois, (708) 747-6320, sits in the 880-acre Thorn Creek Nature Preserve. One of the ecologically richest sites along Thorn Creek, the nature preserve has a full spectrum of woodlands, including wooded ravines. Housed in an historic church, the nature center features exhibits, a research library, and public nature programs. Open 12 to 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday.
Photo: Ed Reschke
The Village of Park Forest has been restoring a 45-acre peat bog site at its Central Park since early 2000. The Central Park Wetlands project, with a 450-foot boardwalk leading to the center of the site, won a 2004 Conservation and Native Landscaping Award from the U.S. EPA and Chicago Wilderness.
Other nearby attractions include the 375-acre Bartel Grassland, a few miles west of Sauk Trail Woods, and the Thornton Quarry, the second largest commercial quarry in the world. Quarry tours are conducted by the Thornton Historical Society and Material Service Corporation on the first Saturday of June and October each year. $15 per person. Call (708) 877-6569.
The old Flossmoor train station has been converted into the Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery, 1035 Sterling Avenue, (708) 957-2739. Serving a full menu from snacks to dinners along with the best microbrews in the south suburbs, the restaurant also features a restored caboose converted into an ice cream shop. Across the street, the Fresh Starts Restaurant & Bakery, (708) 957-7900, serves an upscale menu and offers packages that blend dinner with cultural events.
For more casual fare, travel down Thorn Creek to the village of Thornton where Widow McCleary’s Pub & Grill, 400 E. Margaret Street, (708) 877-7011, provides the usual bar food and drink in a quaint 1876 wood-frame building. Formerly the Bielfeldt Brewery, even Capone’s men imposed their presence during prohibition times.
Little House on the Prairie
Holiday Treasures Pops Concert