Some 22 million years ago, western North America witnessed the growth of the world’s first prairie grasses. The landscape gradually moved east, reaching our region a few thousand years ago, after the last glacier receded into Canada. Illinois prairie supported Native Americans, who burned the grasslands as they hunted buffalo on foot. European pioneers pushed through the dark forests, amazed to find 22,000,000 acres of sunny, flower-filled grassy landscape. Following this discovery, they called Illinois the “Prairie State.” Although only 1/10 of 1 percent remains of Illinois’ beautiful original prairie, and most sites are mere remnants, Prairie Directory of North America lists 80 prairies in Cook County. The following are 10 Cook County prairies that invite visits from outdoor lovers, bird watchers, natural history buffs and prairie gardeners seeking inspiration and ideas.
Northeast Cook County
- Chicago Botanic Gardens: Fifteen acres of re-created tallgrass, gravel hill, sand and wet prairie occupy part of this site in the Village of Glencoe. The Botanic Gardens is located off US 94 on Lake Cook Road.
- Green Bay Road Prairie: Prairie plantings along the east side of Green Bay Road from the Wilmette/Evanston line to McCormick Boulevard in Evanston. On your way to and from the Chicago Botanic Gardens, drive alongside this City of Evanston re-created prairie. It lines a railroad track as prairies did in olden days.
- The Grove National Historic Landmark: This 125-acre landmark includes restored prairie originally owned by the Kennicott family, early Illinois naturalists. The site is located at 1321 Milwaukee Avenue in Glenview. It has self-guided trails.
Northwest Cook County
- Crabtree Nature Center: Five hundred acres of restored and re-created wet and high ground tallgrass prairie is located in the 1,100 acres of preserve land. The site lies on rolling, glacier-formed land that was forest, prairie and marsh until after 1830 when the landscape was plowed under, the trees cut and the wet prairies and marshes drained for farming or dredged to make lakes. The Cook County Forest Preserve District restored the site to approximate its natural state. There are several miles of self-guided trails and an exhibition building plus a prairie restoration unit. Turkey-foot Prairie and Phantom Prairie have trails. The center is located on the north side of Palatine Road, one mile west of Barrington Road in the extreme northwest corner of Cook County, in Barrington Hills.
- Oakton College Prairie: Twenty-plus acres of prairie restoration owned and managed by Oakton College at the south side of Central Street in Des Plaines in the northwest portion of the county.
City of Chicago
- North Park Village Nature Center: Nine to 10 acres of re-created prairies lie next to woodlands and wetlands in this 46-acre urban wilderness in the City of Chicago. The center is located at 5801 N. Pulaski Avenue. One and a half miles of trails wind through the center. Parking and toilets are available. Before Chicago was built, the landscape was prairie, so this restored City of Chicago prairie is especially relevant.
South Cook County
- Cap Sauers Holdings Nature Preserve: These 1,520 acres in southern Cook County include oak savanna and prairie communities that are disturbed due to post-settlement suppression of fire. The preserve is north of McCarthy Road and bounded by 104th Avenue and Calumet Sag Road. The Forest Preserve District and The Nature Conservancy have a project to restore much of the site to its pre-settlement condition. Trails and parking are available.
- Indian Boundary Prairies: Three hundred acres of tallgrass prairie in the City of Markham. The prairies are called Dropseed, Paintbrush, Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham. A National Natural Landmark, it sits on the plain formed by the gradually receding ancient Chicago Lake waters at the end of the Wisconsin Glaciation. An ancient beach ridge runs throughout. Named for the 1800s boundary-line between whites and Indians, it escaped development because of the 1930s Depression, becoming a critical habitat for endangered grassland plants and birds such as the bobolink and eastern meadowlark.
Southeast Cook County
- Sand Ridge Prairie Nature Preserve: Fifteen to 20 acres of prairie in the 70-acre Sand Ridge Nature Preserve near Calumet City. The preserve is between 154th and 159th streets and west of Torrence Avenue. This prairie provides a fine example of dry-mesic and wet sand prairie growing on the very sandy soil deposited 5,000 to 6,000 years ago by the gradually receding glacial Lake Chicago. Its low sandy ridges support sand prairies, scattered black oak savannas, and tall and short grasses. The nature center provides slideshows, a pioneer cabin reproduction, trails and bathrooms.
Southwest Cook County
- Little Red School House Nature Center Prairie: Thirty-five acres of restored prairie located in southwest Cook County on 104th Avenue, a half mile south of 95th Street. Before the written history of man, Indian hunters followed the receding glacier that covered northern Illinois and found the swampy southern end of Lake Michigan teeming with game. Flint chips and occasional arrow points are often found here. In 1804, the area supported two Indian villages, one at the intersection of Archer Avenue and 107th Street and one about where the town of Palos Park now stands. Archer Avenue was a very important Indian and early settler trail.
- Adelman, Charlotte and Bernard Schwartz. Prairie Directory of North America. Lawndale Enterprises, 2002.
Content last updated: October 31, 2002