Into the Wild: Little Red Schoolhouse
Sunday, July 01, 2007
As you near the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, hilly woodlands and country lanes whisper “C’mon, play hooky!” from both sides of the road. Relax and let it happen—you have entered the Palos Region.
The nature center sits near the crown of Mount Forest Island, a glacially sculpted, roughly triangular highland between ancient Lake Chicago and its two spillways. This is a fitting place of honor for the one-room schoolhouse that served the area from 1886 to 1948. The school reopened as a nature center in 1955, and is currently the most popular nature center in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
The 40-acre Long John Slough dominates the view from the nature center. The state-endangered osprey and black-crowned night-heron take full advantage of the man-made water body, as do other summering birds. Observation blinds add adventure for kids and cover for birders. Visitors frequently glimpse northern water snakes close to the slough shoreline, where the serpents hunt for frogs in the vegetation.
Photo: Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART
On occasion, visitors see sandhill cranes and bald eagles, both threatened in Illinois, passing through the 400-acre nature preserve. Equally joyful is the opportunity to watch painted and red-eared turtles basking six abreast on a Farm Pond log.
The oak-hickory woodland along Black Oak Trail has not been burned since 2003 when a wildfire swept through it. While invasive buckthorn has remained a low-level problem here, deer overbrowsing and unauthorized hiking and biking trails have taken their toll. As a result, you’ll find only common wildflowers here. But look to the horizon, and the hills roll and fall off the edge in every direction. The woods are open, and the sun will catch you at every turn along this 1.75-mile trek.
The preserve also includes two restored prairies: a two-acre wet prairie behind the schoolhouse and a five-acre dry prairie by Black Oak Trail. They both receive regular controlled burns, so in the summer you’ll see the rare yellow wild indigo, several species of milkweed and coreopsis, blazing star, and the showy wild senna. “It’s a very different plant,” says naturalist John O’Neill, “that time-to-time shows up on the edge of the prairie, taking advantage of just that spot.” In late summer and early fall, a variety of coneflowers add their uniqueness to the prairie landscape along with prairie dock, compass plant, and cup plant.
The nature center itself houses a variety of live critters and mounts that will please the young-at-heart. Most of the snakes, frogs, and birds on display can be spotted in the wild, and interpretive displays provide insight into the habitat surrounding the center. Schoolhouse artifacts, including a slate board, round out the collection.
Park your bike before coming here (they’re allowed on adjacent bridle paths but not on the nature center property). Leave your pets at home, too, but not your enthusiasm for exploring the preserve. As a young boy said leaving the center, “Nature, here I come!” For more information, call (708) 839-6897.
—Alison Carney Brown