Thorn Creek Woods features a 3.5-mile out-and-back natural surface hiking trail that goes over Thorn Creek and through woodland, floodplain forest and scenic ravines. The Thorn Creek Bridge serves as a wildlife hub, so it’s a favorite spot for visitors to pause to enjoy the views, said Richards who has worked for Thorn Creek Woods for six years and is a former Field Museum educator.
Hikers can see the difference in the preserve from the more open area along the Nature Center Trail that was grazed by farm animals for many years to the thicker oak and hickory forest along the Woodland Trail that was left undisturbed because the land was devoted to woodlots, she explained.
The prairie restoration plots near the nature center feature a wide variety of prairie grasses and flowers including big bluestem, northern dropseed, switchgrass, cream false indigo, lead plant, butterfly weed, spiderwort, purple coneflower, compass plant, evening primrose and more.
The preserve’s trail system starts low by the nature center and then heads uphill because the preserve is on a moraine left behind by glacial deposits. The trail system rides on the “spine” between the valleys of both Thorn Creek and one of its main tributaries. The high point in the preserve is almost 900 feet, “which is high in Illinois,” Richards said.
“It’s undisturbed nature,” she added. “And that is what we strive for, to let nature do its thing and we’re just here to take care of it and enjoy it.”
Visitors to the woods can see many species including southern flying squirrels, raccoons, opossums, deer, minks, skunks, foxes, coyotes, woodland birds, hawks, owls and shade-loving plants. And depending on the season, they can see a swollen Thorn Creek or one that is barely flowing.
“When you walk out onto the Woodland Trail you really see the difference,” Richards said. “It’s shady, there is no ground cover, the trees are giant compared to the ones closer in. It’s an interesting walk through history.”
The preserve is home to white and swamp oak and hickory trees in the dry upland areas and red oak, black oak, sugar maple and ash trees in the steep-sided ravines. The creek floodplain features oak, basswood, slippery elm and black walnut species.
Friends of Thorn Creek Woods has established a capital fund and is seeking donations to improve the trail system by adding boardwalks and completing a new trail loop that will bypass the old south bridge site, which was closed due to its deteriorating state and wet ground conditions.
The trail system upkeep has been a collaborative effort with work by staff, youth groups, volunteers, AmeriCorps, community service groups, state workers and Forest Preserve District of Will County staff.