In the spotlight: Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve

There's plenty to do and see here in any season

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Some Will County preserves really shine at a particular time of year, but there’s never a bad time to visit Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve.

Goodenow Grove is one of the Forest Preserve District’s largest preserves, 891 acres in all. That acreage includes varied habitats, including forest, prairie and wetland, so there’s always something in season, said Heather Van Zyl, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District.

More than half the preserve has received special protections from the state because it is a high-quality natural area. A 541-acre portion of the preserve was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 1996 to protect rare and endangered plant and animal species as well as uncommon habitat types.


The District first acquired a parcel of what is today Goodenow Grove in the late 1970s. Prior to that, it had been used as a scout camp known as Camp Crete for many decades. Since that initial acquisition, the preserve has grown by hundreds of acres and now includes one of the District’s visitor centers, Plum Creek Nature Center.

Goodenow Grove is on the far eastern side of the county, located on Dutton Road in Crete Township. The preserve is not far from the Indiana border, in one of the county's more rural areas. That remoteness makes it feel like a hidden treasure to those who discover it, Van Zyl said.

“I love the connectedness that we can have here in the middle of a number of small communities,” she said, adding that people often share how excited they are when they learn about the preserve and the nature center.

Frog in water covered by a leaf

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Being able to share the wonders of the nature all around Goodenow Grove is one of the highlights of the job for Van Zyl. In particular, she loves connecting with children, many of whom visit on field trips and have never had an immersive nature experience.

“I love that we have the opportunity to be that bridge for so many kids,” she said, adding they often begin their field trip nervous but are then wowed by all there is to experience. “I really hope that by making these connections we are going to create generational changes.”


Wildlife and habitats

Because Goodenow Grove is so large, you can experience a lot of different habitats — and possibly a lot of different wildlife — in just one trip, Van Zyl said.

“Within a single hike, you can see wetlands, be in the woods, and experience a prairie. And that’s all in a single trail,” she said.

Plus, there’s always something in season at Goodenow Grove, from ephemeral wildflowers in spring to spectacular fall colors in autumn, so there really is no bad time to visit. “There’s always something special happening here,” she said. “There’s all these little secrets throughout the year.”

Van Zyl said visitors are always welcome to stop by Plum Creek Nature Center to talk with the staff there about what is in season or what they have been seeing lately. They can also suggest trails and activities suited for a person’s individual abilities or interests.

One experience she frequently recommends, particularly to families with young kids, is a hike down to Snapper Pond. The trail is a paved loop, so it’s easy to navigate, and it’s a short trip you can take right from the nature center.

When people visit, they usually want to experience wildlife, and Snapper Pond Trail is a good place to see what’s hopping, sometimes literally. “You’re basically guaranteed to see something,” Van Zyl said, adding turtles, frogs and snakes are reguarly seen sunning themselves around the pond.

While Snapper Pond is often a bustling place, Van Zyl’s favorite spot is a bit more quiet and remote. She said she likes to walk along the High Point Trail, a 0.73-mile natural surface path that traverses a meadow. A few spots have trees overhanging both sides of the trail, and it kind of feels like you are walking through a doorway, she said.

“It feels like an opportunity, like you are going from one place to another,” she said of passing through these natural “doorways.” “It feels kind of magical to me.”

Aerial view of Snapper Pond.

An aerial view of Snapper Pond. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Recreation opportunities

Goodenow Grove is a hotspot for recreation all year-round, including some popular winter recreation activities that aren’t common or permitted in other preserves. One big draw in the winter is sledding, with sledding season starting Dec. 1 when conditions allow. Visitors can sled on the 40-foot hill near the nature center. Sledders can bring their own sleds, but snowboards, steerable sleds and sleds with steel runners are not permitted. For those without sleds, snow tubes can be rented from the nature center when snow conditions allow.

In addition to snow tubes, snowshoes can be rented from the nature center to explore the preserve when it is transformed into a winter wonderland. When wintry conditions are suitable, visitors can also go ice skating at Snapper Pond.

At warmer times of the year, hiking, jogging and biking are popular activities on the preserve’s trails, which include 2.27 miles of natural surface trails and a 3.15-mile segment of the Plum Creek Greenway Trail that is covered in crushed limestone. About a half-mile of paved trails surround the nature center. One thing to keep in mind while exploring the preserve: Dogs and bicycles are not allowed in the parts of Goodenow Grove that are a state nature preserve.

One must-see spot at Goodenow Grove is the big bridge along the Plum Creek Greenway Trail. The 267-foot-long wooden bridge spans a 40-foot-deep ravine and is a spectacular sight at any time of year, putting you right up in the tree canopy.

Winter scenery at the big bridge.

The big bridge in the winter can be quite scenic. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

Goodenow Grove is one of five preserves with a campground, and has nine sites available for rental for families and small and large groups. Campsites are all equipped with a fire pit and picnic table, and each can accommodate up to six large tents.

The preserve also has two picnic shelters available for rental: Meadow Lark Shelter can accommodate 150 people, and Plum Creek Shelter can accommodate 100.

Geocaching is allowed at Goodenow Grove, but permits are required.

The preserve and nature center host programs for the public throughout the year. Most are free of charge. You can check out all upcoming programs at Goodenow Grove and Plum Creek Nature Center on our event calendar.

Plum Creek Nature Center is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Visitors can explore the natural world and learn more about wildlife and nature with interactive exhibits and displays. Another popular activity at the nature center is birdwatching. A room in the nature center is outfitted with comfortable chairs where people can sit and look out at a large bird-feeding area. The birds change with the seasons, but hummingbirds are a big draw in late summer, Van Zyl said.

(Lead photo by Chad Merda)


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