Discover the wonders of Will County

We have some of the rarest natural areas in the world

|  Story by Cindy Cain |


If you drive around Will County, you might think the land is pretty basic with city, suburban and rural turf covered only in pavement, buildings, lawns or crops.

But there’s more to this story. Will County has incredible natural areas that are unique and worth knowing that make up the “Wonders of Will County,” according to Floyd Catchpole, the Forest Preserve District’s land management program coordinator, who has worked for the District since 2001.

“Will County has some of the rarest natural communities in the world and we have the opportunity to preserve them for the future,” he said. “And we do have some extraordinarily rare plants and natural associations, which are a bunch of plants and animals that naturally occur together.”

The most unusual natural areas occur in the Des Plaines River Valley, from Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve to Keepataw Preserve, and in the Braidwood Sands area.

Here are some of the interesting and rare natural wonders that can be found:

Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve

A scenic water view at Lockport Prairie.

Photo courtesy of Francesca Antonaci

Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve in Lockport Township is part of the 2,500-acre Des Plaines River Valley nature area. The region was formed by the glacial floods that scoured all the soil off the dolomite bedrock in the Des Plaines River Valley.

“Over the course of 15,000 years, soil developed on top of the stone, but it’s not much and it’s very shallow,” Catchpole explained. “As the millennia passed, a little silt and sand blew on to the bedrock and plants started growing in the cracks. This is one of the few places in the world where we have prairie growing on top of dolomite bedrock.”

The area is home to the federally endangered leafy prairie clover and Hine’s emerald dragonfly and the federally threatened lakeside daisy. And the Des Plaines River Valley region provides summer foraging habitat for the federally endangered northern long-eared bat.


Will County has the most genetically diverse population of Hine’s emerald dragonflies in the world. And of only seven populations of lakeside daisy in the United States, two are in Will County.

“Numerous plants and animals threatened with extinction live here,” Catchpole said. “If dolomite prairie is going to be saved anywhere in the world, it will be in Will County. There isn’t much left, but we have most of what is left.”

Braidwood Sands

Shore St. John’s Wort.

Shore St. John’s Wort. (Photo by Cindy Cain)

The Braidwood Sands natural area in southern Will County also has a globally rare community, Catchpole said. The more than 2,200-acre area consists of the Forest Preserve’s Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve, Sand Ridge Savanna Nature Preserve and Kankakee Sands Preserve as well as two state-owned nature preserves, Hitts-Siding Prairie and Wilmington Shrub Prairie.

The sand featured in these southern Will County preserves came from glacial Lake Wauponsee, which was created during a massive flood that occurred around 19,000 years ago.

The diverse mosaic protects 8,000 insect species and 750 native plant species as well as birds, mammals, reptiles, mosses and mushrooms.


“This is where state-endangered shore St. John’s wort lives,” Catchpole said. “It’s a little plant with a yellow flower, and in some parts of the world, it grows on lakeshores. Essentially, what we have in our community is almost like a lakeshore because the water goes up in the spring and down in the fall.”

Other imperiled species that call this region home include the eryngium stem borer moth, Oklahoma grass pink orchid, Blanding’s turtle and Henslow’s sparrow.

“The globally critically imperiled Eryngium stem borer moth lays its eggs only on the rattlesnake master plant,” Catchpole said. “The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Goose Lake Prairie and Braidwood Sands natural area support Illinois’ largest population of this moth.”

And the Oklahoma grass pink orchid is only found in Will and Kankakee counties in Illinois and fewer than 60 populations are known in the world.

This area also contains a natural community called steeplebush shrub meadow, which is critically imperiled around the world.

“Fewer than 20 steeplebush shrub meadows remain in the world and ours is one of the finest,” Catchpole said.

Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve

Wildflowers in a prairie at Goodenow Grove.

Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

The 891-acre Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve in Crete Township has exceptional snake and salamander populations and is the county’s best prairie grove.

“That’s what stands out about this preserve,” Catchpole said. “It’s a woodland that is close to the edge of the grand prairie in Illinois and the eastern woodlands in Indiana. Of all savanna woodlands that we have left, I think Goodenow is the one we are going to try to focus most on saving.”


You can tell an area is a savanna woodland because of the amount of sun that reaches the ground, allowing for summer blooms in addition to the spring wildflowers.

“It really looks like scattered trees in a prairie,” Catchpole explained.

Goodenow is home to the state-threatened Kirtland’s snake, which is endangered or threatened in every state that it occurs in, but it is doing well at Goodenow for now.

“It’s a wetland snake that likes to live in crayfish burrows,” Catchpole said.

The preserve also protects the state-endangered Blanding’s turtle.

The federally threatened and state-endangered massassauga rattlesnake once lived in the preserve but hasn’t been detected since 2001.

Kankakee River

The Kankakee River.

Photo by Anthony Schalk

The Kankakee River, which flows through southwestern Will County, is rated by the State of Illinois as a biologically significant stream.

“It gets that rating because it has a lot of different native species, including federally and state-listed species,” Catchpole said.

The federally endangered sheepnose mussel lives in the Kankakee River, along with 14 other species listed as state endangered or threatened.

“Water pollution and the harvesting of clam shells for buttons have had a devastating effect on mussels throughout America, but the Kankakee continues to support the sheepnose and five state-listed mussels,” Catchpole said. “The Kankakee also supports the state-threatened mudpuppies and several species of fish, including the state-threatened river redhorse.

“The river has this nice diversity of fish, mussels and a salamander – the mudpuppy – in it,” Catchpole said. “That level of diversity is unusual in Illinois. The Kankakee is one of the top two rivers in the state. The part of it that is outstanding is between Kankakee and Wilmington, in that stretch.”

As a result of this diversity, Catchpole said it’s important to protect the strip of land along the river and the riparian zone, which is the area along the creeks and streams that feed into the river.

“The best solution would be to have permanent vegetation in those areas, not asphalt and not plowed fields,” he said. “That goes a long way to keeping the water quality higher.”

Pulling together to save species

Kirtland's snake.

Kirtland's snake. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Unfortunately, in some areas invasive species are pushing out native species. But there are still high-quality areas to be protected and restored, Catchpole said.

“If we can pull together and make a good effort, we will save some species,” he said. “Saving the Kirtland’s snake, for instance, should be doable. We can save the natural associations the snake lives with.”

Natural associations, those groupings of plants and animals, change over the centuries and are incredibly interdependent and they are efficient, he added.

“They don’t waste anything,” Catchpole said. “Every bit of decaying vegetation has something there to eat it, whether it’s a fungus, bacteria or animal. Nothing is going to waste. We can keep those going. We can keep those associations functioning and intact.”

Many Will County preserves have turned the corner and are improving, Catchpole said.

“We have some species that are in serious, serious trouble,” he added. “Our goal is to try to keep them around. It’s always going to be local efforts to keep species from going extinct because everywhere they live is local.”

Lead image: Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve courtesy of Jeni Gabrenya

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