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Denise Steffen’s ‘Happy Place’: Mighty oaks along the Hickory Creek Bikeway

Photo for: Denise Steffen’s ‘Happy Place’: Mighty oaks along the Hickory Creek Bikeway

Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

Editor's Note: Have you found your “Happy Place” in the forest preserves of Will County? If so, share your story with us so we can let people know about all of the wonderful spots that bring joy to preserve visitors year-round. If you have a "Happy Place" story to share, contact public information officer Cindy Cain at


Every time Denise Steffen sees two old friends along the Hickory Creek Bikeway, she has to stop to say hello and take a photo.

The “friends” are two white oak trees that stand tall along the west side of the trail around 0.45 mile from the Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve parking lot on Schoolhouse Road.

Steffen, the Forest Preserve District’s director of information technology, considers this spot, more than any other, her “happy place” as she travels on Forest Preserve trails. Route 30 traffic and the stores that line the street are somewhat visible from the parking lot.

“But as soon as you go around this curve, it opens up into another world,” she said as she strolled along the paved path surrounded by goldenrod in bloom in mid-September. “It’s almost like going into a jungle. As soon as you enter this area, you can hear birds chirping way up high in the trees. You don’t even know you are in the middle of town. All you hear are birds.”

If you keep walking or running along the trail, the oaks will quickly come into view.

“Every time I come by here, I take their picture,” Steffen said of the bark-covered sentinels that soar high above the forest floor. “I have photos of them in all seasons. They are so magical, I stare at them in awe, and I have to pause every time I come jogging through here. They’re just beautiful.”

Steffen said working for the Forest Preserve District has helped open her eyes to the flora and fauna around her. “In all honesty, I’ve really learned to appreciate nature more,” she said. “In the past, I never would have paused to even look at any of the flowers or anything in bloom. Now I know the names of species.”

Steffen said she has learned about nature by attending Forest Preserve programs and events and talking to the interpretive naturalists.

“They are so passionate about what they do. You can’t help but get excited. It rubs off. And I’ve actually gone on little walks with some of them, different people through the years, and they point out all of the species.”

Steffen likes to run on the Hickory Creek Bikeway because she travels through different types of terrain, including hills that challenge her and keep her from getting bored.

“The first time I did it, I was sore,” she said. “I think I pulled a muscle. But now it’s a piece of cake.”

Never a fan of running in school, Steffen said she started walking around six years ago when she moved close to a Forest Preserve trail. She eventually picked up the pace and started running so she could go farther and see more beautiful sights. She now runs year-round. “But I never break a personal record because I’m always taking pictures,” she said.

Most of the photos are of her happy place, a place where she can escape from technology, become surrounded by birds and mesmerized by the mighty oaks.

“Looking at these two trees is so amazing,” Steffen said as she stared adoringly at them. “They are gorgeous and majestic.”


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