The buzz

Preserves We Love: O'Hara Woods, for delivering nature's gifts

A woman sits on a log in the woods.
(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

About this series: The Will County forest preserves mean many things to many people, including Forest Preserve District staff. Some of us enjoy the peace and tranquility of a particular preserve, while others among us enjoy the bustling feel of some of our more well-traveled trails. For some, the work we've done in the preserves is meaningful and fulfilling. "Preserves We Love" allows Forest Preserve staff to expound on their favorite preserve and why it's special to them. In this edition, interpretive naturalist Sara Russell tells us why she loves O'Hara Woods Preserve. 

I’ve been accused of having all the favorites. You come for a walk with me, and this plant is my favorite, then five minutes later I point to another favorite. It’s because there is so much to love! But when it comes to preserves, O’Hara Woods Preserve holds a special place in my heart.

O’Hara Woods is this weird spot of wilderness, a natural respite in the middle of suburbia — surrounded by neighborhoods, police stations and highways. Once you walk a little way in, the preserve is calming woods, streams and prairies over rolling hills.

You are never guaranteed anything in nature, but almost every time I go, I see lots of animals. A herd of deer wondering between the trees! Songbirds trilling! A flash of a Cooper’s hawk’s wing as she cuts over the path! Spiders spinning elaborate webs! The animals usually ignore you as they go about their business, but I always feel like I’ve been given a gift.

Each season delivers its own treats. Spring is incredible with wildflowers. There are phlox and violets and bloodroot and false rue anemone and spring beauty. Trout lily with its purple and green mottled leaves. Clusters of umbrella-like mayapples. Trillium, Virginia waterleaf, false Solomon’s seal, cutleaf toothwort, wild ginger. I always get excited to see Dutchman’s breeches, with their delicate lace foliage and row of white and yellow flowers that truly look like old-fashioned pantaloons dangling on a clothesline.

But the star of the show is a true ephemeral — Virginia bluebells. They literally carpet whole swaths of O’Hara Woods. As far as the eye can see, there are blue blooms beneath the trees. On a sunny day, streams of sunlight filters through the canopy, and you feel like you are in a Disney movie. It is one of the most incredible experiences with nature I’ve ever had — right here in Will County. And the smell! On the right day, with a little heat, the air is lightly perfumed like a sweet vitamin C hit. I know it sounds odd, but it’s intoxicating.

As an ephemeral, bluebells don’t last. You only have a few weeks at the end of April and beginning of May. After that, their leaves and blooms completely disappear from sight, and you’d never know they had ever been there.

Summer is peaceful. The maples, basswoods and oaks offer a respite from the heat and unrelenting sunshine. The smell of the damp forest is fantastic. It’s also a great time to listen to insect songs as you walk over the wooden bridge.

Fall is exciting, with its riot of colors. One of my favorite moments on an autumnal walk at O’Hara Woods is looking out over the prairie to where the line of trees meets it. The oranges, reds, yellows, greens and browns are incredible. And the textures!

Fall is a great time of year to bird here, too. The pond beneath the prairie offers at great spot to look for migrating waterfowl. Around October I always make sure to stop by in the early evening to listen for the great horned owl hoots as they call for a mate.

With a layer of snow, O’Hara Woods feels like a cocoon in the wintertime. I love looking for tracks, hearing the woodpeckers drilling away at the insects hiding beneath the bark and noticing the patterns of the trees. I always catch myself reciting that poem that was required memorization in middle school. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep …” (Robert Frost, anyone?)

It’s also fun to see where nature has reclaimed the land from us. The preserve used to be the site of an armory, and you can still see bits of crumbled stone and foundations.

O’Hara Woods is a place of discovery, a place for tiny adventures, for wonder. It’s where I go to reconnect with nature in this technologically driven world. I always emerge refreshed and more optimistic. It is my favorite place in Will County.

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