The Buzz

Preserves We Love: Raccoon Grove, for its fairy-tale feel

A person standing along a dirt trail in a forest.

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 Heather Van Zyl tells us why she loves Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve. 

Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve is easy to miss, with its entrance tucked away like a secret. Even if found, one might consider skipping it, with only a single trail less than a half-mile long round trip, in favor of a preserve with longer or multiple trails. But that would be a mistake. When I finally ventured into Raccoon Grove after driving past so many times, thinking “Maybe next time,” I felt like I had stepped through a portal to an enchanted space. Year-round magic happens in those 200 acres.

I now consider Raccoon Grove my go-to preserve when I want a quick hike to reset after a meeting or on the way to pick up my kids from practice. But I have to be careful! That “quick hike” can easily turn into a long wander as I get caught up in the magic of the space.

When I’m there, I frequently hear a barred owl calling, regardless of the time of day. Of course, I have to stop and try to spot it. One morning, my pausing paid off and it graced me with a flyover!

At the height of spring wildflower season, I once found myself on hands and knees along the trail trying to identify all the different species in bloom, or close to bloom. I was so entranced that when I happened to glance at my watch, I was shocked to find that an hour and a half had passed before even making it to the bridge, just 500 feet in! I remember thinking how I wished more people visited Raccoon Grove with wide eyes and slow feet to share my experience, while simultaneously feeling grateful not to be caught crawling around exclaiming at all the flowers!

On another hike later that spring I was doing a pretty good job of keeping a “quick” pace and not getting caught up in the details — at least until I rounded the bend by the creek and stopped in my tracks, mesmerized by the solid wave of bluebells in bloom. I found myself wandering spellbound, trying (unsuccessfully) to capture the fleeting beauty in photos. 

What the magic of wildflowers brings to spring mushrooms bring to fall. As the weather cools and plants begin to die back for their winter sleep, mushrooms emerge and steal the show. Large and small, high and low, in all shapes and colors. The longer I let myself stop and look, the more I notice. As someone who loves stories and myths as much as flora and fauna, I can’t help but imagine myself disappearing into a fairy-tale existence in these fall woods.

And don’t miss winter in Raccoon Grove. I led a hike with like-minded wanders one January. It started to snow as we arrived. Have you ever imagined yourself inside the perfect scene of a snow globe? Well now I’ve lived it. The large flakes slowly fell through the trees in a space so silent we could hear them touch the ground, bird chatter in the trees the only other sound. We probably spent more time standing still in wonder than walking on that hike because it felt so special and, if I can say it one more time, magical.

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