The nation’s first federally designated tallgrass prairie preserve, located in Illinois, recently opened its first trails for bicyclists, hikers and equestrians.
The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a nearly 20,000-acre parcel located 40 miles southwest of Chicago at what was once the site of the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. The site is expected to one day resemble Illinois prior to settlement by European-Americans in the 1800s, when 21 million acres — nearly two-thirds of the state — was tallgrass prairie. Today, more than 99 percent of the state’s landscape has ceded to urbanization or agriculture.
The Midewin prairie complex includes rare dolomite prairies, grasslands, savanna, wetlands, upland forests and streams, which when fully restored will provide habitats for 348 native plant species, 108 species of breeding birds — including the state’s largest breeding population of endangered upland sandpipers — mammals, reptiles, amphibians and aquatic wildlife. Midewin now provides habitats for 16 endangered or threatened species.
The tract was transferred in 1997 from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the site along with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Midewin, the Potawatomi word for healing society, is open from an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset. Access to the visitor center, which includes interpretative exhibits, is in Wilmington off Route 53. The phone number is (815) 423-6370.
The new Hoff Road Trailhead covers 10 miles, including shared- use trails for hikers, bicyclists and equestrians, and the Explosives Road Trailhead has two 1.5-mile hiking-only loops.
Visitors also can get to the prairie on foot from parking lots on River Road, east of Interstate 55.
by Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Illinois Issues July/August, 2004