Into The Wild: Sugar River Forest Preserve for canoeing, fishing, picnicking and lots more

Yellow-crowned night heron at Sugar River Forest Preserve. Photo provided

In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and The Rock River Times presents this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit

By Lynda Johnson
Sand Bluff Bird Observatory volunteer and retired educator

Sugar River Forest Preserve is nestled among a beautiful woods next to the Sugar River. To find it, drive west through Shirland, curve right onto Hauley Road, and continue north to Forest Preserve Road. Turn left, and go to the end. If you turn right, you will come to the public campgrounds—a great place to camp! If you turn left off Forest Preserve Road, you will go into the main part of the Sugar River Forest Preserve.

If you keep in your car and stay on the road, you will see that it goes in a circle, counter-clockwise. You’ll drive through trees, and then see a short road that turns right and goes uphill to an old shelterhouse. If you don’t turn, but keep driving in the circle, you will see the road goes very close to the Sugar River. This is a great place to put a canoe into the river, or take one out—no long walk carrying a heavy canoe—you can park right next to the river! This is also a favorite place for fishermen. Several picnic tables are near the river, and it is a very quiet and peaceful spot.

On the left side, across the circle drive by the river, is a newer shelterhouse, with several picnic tables. Both shelterhouses are great places to rent for groups and large family gatherings. Outdoor toilets are nearby, which are kept very clean by Forest Preserve personnel. As you continue around the circle drive, you’ll see a large field on the right that is mowed, for group or family recreation—softball or soccer? If you enjoy walking your dog on a leash, or walking for health or pleasure, the circle drive is eight-tenths of a mile all the way around—a very pleasant walk.

If you stopped here, you would think that Sugar River forest preserve is a nice, small Forest Preserve, catering to people who fish, canoe, picnic and camp. But if you get out of the car and are prepared to hike on trails, you will find a whole other world…a wonderful place to enjoy nature! Go back to the short road that turns right off the main circle drive and go up to the old shelterhouse. Look for a hiking path at the end of the parking space. This path goes all the way up to Yale Bridge Road through a sand prairie—a pretty long hike! In the spring, there are wildflowers everywhere: birdfoot violet, two-flowered cynthia, blue-eyed grass, blunt-leaved milkweed, hoary puccoon, and much more. It is one of the finest sand prairies in the county, not known by many people.

Also in the spring, there are birds everywhere, including some rare nesters. Look for yellow-throated warblers by both shelterhouses. Cerulean warblers nested at Sugar River F.P. every year, although they weren’t seen this year. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a pileated woodpecker. More recently, yellow-crowned night herons have been seen in the wet areas in the middle of the circle drive. This is a wary bird—it flies away when it sees you, but both adult and immature ones have been seen in the summer, which tells us this very unusual bird likes to nest somewhere near the Sugar River! You will probably see a great blue heron and painted turtles in this wet spot, too. They are common in this area.

Another good trail to look for birds is on the east side of the circle drive. Go past the restrooms and look for a path going off to the right, up a small hill. This path winds through the forest. If you circle to the left, you end up back on the circle drive. If you circle to the right, you can walk a long time, and eventually have to turn around and go back the way you came. Either way, you will hear and see many birds!

Back to the circle drive, if you hike into the middle of the forest in the north end of the circle, in the spring, you may find a huge patch of white trillium that will take your breath away! You never know what surprises are hidden in nature.

Sugar River Forest Preserve is one of my favorites because it has so many different aspects: you can enjoy it from your car, just driving through; you can fish, canoe, camp and picnic, very easily. Or, you can take the hiking trails and enjoy some splendid nature not seen by most people. Any way you enjoy it…the scenery is beautiful! And the Sugar River is so peaceful! How about taking your family on an early-morning breakfast picnic, right next to the river? In fall, you may see Canada geese, wood ducks, several different kinds of woodpeckers and noisy American goldfinches chattering in the trees. You may hear a red-shouldered hawk calling from across the river—or sandhill cranes.

The forest is beautiful in the winter, too. You will have to hike into the preserve, because the gate is locked in winter, but it is a beautiful place to visit after a snowfall. Oh, yes, I almost forgot—there is a horse trail, too. You need to purchase a pass at the forest preserve headquarters for horseback riding. I hope you will explore and enjoy Sugar River Forest Preserve!

From the Oct. 6-12, 2010 issue

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