Goose Lake Prairie SNA and Heidecke Lake SFWA: “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.”

In early October, we visited Goose Lake State Natural Area: 2,537 acres of prairie and reclaimed marshland located about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. When we decide to visit a specific park, we usually have a plan or a strong reason to head out there. This is especially true as the parks are starting to be further away from our home base of Chicago, and we have to start planning entire weekends with the intention of visiting as many as possible. However, we settled on this park entirely because of the relatively short distance, at just over an hour long drive.

A few of the parks we’ve already been to and written about have been prairies, and I believe that Goose Lake was the most interesting and rewarding out of those parks so far. This may have been due in part to the time of year we went; visiting prairies in the fall and spring has always been more enjoyable than going in the summer for us. But also, it can be hard to appreciate what a prairie has to offer when you’re on a trail surrounded on all sides by 8 foot tall grasses. It’s not like being at the bottom of a canyon with a waterfall next to you, or walking along a lake path watching boats, or even going thru a forest to make you feel like you’re in a completely different world.

Like most of Illinois, this park has glaciers to thank for its landscape, at least initially. The most lasting effect on the landscape was the decision made by early settlers to drain Goose Lake, in order to make the surrounding area more suitable for farming. The land within this park was not usable to those farmers, as what was left was quite swampy. The ponds, marshlands, and the park’s name are what remain of that lake.

We opted to hike the Prairie View Trail, which starts at the visitors center, and runs out through the tall grasses, loops around one of the ponds, and ends at a lookout on a small hill, the highest point in the entire park. Of the two trails there, this one is longer at 3.5 miles total. It is mostly flat, and we feel the majority of people will be able to do this trail.

Although the majority of what you see while walking on the first stretch of path are very tall grasses, there were plenty of flowers interspersed as well, and there were several butterflies flying alongside us as we walked. Arriving to where the path loops around the pond, this is by far the area with the most trees and songbirds to go with them.

Finally getting to the other side of the pond, the path curves in a way that does not allow you to see what is waiting for you. In fact, we barely realized that we were going to be headed up a hill until we were at the base of said hill looking up. On top of what used to be a surface mine spoil mound is a couple of benches overlooking all of the surrounding marshes, prairie, and even industry in the distance. We were not expecting to have such great views here.

Leaving the views behind, we stopped by Heidecke Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, which shares property with Goose Lake. In fact, this area consists of only the lake. It used to be a cooling lake for a dismantled power facility, but is now exclusively used for fishing, no other recreational boating is allowed. The day we went was pretty crowded for people going onto the lake, but we decided to pass on going fishing, and headed out instead.

We ended up stopping at 2 different breweries that day. First was Rt66 Old School Brewing in Wilmington, where we each had a flight of beer while playing Scrabble from their board game stash. Second was Will County Brewing in Shorewood, which was also really good even though we only got one glass each here.

We would recommend Goose Lake SNA to almost everyone. The only downside to this park is that the visitor’s center is closed indefinitely. The trail is not too difficult, and the payoff is worth it for the five minutes that is uphill. This park is closer to Chicago than most others, and while it does not offer waterfalls, you will get a very peaceful and not very crowded path with views that are somehow just as rewarding.

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