Are you flummoxed by the Palos region?
Maybe you have driven south on Mannheim Road and wondered who stole a piece of Minnesota and its lakes and plunked it down around the Calumet-Sag Channel.Maybe you have wanted to try hiking or biking in the massive natural wonderland, which is part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County but had no idea where to start.
"I was talking to a fella at a party, and he didn't believe me that there is such a thing. He said, 'There's nothing like that down there,'" said Roger Keller, regional steward of the Palos Restoration Project, who if Palos doesn't exist has been volunteering at a fictional site for the last 20 years.
Palos is real. It is also spectacular, particularly in the spots where restoration volunteers have been at hard work. It is the largest contiguous stretch of forest preserve in Cook County -- nearly 16,000 acres of woods, ravines, lakes, ponds, wetlands and prairies, beloved by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
But with 51 miles of trails, where do you begin?
Answers are not easy to come by. Getting forest preserve folks to suggest the best hikes in Palos is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child.
"Every trail has its beauty," Michael Hart, trails coordinator for the district, said diplomatically.
And good luck prying specifics out of locals. I once asked a south suburban woman to suggest her top pick so I could put it in the paper.
"I can't do that," she said, appalled. "I don't want other people discovering my walk."
Even John Elliott, the district's education manager, can get cagey. "One of the things that makes [Palos] great is that there are these little places the general public typically is not likely to go," he said. "You're likely to get out there and not see anybody."
Further frustrating the newcomer, the area's streets were apparently named by Beelzebub. Both the east/west streets and the north/south avenues are designated by numbers, and the numbers are all in the same numerical range.
And streets often have several names. The main thoroughfare through the area is U.S. Highway 45, a.k.a. 96th Avenue, a.k.a. La Grange Road, a.k.a. the extension of Mannheim Road.
Well, the private party is over. Hart generously spent a morning driving me over miles of trails in a utility vehicle, revealing the wonders locals have been enjoying for years. (And also illustrating how confusing Palos can be without a map. At one point we joined a search for a couple of kids who had gotten lost.)
It was a fabulous tour. Now I know some great trails. And now you do too.
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Bullfrog Lake, Horse Collar Slough, Tomahawk Slough: A sweet walk through woods, meadows and wetlands and past three bodies of water.
Park: in the Pulaski West lot in Wolf Road Woods, on the west side of Wolf Road, which is reached by taking 95th Street west until it feeds into Wolf.
The route: Look for the trail head with an orange-marked signpost. Take the orange trail, then look for the green trail on your right. It will head up a grassy hill and give you a view of Bullfrog Lake. Follow the green trail around the lake until it intersects with the orange trail again. Take the orange trail that branches left (south). It will turn around Horse Collar Slough. Follow the orange trail as it turns sharply left and offers views of Tomahawk Slough. The orange trail will bring you back to the lot.
Cranberry Slough/Boomerang Slough: This is my favorite. It takes you past a lovely view of Cranberry Slough, and then Boomerang, which trails coordinator Michael Hart confesses is his favorite spot in all of Cook County.
Park: in Country Lane Woods; the entrance is off the south side of 95th Street between U.S. 45 and 104th Avenue/ Willow Springs Road.
The route: Take the beige-coded and mildly hilly Old Country Lane trail south. Turn left onto the yellow trail. It will take you past Cranberry Slough, giving you a glimpse of blue water. Then it turns sharply and rises for a delightful overlook of the sun-kissed wetlands of the slough. Continue as the trail crosses 95th Street and passes unmarked Hogwash Slough, a charming pond edged by purple-tinged grasses. The trail turns left and rewards you with Boomerang Slough, shaped like its name and surrounded by meadows. Continue on the yellow trail, then turn left on the beige, Old Country Lane. Cross back over 95th Street and return to the parking lot.
McClaughry Springs and Palos Park Woods: Beloved by runners, this trail has hills for a workout, a babbling brook for serenity and an easy-to-follow loop for simplicity.
Park: at McClaughry Springs Woods, off Kean Avenue just north of 119th Street.
The route: Walk back to Kean and take the yellow trail west over the stream. Enjoy the increase in your heart rate when the trail heads uphill. Turn right onto the purple trail, then right again when it meets the yellow trail. Follow the yellow trail east back to the stream and over Kean Avenue into Palos Park Woods. It then loops back to Kean and the parking lot.