Since they were old enough to walk, all three of my three sons have loved spending time in the woods. They happily hike for miles, shinny up trees, climb the steepest of hills, slosh around in water – the woods brings out their sense of adventure and playfulness.
I was reminded of this last Sunday when the four of us hiked Swallow Cliff Woods, one of the Cook County forest preserves about 25 minutes from my home. Though the two older sons are now in college, I was glad to see their enthusiasm for time in the woods has not diminished and that it’s fully shared by their 11-year-old brother. We had the added pleasure of the company of my sons’ six-month-old puppy, a husky-lab mix who loves the outdoors as much as or even more than we do.
On a map of the Chicago area, Swallow Cliff is found amidst a large patch of dark green in the southwest suburbs. Here, west of La Grange Road and south of Archer Avenue, are miles and miles of land that – surprisingly! – early Cook County planners decided to keep as natural areas.
It’s a wonderful mix of ponds and prairies and oak savanna and more varied topography than the rest of northeast Illinois. Locals tend to call the area “Palos” (PAY-lohs) because most of it adjoins the two suburbs of Palos Hills and Palos Heights and all the boundaries seem to blend together.
We had never been to Swallow Cliff before but found it easily thanks to a wide break in the trees and a stone stairway up the 100-foot bluff. At the top sits an abandoned wooden structure that until 10 years ago was the launching area for a toboggan run. Apparently this place is now a popular outdoor “gym” because the stairs were almost filled with people in exercise clothes working out, ascending and descending the bluff.
After climbing the stairs ourselves and pausing to take in the view (okay, really I was catching my breath), we walked for about half a mile on a wide, level, crushed limestone path. We never saw any horses but did sidestep a few of their “offerings” on the trail indicating that this is a popular equestrian route.
My sons get bored quickly with easy walking so we soon took a more challenging narrow path through the woods and spent the rest of the day off-trail. The woods were beautiful with leaves carpeting the ground and a nice variety of hills and valleys, marshes, a small lake, and grassy meadows.
We spent a good two hours wandering the woods, enjoying the windy fall day. I enjoyed watching my sons interact with one another, with our dog, and even with the land. At one point my oldest son noticed his youngest brother struggling to traverse a particularly dense thicket so he hoisted him up on his shoulders and carried him to more navigable terrain.
Near the end of the hike my four companions took the obstacle course route through a series of gorgeously wooded gulleys filled with fallen trees and small streams of water. I took the higher path along the edge until I found an idyllic moss-covered spot at an opening with long views in multiple directions. As I sat on the green velvet padding of the moss, absorbing the sun and feeling the wind, I watched my sons and our dog immerse themselves in the place and in the moment: balancing on logs, lifting heavy tree trunks, jumping on and off rocks, climbing steep bluffs, and simply experiencing the richness of the woods.
Northeast Illinois can sometimes feel oppressively flat. It was good to find a new hiking spot at Swallow Cliff where our family can get away and experience natural beauty with enough variety of landscapes and topography to lose ourselves in a day in the woods.
Of course, it also helps to go with the right people. And with the right pet.