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Preserve Profile: Kishwaukee Gorge (north)

by Melissa Cannell

While visiting the variety of natural communities at the Kishwaukee Gorge North forest preserve you may forget you are still in Winnebago County!  This preserve is home to a restored prairie, deep forest with large, statuesque, twisted oak trees, and steep sided gorges leading down to a peaceful opening on the Kishwaukee River.  Throughout spring and summer trees and bushes are in bloom, and the grounds are covered in vibrantly colored wildflowers.  The entrance is located just west of I-39 on Blackhawk Rd.  From Blackhawk Rd take Pathfinder Rd south.  Immediately there is an information booth with a trail map.  Drive past the booth until the road ends in a parking area.  The open area around the lot is shaded, with five picnic tables, outhouse, and a water pump.

The preserve holds about two miles of relatively easy hiking trail consisting of mowed grass around the prairie, and a rather rugged dirt path in the forest.  The trail becomes a bit challenging when climbing down and up the fifty or so steep, man-made steps along the side of the gorge that lead to its bottom, and the Kishwaukee River.  It is easy to lose yourself for a couple hours exploring on the trail to take in all the diverse scenery at the preserve.

 

The trail is basically one big horseshoe, with a few side paths.  From the lot take the path on the left (east) to enter the trail, the prairie will be on your right.  Less than a quarter mile down there will be a path on your right.  The path to the right takes you around the prairie, and back to the parking area.  To hike into the forest and gorge, continue on the path straight ahead which forms a big horseshoe.  You will encounter three forks off this main path.  Staying to the right at each fork will keep you on the main path.  The meandering left side paths do not go very far.  The views at the end of each are well worth the travel.  The first one goes over a small bridge, and ends at a breathtaking view at the top of the gorge where you can see the other side of the gorge, and the almost vertical, layered rock walls.  There is no railing here, and the drop off is about forty feet tall and very steep, so go only as close your nerves allow you!  The second goes to a high up fenced lookout over the gorge.  Sit down on the bench here and relax up in the tops of the trees with the birds, the river just visible deep down through the thick forestry.  The final one leads to manmade steps and a lookout with the clearest view of the gorge.  See how the layered rock sides of the gorge are so slanted they look as though they could slide off one by one into the creek that trickles down the crevice of the gorge. Following the steps all the way down from the lookout leads to the bottom of the gorge, and a wide opening on the Kishwaukee River.  Make sure to take a look around the gorge and relax by the calming water before heading back up the steps.  After visiting each of the spectacular views and the river follow the horseshoe out of the forest back to the prairie, and out into the parking area.  Also, the small path around the prairie has a couple of benches great for relaxing and watching for wildlife before you leave the preserve.

 

There is an abundance of interesting life you will see in the North Kishwaukee Gorge forest preserve.  Many wildflowers inhabit the forest floor like columbine, prairie trillium, shooting stars, and Virginia bluebells.  The steep, hard, rock walls of the gorge are softened by luscious leafy ferns that grow on the layered rock.

 

The prairie is full of staghorn sumac plant, a large shrub with elegant branches like deer antlers, and large red fruits.  The prairie here was restored by the WCFPD, restoring Illinois prairies is a very important aspect of work for WCFPD.  Staghorn sumac is a helpful plant in prairie rehabilitation.  It grows large, and quickly, and puts nutrients in the soil that other plants need for growth.

 

Eye-catching, little, iridescent green beetles, called dogbane leaf beetles, inhabit the prairie and can be seen on the path.  These beetles eat the leaves of dogbane prairie plant, also known as dogbane hemp.  The fibers from this plant were once used by Indians to make hemp cord, and ropes that could withstand up to several hundred pounds of pressure.

 

Goldenrod is another interesting plant in the prairie.  These tall plants are home to goldenrod gall flies, which spend an entire year developing inside a funny ball shaped pocket in the stem of the plant.  Seeing a small hole in the gall is the sign of a predator woodpecker, whereas a totally destroyed gall is the sign of a chickadee feeding on the larvae.

Visiting the Kishwaukee Gorge North forest preserve will excite your senses with all its different environments and wildlife.  Come relax by the prairie and Kishwaukee River, hike through the wildflower covered woods, and experience the breathtaking views of the deep gorge!