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Harry A. and Fannie B. Severson Dells Forest Preserve, By Melissa Cannell

Entrance at 8786 Montague Road, Winnebago

Come experience a rare, Illinois Dedicated Nature Preserve with a lot to offer!  Severson Dells’ 369 acres  is home to a lively forest preserve with prairies, oak and hickory savanna, buzzing pond, diverse wetlands, limestone bedrock cliffs, maple and oak-hickory forests, and butterfly garden.  The trails are an easy hike, and can also be used for snowshoeing and cross country skiing.  The Prairie Knoll picnic shelter on the preserve is available to rent or walk-up use (if not reserved); it can hold up to 200 people and has a grill, a great outdoors place for an event.  Don’t miss the Severson Dells Nature Center, which sponsors an abundance of educational programs and events throughout the  year.

Whether you hike the 2/3-mile-long paved Oak-hickory Trail, or the 2.5-mile Interpretive Trail , there will be wildlife waiting to be discovered around every corner.  Severson Dells forest preserve is 369 acres of wildlife sanctuary.  Keep your eyes and ears open while walking the paths to possibly spot a white-tailed deer, Great Blue Heron, or hear a chorus of bird melodies.

Start your journey at the Education Center, where you’ll find plenty of information on the forest preserve, programs and events, and friendly knowledgeable staff members.  Both trails start and end at the Education Center. Follow the trail from the Education Center into the oak-hickory forest and make a right at the first “T”.  Follow signs for either the, shorter, paved Oak-Hickory Trail, or the longer Interpretive Trail.  While hiking, be aware of poison ivy, a three-leafed plant whose vines cover the forest floor.  Poison ivy is known for its irritation to skin if touched, but what most people do not know is that the forest benefits from its presence.  Poison ivy protects the forest floor from erosion, and provides food and nesting materials to some birds.  Notice the trees in this area; shagbark hickory (tall trees with long shaggy strips of bark), bur oaks (large twisting, wide spreading branches), and wild black cherry trees.  Severson Dells is home to more than forty species of trees!  See how many different trees you can count on your hike.

Turn to the right at the intersection.  Soon you will come to a transition between forest and wetland called an ecotone.  This wetland habitat is called old-field meadow, water drains into this area to form temporary ponds and wetland communities.  In summer you will see many giant angelica, beautiful, yet odd looking plants close to five feet tall.  The bridge ahead goes over Hall Creek, named after Alonzo Hall one of the earliest settlers of Winnebago County back in 1843.  To continue on the paved Oak-Hickory Trail go back to the intersection and head towards the pond to watch for wildlife.

The Interpretive Trail continues over the bridge into the forest again.  Take the side loop to the right at the next intersection.  Notice large white oak trees, with many holes in them.  These trees are the home for many insects, birds, and fox squirrels.  When you reach the main trail again, go right. A ways up there will be a field on your right, step up very quietly to peak out onto the field; deer like to graze in this area.  You do not want to walk around in the field since it is a sanctuary for wildlife, just quietly observe.

Continue downhill along the trail into Hall Creek Valley.  The trail here has many erratic rocks, brought here by glaciers long ago. Arrive at the floodplain and find a spot to silently watch for wildlife such as mink, fox, and kingfisher, all looking for frogs, crayfish, turtles, and fish to eat. Cross over the bridge and turn right to continue on the trail, getting closer to the dells, or exposed bedrock cliff.  These cliffs are made of limestone that has been dated at 450 million years old!  The bedrock is fragile so do not touch or climb on it.  Instead look at how you can see the ripples of the water reflecting on the bedrock cliff.

Climb up and keep following the trail past oak-hickory savanna, and a field being restored to prairie.  To your right, in the distance, you will see the Prairie Knoll Shelter house, and in the field you will see huge, wide-spreading bur oaks.  At the next intersection, going straight leads to a pond buzzing with life.  In summer it supports many interesting water bugs, dainty dragonflies, tadpoles, minnows, and possibly a snapping turtle can be seen in and around the pond.  Retracing your steps from the pond and going left at the intersection takes you back to the Education center.

All the different habitats at Severson Dells are essential to sustain the wildlife there.  With prairie, savanna, fields, pond, wetland, and forests, you get to experience firsthand a natural, life-sustaining ecosystem.   Severson Dells is dedicated to nature education for our community, so make sure to check out their website for exciting programs and events at