Thursday, October 08, 2015

An invitation to enjoy Vermilion County's Forest Glen Preserve

An invitation to enjoy Vermilion County's Forest Glen Preserve [Originally posted 10/06/2011]

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I suppose with the weather we’ve had of late, few people need encouragement to get outdoors. But on the chance you’re casting about for what to do, here’s a suggestion. Explore Forest Glen Preserve in Vermilion County. Getting there from Champaign-Urbana takes about an hour. It’s longer than the drive to Kickapoo State Park, but the extra time invested in the journey pays off in the different experience to be had there.

I visited Forest Glen recently with my son’s Boy Scout troop. It was the first overnight backpacking trip for the scouts, a step toward the ultimate goal of a backcountry outing in the Great Smokey Mountains next summer. The 11-mile backpacking loop at Forest Glen, which includes options for camping, is ideal for such a purpose.

The preserve is fairly large for east central Illinois at 1,800 hundred acres. What’s more, it encompasses an impressive variety of ecosystems, including a 40-acre tallgrass prairie restoration, a smaller savanna restoration, large tracts of mature forest and two seeps that are designated Illinois Nature Preserves. The eastern border of Forest Glen is marked by the Vermilion River, which is a point of interest itself.

If you go, you’ll definitely want to make time for a hike. As long-time Vermilion County naturalist Gary Wilford says, “If you’ve just driven through it, you really haven’t seen Forest Glen.” Among the things to look for on the trail are the magnificent beech trees, which are especially prominent on the uplands and steep slopes. You’ll know them by their smooth, silvery grey bark—they’re the trees people carve their initials into. Vermilion County marks the western edge of beech-maple forest at our latitude, so these are trees you won’t see in Busey Woods or at Allerton Park.

In the low-lying areas at Forest Glen we encountered large stands of scouring rush, a plant that grows up in two-foot tall stems from rhizomes that spread underground. The hollow, segmented stems of scouring rush resemble bamboo, but it’s really a more ancient plant, one whose relatives shared the stage with ferns and other spore-producing plants long before flowering plants evolved. Scouring rush incorporates silica into its fibers as it grows, which you can feel if you rub it between your fingers. American Indians and early settlers are said to have used it for scrubbing, hence its common name.

A unique point of interest at Forest Glen is a 72-foot observation tower, which is open to the public. If you’re able and willing to climb the stairs, you’re rewarded with a spectacular view of the Vermilion River valley from above the treetops. We were there a little early for fall color, but I can’t imagine a better spot for leaf-peeping in the weeks to come. [Photo by author. View from the tower just as leaves are beginning to change.]

As a bonus, at this time of year the tower is also an excellent vantage point for raptor watching. On a recent visit there, Bob Schifo of the Middlefork Audubon Society reported seeing two bald eagles, two red-tailed hawks, a red-shouldered hawk, a Cooper’s hawk and an osprey.

By the time Troop 107 descended the tower and finished lunch on the second day of our trip, we had neither the time nor the energy to complete the entire backpacking loop. Fortunately for us, there’s a whole network of trails at Forest Glen, and we took the short way back to our starting point.