To drivers on Route 45 near Antioch, Ethel's Woods Forest Preserve has looked exactly the same for 16 years -- an open field fronting a distant canopy of trees.
It was the staggering beauty beyond the tree line, including a serpentine, man-made lake and the largest unprotected oak-hickory woodland in the county, that the Lake County Forest Preserve District was eyeing when it bought the 475-acre property for $13.2 million in 2001.
But relatively few have seen that firsthand, as the preserve has not been open to the public.
Now the final pieces are coming into place to provide public access to the dramatic landscape beyond sight of the road.
"It's plugged in and we have the funding, so it's going to happen," said Randy Seebach, the district's director of planning and land preservation.
A parking lot, a 1.3-mile trail, two overlooks and other amenities will be built next year. The view will not include the 57-acre Rasmussen Lake but instead the restored North Mill Creek winding through the property as it did before the lake's creation 60 years ago.
The public access and creek restoration projects at Ethel's Woods are proceeding simultaneously, with both expected to be completed in time for the preserve to open in late 2019.
That's still a long way off, but given the long and unexpected history of the site, those involved know a corner has been turned.
"Even for someone like me who knows what it looked like before, it's hard to visualize where the lake was. It's amazing what they've done," said Lake County Board member Linda Pedersen, who represents the area and is vice president of the forest board.
"I've been telling people about it, but no one really knows what's back there. The property is breathtaking," she said.
On Sept. 12, the forest district board is expected to shift funds, amend its 10-year capital plan and approve a contract for $4 million to allow for the substantial completion of the North Mill Creek restoration project.
That work started in June 2014, and since then most of the lake slowly has been drained. A 14-acre section to catch sediment remains, but it will be removed as part of the second phase of the complicated project to restore the landscape to its original state.
"Technically, the project is difficult due to the amount of sediment built up behind the dam," according to Leslie Berns, landscape ecology manager for the district.
"The challenge has been to plan and implement the reconnection of the stream when there is approximately a 6-foot elevation difference between the top of sediments above the dam and the stream elevation below the dam," she said.
The lake originally was valued for its potential recreation possibilities. But it was found to be in bad shape, ranking 161st of 162 Lake County lakes for water quality, according to the county health department. It also has a severely eroded shoreline and other issues.
"It was kind of a rude awakening and something we didn't suspect," said Lake County Board member Carol Calabresa, who was elected in 1986 and is the senior forest commissioner. She also heads the forest board's planning committee.
With that, officials in 2006 considered three choices: Do nothing, improve the lake, or restore the creek.
"It was a huge departure," Calabresa said. "It took awhile. We talked a long time about it because it was such an unusual project."
Berns said the cost to dredge and improve the lake in 2006 dollars was $10 million, and it eventually would have again filled with sediment. Costs for the creek restoration are pegged at about $6.1 million.
Once the contract is approved, tree clearing, removal of a small dam uncovered at the north end of the lake, and construction of a bypass channel are expected to be done this fall, according to Berns.
Most of the stream channel work likely will occur next summer with plantings in spring 2019, she said.
Future plans include an underpass beneath Route 45 and a trail to connect Ethels Woods with the Raven Glen Forest Preserve to the west.