What you'll find at reopened Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve

After being closed for a year, the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve reopened Tuesday with new and improved public access to the historic and breathtaking property along Lake Michigan.

The completion of the first part of a master plan for the former Army base bordered by Lake Forest and Highland Park came without fanfare but with the satisfaction of its caretakers who spent years getting to this point.

"This site is so unique to Lake County because it has a rich landscape and rich military history," said Michael Haug, a landscape architect with the forest preserve district who managed the $1.9 million project.

"This is the only spot on Lake Michigan that the forest preserve owns and can provide free public access," he said.

  Members of the Lake County Forest Preserve's Youth Conservation Corps take a lunch break along the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve's Lake Michigan beach. The shore was reopened to the public Tuesday. Paul Valade/

Completed improvements include a new main preserve entrance drive along Gilgare Lane ending in a 45-car parking lot, four timber boardwalks, two scenic overlooks, revamped educational exhibits, and a fully restored shoreline with native plantings.

  A redheaded woodpecker was spotted Monday in the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve, which is considered a premier birding area in northeastern Illinois. Paul Valade/

Public access to a restored 1.8-mile grass trail loop intended for birding will remain closed until summer 2019 to allow the grass to establish. The Fort Sheridan preserve is one of the most popular birding areas in northeastern Illinois with more than 226 species sighted and 71 species known to nest and breed there.

  New signs and paths have been constructed in the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve. Paul Valade/

A main element of the first phase is that the 1-mile-long Hutchinson Trail has been paved for its entire length and two bridges built over low areas to make it wheelchair accessible to a new overlook of Lake Michigan about 70 feet below.

"Now, we have this continuous accessible route all the way from Sheridan Road to the bluff," said Randy Seebach, the district's director of planning and land preservation.

Open backed benches on the overlook allow visitors to view the ever-changing teal waters of Lake Michigan, or turn to the west to see a large, tranquil pond fronting the former Army airfield.

"There are quite a few vets who come to the preserve, and some of them are disabled," Seebach said. "That was one of our primary focuses (of the master plan), make it as accessible as possible."

Another trail leads to the lakeshore, but it is steep and not considered wheelchair accessible. That path, closed for two years to allow for shoreline restoration, also is open.

  Michael Haug, the Lake County Forest Preserve District's landscape architect, checks the progress of the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve ahead of Tuesday's public reopening. Portions of the anti-aircraft gun display received a coat of paint as part of the nearly yearlong work done at the preserve. Paul Valade/

The forest preserve district owns and manages about three-quarters of a mile of shoreline at Fort Sheridan. But swimming is not allowed because of the potential there may be unexploded shells in the water from artillery practice in days gone by.

A military cemetery, accessible by a separate entrance off Sheridan Road to the north, as well as the parade grounds to the south of the main entrance have remained open during construction. Altogether, the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve spans about 250 acres.

Fort Sheridan opened in 1887 and was decommissioned in 1993. The northern portion of the former base was transferred to the forest preserve district in separate transactions from 1997 to 2001.

At one time, the district was going to replace the original golf course on the site, but the idea was dropped due to high estimates and a general decline in golf.

  New signs and displays are in place near Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve's Lake Michigan beach, giving visitors a look at the past and giving current rules for the area. Paul Valade/

Creating other public features became a better alternative, but determining the details was a long and sometimes contentious process.

"We've been working on designs really since 2004, but of course it changed over time," Haug said.

A master plan to guide all future public access and habitat restoration projects was approved in November 2015.

"This is going to be a preserve for everyone," said Mike Rummel, a forest district commissioner and former Lake Forest mayor, who was involved in the discussions. "It's something that should be preserved exactly as it is."

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