How Lake County forest preserves supported visitors during the pandemic

How Lake County Forest Preserves supported visitors during pandemic

Just over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the forest preserves feel more important than ever. While so much was closed, the preserves and trails remained open - every day from 6:30 a.m. to sunset - providing refuge, peace and solace.

If there can be a bright side in these challenging times, it may be the many new visitors and the new ways people discovered to enjoy the preserves. Throughout 2020, visitation increased an average of 70% over the previous year.

Even as other recreation opportunities reopened, the rise was sustained through 2021, with a 43% increase in attendance compared to before the pandemic.

"Visitors have developed an even deeper emotional attachment to the forest preserves," said Alex Ty Kovach, executive director of the Lake County Forest Preserves.

"As the second-largest forest preserve district in Illinois, we maintain 209 miles of trails and 64 preserves. During stressful times, Lake County residents found they were never more than a 10-minute drive to a Lake County Forest Preserve," said Angelo Kyle, president of the Lake County Forest Preserves.

Many new visitors discovered the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway, which was designated a National Recreation Trail by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. The scenic, multiuse trail spans nearly the entire length of Lake County for 31.4 miles, as it winds through 12 forest preserves and various habitats.

Meandering along the Des Plaines River, the regional trail is a favorite for biking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and snowmobiling.

The Forest Preserves operate three golf courses that saw a resurgence to counter years of decline in the sport. Golf became a go-to activity, and one of the first activities to reopen after the shutdown.

"We also saw a surge in young golfers, which looks promising for the future," said Alex Eichman, chief of golf operations.

Nationwide, millions of people fished for the first time during the pandemic. In the forest preserves, fishing is allowed in rivers, ponds and lakes at 16 preserves. When conditions allow, ice fishing is permitted at Hastings Lake in Lake Villa, Independence Grove in Libertyville, Lake Carina in Gurnee, Lakewood in Wauconda and on Sterling Lake at Van Patten Woods in Wadsworth.

The forest preserves provide a safe social gathering place year-round. Even deep in winter, parking lots and trails are full of walkers, runners and bird-watchers. Cross-country skiing activity has soared. A recent grant from the Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Lake County Forest Preserves, allowed for the purchase of new trail grooming equipment to better serve these new users.

As people felt more comfortable getting out, other outdoor facilities have been recovering more quickly than anticipated, said Dan Stearns, chief business development officer. The Beer Garden at Independence Grove became an instant success this past summer.

"It had a festival atmosphere. We are proud we were able to provide such a positive experience," Stearns said. The Concerts in the Plaza series returned with strong attendance - about 12,000 visitors - and another 800 attended live music events at the beer garden in the fall.

Finding solutions

Education and outreach programming quickly shifted gears to serve the public in a different way. Early on, professional educators at the Lake County Forest Preserves transitioned programs to a virtual environment.

"The experience was challenging," Director of Education Nan Buckardt said. "However, the pandemic ultimately made us a stronger, more flexible team. Some programs remained virtual, an aspect that many people enjoy."

DunnTV, a YouTube channel founded in 2021, was considered by staff for several years until it became a reality due to the pandemic. While some planned exhibitions at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville were canceled, opportunities arose elsewhere.

"We developed our first virtual exhibitions to serve the public, even when the museum closed due to safety protocols," Buckardt said.


Major preserve improvement projects were completed, helping meet sustained public demand. After months of construction, the public flocked to Buffalo Creek in Long Grove to enjoy new boardwalks, overlooks and 1.7 miles of new trails. Restoration around the preserve's reservoir provides improved flood control.

A small new section of trail is having a big impact on several Gurnee neighborhoods. The 0.4-mile trail and a new pedestrian signal and crosswalk at the intersection of Route 45 and Dada Drive now provide thousands of people with safe access to Rollins Savanna in Grayslake and the Millennium Trail.

In December, a new 145-foot-long tunnel - the longest of nine tunnels in the extensive regional trail system - opened to allow walkers, bikers and equestrians safe passage beneath Route 45 near Miller Road in Antioch. The project connects Raven Glen and Ethel's Woods Forest Preserves and includes nearly a mile of connecting trails.

Studies show that using trails and spending time in nature helps people cope with the stresses of everyday life, which are exacerbated by the pandemic. Taking a stroll on a trail helps reduce anxiety, improves mental health and wellness, and bolsters physical health, Kovach said.

"We are proud of the way visitors have responded to the forest preserves and that we are able to provide opportunities for healing during these challenging times."

• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.

The Beer Garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville opened last summer and provided a festive atmosphere for visitors. Courtesy of Liz Rose Fisher
Sandhill cranes are regularly spotted in the forest preserves. Courtesy of Jeff Goldberg
Studies show that spending time in nature helps people cope with the stresses of everyday life. Grassy Lake Forest Preserve in Lake Barrington allows visitors to connect with nature. Courtesy of Justin Wambold
Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods is one of forest preserves that visitors enjoyed during stressful times. Courtesy of Jeff Goldberg
Many new visitors discovered the forest preserves over the past two years, including Daniel Wright Woods in Mettawa. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves
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