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Take time to enjoy nature

Nature can relax the brain and free the soul. In a year when all seems depressing and stressful, it helps to turn to taking a stroll through the woods and stopping to smell the roses. Yesterday, my family and I made it out to see the local forest preserve The Little Red Schoolhouse.

The nature preserve gets its name from the one room red schoolhouse that sits on the property as you walk in. Built in the middle of farms, woods, and prairie in 1886, it served as a place of learning for generations of school children until 1948, until it reopened as a sort of nature school in 1955 that taught kids about plants, animals and the natural world. The land around it went virtually unscathed since 1886 though and you can still visit its native plants, prairie land and learn about the nature there while traveling along a gravel path surrounded by old trees.

It's as educational as it is peaceful and any worries that are on your mind when you enter melt away. If you live in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, you most likely visited this place as a child, and if you go back as an adult, it brings back wonderful memories. I recall seeing owls there, all kinds of animals in the schoolhouse, the apiary where the bumblebees live, and I even had the chance to hold a bird on my fingers during a school trip.

You don't have to go to a national park to enjoy nature. Chicagoland offers several forest preserves, lakes and ponds that will make you feel at peace with the world. My favorite is McClaughry Springs Woods, off 119th St. in Palos Hills. It has an estimated trail length of 42.1 miles that takes you through a beautiful creek that you can travel alongside, view over bridges, and travel through. Or, climb steep hills and take in gorgeous views of the ravines and flora. It's particularly pretty in the spring and fall. There are a number of trails, and depending on your hiking level, you can be in for a workout. There are also off the beaten path ones that will take you right through gorgeous flower beds and high grass prairie or alongside the serenity of the spring.

If a workout is what you're after, the Swallow Cliff Stairs takes you up 168 limestone steps that offer a stunning view of the forest surrounding you at the top. There is a much easier walking trail that you can take once you're up there as well. Be prepared for it to be crowded no matter what time or day you go though. Supposedly it doubles as a place where you go sled in the winter too, according to its website.

Another favorite is Lake Katherine, an 85-acre natural refuge in Palos Heights. It contains a man-made waterfall, a hiking trail that encircles its gorgeous lake, a nature center building, and you can even rent kayaks to cross the lake. On certain days you can catch a swan or two there. It's also a crowded place, but it's worth the visit. I remember going through for a telescope open viewing and spotting Saturn on a clear night.

I could go on and on about the gorgeous forest preserves and nature areas that surround us, but maybe I will write a separate blog post to take time to compile a list for you. In the meantime, take time to find a peaceful retreat that you can call your own. You'll leave feeling refreshed and renewed of spirit. And we all need that in today's world.

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