Discover a natural setting in Byron that is filled with family-friendly activities, outdoor adventures and a few hundred acres of open space.
It’s summer. School is out but the kids are in, spending way too much time with their eyes glued to computer screens and TV sets. How do you persuade them to unplug and enjoy the warm summer weather?
It’s easy, when you take advantage of natural resources like the Byron Forest Preserve District (BFPD), which offers some innovative attractions.
Todd Tucker, executive director of the forest preserve, began working with the BFPD as a summer intern 20 years ago and became its executive director in 2007.
“I grew up in Franklin Grove,” Tucker says. “At that time, the district consisted of about 612 acres scattered in small, remote sites dedicated to natural habitat. I’ve taken enormous personal pleasure in the growth of the district and all it provides for the area’s families.”
Now 2,000 acres large, the district has many special features, including an observatory, an affordable championship golf course with high-tech amenities, an interpretive heritage farm, oodles of summer camp programs, and a wonderful natural history museum – Jarrett Prairie Center – that’s in the middle of an extensive renovation. The district has long been known for its restored prairie spaces, which provide visitors with a rare opportunity to see the northern Illinois landscape as early settlers first encountered it.
For more than 25 years, the Oak Brook Hounds fox hunted on about 300 acres of land adjacent to the district, until the club disbanded in 2004. Stephen J. Nardi, owner of the land, began talking with Tucker.
“I felt it was only right that we make this wonderful property available forever to those who can appreciate its beauty, and respect that which the Almighty has made available to us,” says Nardi, who is now director of the Stephen and Deidre Nardi Equine Prairie. “After discussions with a series of conservation programs, I was fortunate to become acquainted with Todd Tucker of the Byron Forest Preserve.”
After long discussions, Nardi decided his property should become part of the Byron Forest Preserve, subject to the following conditions: that equestrian sports would be permitted in perpetuity and that the district would develop a program to restore the land to an Illinois prairie and preserve it thus in perpetuity.
“This resulted in the Forest Preserve receiving a grant to purchase the adjoining 200 acres and enter into the Illinois Prairie Grass Program,” Nardi explains. “I am pleased to say, the plans were developed and are progressing very successfully. The prairie grass has matured and is breathtaking year-round. I am pleased that the Stephen and Deirdre Nardi Equine Prairie is available and will be in perpetuity, for all to feast on its beauty, as we have for many years in the past.”
The District’s Five Preserves
The Nardi prairie protects more than 500 acres of sand prairie, dolomite prairie and oak woodlands.
In all, BFPD boasts five preserves that encompass more than 1,000 acres of expertly restored prairie and woodlands, and more than 25 miles of trails ideal for hiking and nature appreciation. Along with the Nardi preserve, the district manages the He-Leo Wetland preserve, which is newly expanded and restored, and offers riverfront fishing, boat docks, sand volleyball, open park areas, a shelter and a new 1-mile loop trail.
The Etnyre/Ripplinger/Gouker Preserve features a 2.5-mile trail through prairie and oak savanna, with a shaded wooded trail through the forested Etnyre unit.
The Howard Colman Hall Creek Preserve includes 5 miles of scenic hiking trails through moderate terrain and prairie plantings, as well as restored oak and hickory woodlands. A bridge crosses the winding Hall Creek that divides the preserve.
Finally, the 1.5-mile Don Hamer Recreation Path begins at Sunshine Park in Byron and meanders along the Rock River before turning toward its conclusion at the Jarrett Center. There, visitors can peruse a free natural history museum that’s open every day and has many hands-on exhibits.
A Little Night Music
The forest preserve offers a rare opportunity to see how this region looked before the first settlers arrived. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Along with restored prairie comes the critters who call it home. For example, the 13-lined ground squirrel (don’t call it a gopher!) scurries around looking for good things to eat. Birders can spot many species, from red-headed woodpeckers to butcher birds, also known as northern shrikes. Butterfly lovers, too, will find much to enjoy.
Indoors, the Jarrett Center museum provides another look at nature’s wonders.
“We’re undergoing a $750,000 expansion and renovation program at the museum,” Tucker says. “There’s one room with no windows that we plan to develop into a special exhibit: the prairie experience at night. With no light but the stars, visitors will feel the stillness, listen to the prairie’s night sounds – crickets chirping, owls hooting, grass rustling – and they’ll see fireflies flitting through the grass and feel the true nature of our indigenous prairie. Night is totally different from day in the prairie ecosystem.”
The renovation project will be completed by Split Rock Studios, which is widely recognized for state-of-the-art interactive educational museum exhibits that it’s built around the country. The new 2,200 square-foot space will take about 18 months to complete, and, when finished, will reflect the story of Illinois’ northern prairies, other local ecosystems and the people’s relationship with the land.
“The exhibits will be designed to serve as an educational resource for area school field trips and as a regional tourism destination on par with attractions such as the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum in Chicago,” Tucker says.
Stars, Camps and a Farm
Visitors can take advantage of the Weiskopf Observatory’s free, weekly public sky-viewing, which happens with the help of its 11-inch Celestron telescope at night. And, they can explore the Heritage Farm Museum, a working farm built in 1843 that demonstrates how the area’s earliest settlers lived.
The district has entered into an agreement with Beloit College to develop an interpretive plan for the farm, the first step in creating a compelling experience for visitors. Historical research is scheduled for the summer’s early months. This vital information will be the basis of themed exhibits and activities that tell the story of early agriculture and local culture.
The Keller Education Center, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum-certified building, houses preschool classes where children can learn kindergarten readiness skills enriched with outdoor education and topics like recycling.
But this is just the tip of an iceberg full of fun children’s programs that promote curiosity about the outdoor world. From June through August, the district hosts summer day camps aimed at engaging children with nature, art and science, with nary a video game in sight. A wide array of all-day camps is offered to children ages 6 to 12, with two-hour camps for younger kids. Scouting activities and opportunities to earn badges are another aspect of the district’s programming.
“One of the issues we have focused on is becoming compatible with the school districts’ curricula,” Tucker says. “We don’t want to just do field trips. We strive to meet curriculum standards and enhance the children’s learning experiences. That’s one reason why the district has eliminated fees for field trips. We know how much the schools have to pay for transportation and other expenses. We don’t want that to prevent children from enjoying the full forest preserve experience.”
Fun for Grown-Ups, Too
For adults, the district offers a chance to participate in the spring Ogle County bird count, beekeeping workshops, hunter education, bird and wild flower walks, canoe tours on the Rock River, archery, a Perseid meteor watch and more. Family activities include archaeology digs, heritage gardening and fossil hunting.
All of the district’s programs and activities are either free or available for a nominal fee, making it one of the most affordable ways to spend a wholesome, busy summer close to home.
The district is noted for its PrairieView Golf Club, located on German Church Road. The 18-hole championship course has been given four stars by Golf Digest and features bent grass tees, greens and fairways. It includes a full-service practice facility and lessons, equipment rental, a fully stocked pro shop, dining area and bar, all of which is handicap-accessible. The district describes it as “upscale and value-priced.”
“New this year, PrairieView will provide a fleet of 80 electric-powered golf carts equipped with Visage GPS systems,” Tucker says. “Not only are these carts quieter but the GPS allows the golfer to see the hole before it’s played, through a ‘fly-over’ option. It also keeps score and emails the player’s scorecard at the end of the round. Golfers can communicate with the Pro Shop and even pre-order lunch at the Prairie Grass Pub.”
Youth golf is a strong part of the district’s outdoor athletic and educational program. Options include PGA junior league for boys and girls ages 13 and under, junior summer competitive league for youth ages 12 to 18, and development lessons for ages 5 to 17. But adults aren’t neglected – the district hosts a bevy of events, classes and leagues throughout the golfing season.
One thing you won’t want to unplug is the district’s Prairie State Hike app that guides hikers through two of the Jarrett Prairie Nature Preserve trails. Tucker says the 99-cent smartphone app guides nature lovers through not only the district’s trails, but also many other prairie preserves throughout Illinois.
“The app uses text, audio, photographs and video to describe and explain the many plants, flowers, trees, wildlife species and landscapes that hikers may encounter, answering their questions and encouraging their curiosity about the natural world around them,” Tucker says.
And, as if all this wasn’t enough, the district also hosts summer concerts at the Heritage Farm stage. This summer’s lineup includes Bluegrass Reunion Band on June 28, Patchouli on July 19, and Laura Rae and the Backroads Trio on July 26. All concerts start at 7 p.m.
“Byron Forest Preserve District wants everyone to come and experience every level of the outdoor world,” says Tucker. “Every project and renovation we undertake is aimed at making the district the best possible resource, while at the same time providing the highest-quality service.”