A Treasure Hunt at Byron Forest Preserve

Families are finding there’s something hidden around the Byron area’s nature preserves. With the right tools and a little searching, you can find these geocaches, too.

Caches can be found on roughly 10 trails, says Janet Dahlberg, of the Byron Forest Preserve. You’d have to walk between 12 and 15 miles in order to find all of them.

Geocaching may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but it’s actually been popular in our area for more than a decade.

“We’ve had geocaching at the Byron [Ill.] Forest Preserve for almost 15 years,” says Janet Dahlberg, assistant superintendent of education and recreation. “I put out a geocache with the Girl Scouts in 2007, and geocaching served as a very early badge for the Boy Scouts.”

Janet Dahlberg

Geocaching is a modernized scavenger hunt, which gets its roots from back in the 1800s.

“Back then, people did letterboxing,” Dahlberg explains. “You had to follow a set of written instructions to find a bottle with a piece of paper inside and get a stamp to mark that you found it.”

Today, instead of written instructions, people use GPS coordinates and maps on their phones to hunt down hidden containers.

The containers, at a minimum, include a paper log for finders to sign. Larger ones sometimes have “swag,” such as small toys and trinkets for kids to trade. Geocache containers are all shapes and sizes: some are as small as a pencil eraser, while the very first geocache was a 5-gallon bucket. There are more than 3 million active geocaches worldwide.

“It really got going in 2000, when GPS units became open for public use instead of military use,” Dahlberg says, adding that it also helped teach map reading and compass skills. “Someone hid a bucket in the woods and posted coordinates online. At the beginning, people hid large items and large containers in very out-of-the-way places. You had to do a long trek in the woods to find them. Nowadays, they are everywhere in every shape and size you can think of.”

And that includes the Byron Forest Preserve. Among her duties, Dahlberg oversees the geocaching programs that are available at five properties throughout the preserves.

“Right now we have close to 55 geocaches at Jarrett Prairie Center, Bald Hill Prairie Preserve, Nardi Equine Prairie, Barrick Oaks Homestead Preserve and Hall Creek Preserve,” she says.

While geocaching has grown worldwide over the past 20 years, there are still many who have never tried it. Dahlberg calls it a great family activity and a way to teach children certain skills, like map reading. And there’s no better place locally to begin to learn than at the Byron Forest Preserve.

“The geocaches at Jarrett are geared toward beginners and families,” Dahlberg says. “None of our other ones are that difficult, but it would be best to start at Jarrett.”

The highlight of geocaching is that it’s free and easy to start.

“All you have to do is download the geocaching app to your phone,” Dahlberg says, recommending the app from Groundspeak. “Then you go to the site where you want to begin, and the app will show a map with your location.There are green icons on the map, and if you click them, they’ll tell you the name of the geocache, how far away it is, the size and the difficulty of the terrain you’ll have to cover.

“Although there are different kinds of geocaches, including multi-caches with several stages, mystery caches with a puzzle to solve, virtual caches, and earth caches that are placed at interesting geologic sites, the free app will only show traditional geocaches that are family-friendly,” Dahlberg says.

All geocaches have a rating system for terrain and difficulty. The terrain ranking tells how hard it is to get to a geocache; the difficulty is how well it’s hidden.

“Terrain is ranked from one to four, with four maybe meaning a multi-day hike up a mountain,” Dahlberg says. “There is also a special fifth category where you would need special equipment like a boat or scuba diving equipment. There’s even one on the International Space Station. But on our trails, we consider the terrains a one to two. The hardest one I have is a 2.5 at Bald Hill. And there is one at the bottom of the gulley at Hall Creek.”

Dahlberg says the most difficult geocache is at Bald Hill, at a place called Rock Bottom. Most of Bald Hill is covered in gravel and sand from glaciers, and all of the drainage from water went through one gulley that dug down into the limestone.

“It’s a very cool feature,” Dahlberg says. “In order to get to the geocache, you need to go to the far corner and climb down the limestone gulley.”

But Dahlberg assures that the paths to all of the caches at the forest preserve properties are safe.

“I’ve set up large-sized ones that are easy to find along our easier trails along Jarrett Prairie,” she says. “At the others, there’s a mixture of different sizes and types of hides.

“But just about everywhere you go, the geocaches are set up along the trail. So, if your compass points you into the woods, you don’t have to walk through the thorns and nettles. You can find it via the trail.”

And not only is the hunt fun, but it can serve as a great way to exercise.

“We have around 55 caches on about 10 different trails over the Jarrett, Hall Creek, Bald Hill, Nardi and Barrick Oaks,” Dahlberg says. “If you went out and found them all, you would end up walking about 12 to 15 miles. But for those who are just starting out or are with families and younger kids, Jarrett’s beginner caches are about a half-mile of hiking.”

Dahlberg explains that at the end of a hunt, when you find the cache, there is a paper to sign to say you were successful. The cache is permanent and should not be removed but should be re-hidden exactly as it was found. Some contain trinkets that can be swapped out with something you bring. These trinkets can be as simple as a small toy like something you would get in a McDonald’s Happy Meal, or a party favor.

“The Forest Preserve understands that some families with kids won’t have things at that time to replace,” Dahlberg says. “I refill them a few times a year. When I go out, I order lots of prizes to replace the past ones, and that holds us for the summer.”

Byron also has a program for those with multiple cache finds.

“For those who get into it more, they can find code words inside 25 of the 50-plus geocaches and turn them into the Forest Preserve office, 7993 N. River Road, Byron, and get a Forest Preserve trackable geocoin,” Dahlberg says. “They look like military coins, and each has a tracking number on the side. If you find one, you can log the tracking number and either leave it there or take it and drop it off in another geocache.

“I placed a geocoin with a compass design on it into a geocache in 2012, and it has traveled 67,810 miles,” she adds. “Right now, it’s in Canada, but someone took it to the Dominican Republic with them on vacation. We started this about a year ago, and we’ve given out about 40 to 50 geocoins so far.”

Because of the weather, summer is the busiest time for geocaching at Byron. But it is a year-round activity.

And, while it is year-round, it is only a daytime activity at the Byron Forest Preserve, which closes at sunset.

“I get email notifications when someone finds our geocaches,” Dahlberg says, explaining how she keeps track of the usage. “I would say we get 2-3 families every weekend. But within the first month after hiding a geocache, we will get 40-50 visits.”

So, grab your phone, some bug spray and an item to trade and head to the Byron Forest Preserve for a day of hunting.

“It’s a good way to explore the preserve and have some fun,” Dahlberg says.