The Sterling Attributes of Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve Draw Many During the Pandemic
By David A. F. Sweet
Imagine finding a public place in the Chicago area that combines unhindered views of Lake Michigan, walking trails amid prairie grass and captivating history lessons.
To my knowledge, only the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve — which sits on the southern edge of Lake Forest — coalesces those wonderful traits. And amid the pandemic, it has become a sanctuary for those yearning for tranquility and normalcy.
During a recent December workday morning, with the sun hanging low in the blue sky, more than 20 people roamed the two-mile grassy loop, many accompanied by friends, dogs or both. I walk clockwise around the loop, which takes less than an hour even with a jaunt around the Fort Sheridan Cemetery. I choose this path so that the awesome appearance of Lake Michigan reveals itself near the end of the journey, joined by the sound of waves pounding below the 70-foot bluff.
I start where observers with binoculars often monitor the goings on of hawks (more than 200 species of birds have been identified at the preserve). Heading west, the prairie grass surrounds me where a nine-hole military golf course once stood. Once I head north, water that in the summer is filled with the bellowing of frogs appears on my left, and a ravine featuring a fallen tree across it catches my eye to the right.
The trail passes by the cemetery, which is worth a detour. More than 2,000 American heroes are buried here under same-sized white marble stones that remind one of Arlington. And talk about history: those who died while serving in Gen. Custer’s cavalry during the 19th-century battle of Little Bighorn have found a final resting place along with nine German prisoners of war from World War II. The symmetry of the cemetery — which is fronted by a massive white statue of the crucifixion of Jesus — is another one of its appeals.
Back on the trail and heading east, one traverses a gaping ravine over a narrow bridge. Half a dozen ravines dot this 278-acre site and can feature blue-spotted salamanders and other unusual creatures. On either side of this one are groves of towering oaks.
Then, Lake Michigan appears. I have navigated the somewhat-steep bluff next to the new Lake Forest Open Lands property to reach the empty, rock-filled beach, which affords a view of the tower at the Naval Station Great Lakes (I worked at the top of the tower during my first writing job in the 1980s before the rear admiral moved us to the first floor. The reason? We would have had no chance to survive a fire.)
Back at the top of the bluff, a number of benches welcome those who want to relax and gaze at the water and the horizon. In fact, there are benches perhaps every few hundred yards of the trail, with plaques honoring those whom they were given for. Heading back toward the southern parking lot, one passes through the original iron gates of Fort Sheridan.
Until the 1990s, Fort Sheridan — which was designed by O. C. Simonds, well known for developing the stunning Graceland Cemetery in Chicago — existed as a true Army base. Built in the 19th-century because wealthy North Shore industrialists led by Marshall Field wanted protection in case labor rebels in Chicago headed north, the base featured an airstrip, missiles and attractively appointed houses for officers that are now occupied by civilians. During the summer, when both parking lots at the preserve are packed, cars spill over in front of these residences.
But during these 35-degree days, parking is rarely a problem. As we continue to plow through the pandemic, even if you’re a few dozen miles away, I highly recommend a visit to this wonderful preserve.
Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at email@example.com.