In the spotlight: McKinley Woods

Where the past and present meet

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


McKinley Woods unites new and old unlike any other Will County forest preserve. It’s the only place in the preserves where you can explore the remains of an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp from the 1930s, while also visiting another piece of local history that lives on today in the form of the newly renovated Four Rivers Environmental Education Center, which was once private property known as Moose Island.

The Channahon preserve’s two access areas both unite past and present. Frederick’s Grove, acquired by the Forest Preserve in 1931, was home to the CCC camp and also briefly a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. Today, it is one of the top spots in the preserves for birding and wildlife viewing. Kerry Sheridan Grove, home to the education center, was acquired more recently, in the 2000s, but is still full of local lore from its time as a private resort.


At Frederick’s Grove, you can feel the site’s age as you meander through the woods.

A natural-surface trail at McKinley Woods.

“You can tell it’s old,” said Angela Rafac, an interpretive naturalist at Four Rivers. “It’s just special. Even the trails there are old trails.”

Kerry Sheridan Grove doesn’t feel as old, but the habitat is becoming of increasingly higher quality as the Forest Preserve completes restoration and habitat management work on the grounds, including the removal of invasive species.

Rafac said they’ve seen proof of this firsthand, with ephemeral plants like skunk cabbage and bloodroot being only seen in the past several years.

A close-up of bloodroot on the forest floor.

“What’s nice about (Kerry Sheridan Grove) is that it is a work in progress,” she said. “We can see it getting better with our restoration work.”

One of the preserve’s key features — and what the education center is named for — is the four rivers that border the preserve. McKinley Woods sits at the spot where the Des Plaines, DuPage and Kankakee rivers meet to form the Illinois River. This confluence, or location where the rivers meet, provides unique habitat for all manner of birds.

A great egret in flight over water at McKinley Woods.

There are good reasons to visit McKinley Woods throughout the year. In the spring, Frederick’s Grove is one of the best preserves for ephemeral wildflowers. It’s also one of the best places to see the beautiful pinkish-purple buds of the eastern redbud trees, Rafac said.

In the summer, the American lotus is a sight to see in the Des Plaines River backwaters at Kerry Sheridan Grove.


The fall color is worth a trip too.

Autumn scenery at McKinley Woods.

“Whatever the weather, there’s a place in the preserve that’s going to be beautiful,” said Jess McQuown, program coordinator at Four Rivers.

Of course, two of the biggest attractions at McKinley Woods are American white pelicans and bald eagles. The pelicans stop by at Kerry Sheridan Grove each spring and fall on their migrations.


Bald eagles can be seen soaring overhead throughout the year, including in the dead of winter.

“We’re pretty spoiled because no matter the temperature, we always have open water. When everywhere else is frozen, we still get eagles,” McQuown said, adding that barge traffic on the Des Plaines River means it never fully freezes over.

Wildlife and habitats

A group of turtles basking in the sun on a log at McKinley Woods.

McKinley Woods’ 525 acres includes a variety of habitats, including prairie, forest and wetland. The river confluence at Kerry Sheridan Grove makes it unique both for the habitat and for the wildlife it attracts, McQuown said. The meeting of the Des Plaines and DuPage rivers creates a lake that is shallow and calm with a few small islands. The still water is uncommon near river confluences.

“We get birds there that wouldn’t come to a river,” she said. “And we get birds on the Des Plaines that we wouldn’t get on the DuPage because it’s a smaller river and vice versa."

The forested habitat also adds to the birding opportunities. Frederick’s Grove is one of the best places in the preserves for spotting warblers because of its high-quality forest habitat, McQuown said.

A yellow warbler at McKinley Woods.

It’s also situated along the Des Plaines River, making it a good place to see all manner of birds and other wildlife.

Even some unexpected animals call the preserve home. Rafac said she once saw a barn owl at Frederick’s Grove and she wouldn’t have believed it had she not seen it for herself. Plus slide marks seen in the snow have been documented, indicating river otters live nearby.

A river otter eating a fish.

The geography of Kerry Sheridan Grove can make it feel remote without having to make much of a trek to get there.

“Even though we’re almost an island, we have access to everything,” McQuown said. “That’s one of the really cool things about here.”

And working at Four Rivers also provides a lot of opportunities to see wildlife in action that most people don’t get to see on a regular basis. Rafac recalled watching a family of four baby squirrels preparing to leave the nest, one braver than its siblings as they ventured out for the first time.

“It was really cute and really lucky,” she said. “We’re lucky to be here.”

Recreation opportunities

A kayaker looking at a great egret in flight at McKinley Woods.

Both Frederick’s Grove and Kerry Sheridan Grove provide plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, and hiking is among the most popular. Frederick’s Grove has 2.35 miles of natural surface trails that take you up and down ravines and hilly terrain and also along the shore of Des Plaines River. Kerry Sheridan Grove has both paved and natural surface trails. The 1.91 miles of paved trails take you through every type of habitat at the preserve. A short, 0.31-mile dirt trail extends off the paved trail for a quick walk through the woods on a peninsula surrounded by the river.

The I&M Canal State Trail runs through both access areas, which offers the opportunity for even longer hikes and bike rides and connections to other preserves and locations.

“You just don’t feel as limited here as you might at some of the other (preserves),” McQuown said of the trail system. “We’re pretty spoiled in that way that you can keep going.”

A wooden bridge at McKinley Woods.

If you want to see all McKinley Woods has to offer on one hike, McQuown recommends the Prairie Loop Trail at Kerry Sheridan Grove. The 0.83-mile paved trail traverses prairie and offers views of the Des Plaines and DuPage rivers, and there are two short natural surface trails that take you through pockets of forest.

“If you’re not up for a hike across the whole preserve, you can kind of do it all with that,” she said.

Both Frederick’s Grove and Kerry Sheridan Grove provide launch areas for canoes and kayaks. At Frederick’s Grove, paddlers can explore the Des Plaines River and I&M Canal, and the launch area at Kerry Sheridan Grove offers access to the DuPage River and the confluence area. Fishing is permitted along the shorelines at both access areas.

Two kayakers at McKinley Woods.

Throughout the year, the preserve and education center host fun and engaging programs for all ages. Most are free of charge. You can check out all upcoming programs at Four Rivers and McKinley Woods on our event calendar.

Four Rivers is an inclusive facility, with resources including a quiet space, therapeutics tools, buddy bags with sensory items and accommodations available for all activities. Most programs held there are inclusive and welcoming of individuals of all abilities. Outside the education center is the All-Persons Trail, which includes wayfinding signs, textured strips for sight-impaired visitors and trailside sensory kiosks and panels.

Three people along the All-Persons Trail.

Geocaching is allowed at McKinley Woods, but permits are required.

In addition, the preserve has three picnic areas that can be rented by the public. The Frederick’s Grove Shelter, which is open from April 16 to Oct. 31, can accommodate up to 30 people. The Riverbend Lookout Shelter at Frederick’s Grove has a capacity of 50 people and is open year-round. The Kerry Sheridan Grove Shelter can accommodate up to 90 people and is also open year-round.

Preserve hours are 8 a.m. to sunset daily (except Christmas Day), and Four Rivers is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Photo credits: Chris Cheng, Glenn P. Knoblock, Chad Merda, Chad Morsch and Anthony Schalk

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