Isle a la Cache

A place that explores both the past and present

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Isle a la Cache sits in the heart of busy northern Will County, but it often feels far removed from the hustle and bustle of suburban life. The quietness might even seem like what it might have felt like decades or centuries ago, which is exactly the point.

The Forest Preserve District acquired the land for the 107-acre preserve between 1982 and 2014, and it is an integral part of the Des Plaines River preservation system, which conserves more than 2,400 acres in all. The preserve is also home to Isle a la Cache Museum, which focuses on life in the area during the fur-trade era in the 1750s, said facility supervisor Jen Guest.


The river, which cuts along both the east and west sides of the preserves, is what make Isle a la Cache an island, and it’s been the lifeblood of what has happened on the land in the area for centuries.

“It’s always been about the river and what it can provide you,” Guest said. “It’s timeless. What the river can provide you is timeless.”

The Des Plaines River.

In the 1750s, the Potawatomi were living near the river, and the French were coming down from New France — what we today know as Canada — to trade for furs the Potawatomi were getting from the area.

“The Potawatomi were getting everything they needed from the land and river, and they were using the river as the travel route,” she said.

While the river might not be as essential to the local people’s livelihood as it once was, it still remains a centerpiece.

A great blue heron walking through water.

“Everything about this island has been the same forever, in terms of people coming here for recreation, fishing,” Guest said. “It’s all about the river. Today it’s still saved as a recreation space where people come and enjoy nature, look at the wildlife, fish, canoe and kayak on the river.”

Visitors to the museum can learn about the area’s cultural and natural history, with a focus on what life was like in the region in the 1750s. Guest said museum-goers need not be historians to enjoy the museum and learn something while there.

“I hope that they can get an idea of what the river means to people, whether it was in the past or today, and learn a little about the American Indian culture,” she said of museum visitors.

Wildlife and habitats

Two turtles sunbathing on a rock in the water.

The Des Plaines River is the highlight of the habitat areas at Isle a la Cache, but people can also experience prairie and woodlands on the island.

Visitors looking to take in the wildlife should check out the short, natural surface trail that travels to the southern point of the island. The trail is only 0.12 mile, but it’s a great place to see the local wildlife, Guest said.

“It’s nice and quiet down there,” she said. “The trees are all around you, and you’re at the very point of the island. When you look out, the river is very wide and you can see a lot of birds there.”

Trees with fall color along the trail at Isle a la Cache.

Isle a la Cache is a popular spot for turtles and dragonflies, and because it’s along a flyway, all sorts of birds can be seen in the area. Other wildlife Guest has seen at the preserve include white-tailed deer, foxes, raccoons, opossums, minks, short-trailed weasels, wild turkeys and river otters.

Seeing two otters playing in the preserve’s lagoon was a particular highlight for Guest.


“That was one of the coolest experiences out here,” she said. “It was really cool to see them up close, playing in the lagoon. Of course, they could have cared less that we were watching them. They were just doing their thing.”

When you want to take in the local wildlife, Guest recommends picking a spot and sitting quietly. “If you just slow down to nature’s pace, nature will come to you,” she said. “Find a spot to sit. Birds will start to come in, and you might see squirrels and other animals.”

An eastern chipmunk.

And Guest said there is something to see all year long, because nature doesn’t stop for what we might consider to be inclement weather. One of her most memorable days working at Isle a la Cache was during a blizzard. While shoveling the sidewalk outside, a bald eagle swooped down low overhead. Later, she hiked out to the end of island to take in the winter scenery. While sitting in the snow, massive chunks of ice floated by in the river.

“It was so serene and quiet out here,” she said. “Even when the weather is crazy, nature is still doing its thing.”

Recreation opportunities

A preserve visitor carrying a kayak.

Because Isle a la Cache is in the middle of the Des Plaines River, it’s a popular spot for water recreation. Visitors can use the preserve’s canoe and kayak launch to access the river, and shoreline fishing is permitted for anglers who adhere to state and Forest Preserve fishing regulations.

Guest said Isle a la Cache is often overlooked as a fishing hotspot compared to other preserves, but the river provides great opportunities for fishing. One spot she recommends is at the northern end of the island, where the river cuts around it. The river is naturally a little deeper there, and anglers can catch northern pike, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass among other fish.

People fishing by bridge at Isle a la Cache.

“People look at the river and see that’s it shallow, so they think it must not be good for fishing, but it’s actually a good spot for fishing,” she said, adding there is a healthy fish population and the water quality is good.

Paddlers, too, can enjoy the river at Isle a la Cache. Guest said people often drop in at the preserve and paddle upriver or start their trip farther north on the river and get out at the preserve.

Isle a la Cache also offers trail connections so people can access both Centennial Trail/Veterans Memorial Trail and the I&M Canal Trail.

The swing bridge along Centennial Trail.

In addition, the museum and preserve host a variety of public programs throughout the year focusing on both the region’s cultural and natural history..

“But it’s not just about field trips and public programs. We have a whole set of people who use our preserve in different ways,” she said.

The museum also holds exhibitions from time to time.


Museum visitors exploring an exhibit.

The preserve has one picnic shelter, Island Shelter, that is available to the public for rental. It has a capacity of 150 people.


Geocaching is also permitted at Isle a la Cache. Permits are required for geocaching at preserves where it is allowed.


Photo credits: Glenn P. Knoblock, Chad Merda, Anthony Schalk

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