Perhaps you’re familiar with Sterne’s Woods & Fen, perhaps you’re not. There’s even an outside chance that you’ve been to Sterne’s Woods & Fen without even realizing it. No, I’m not suggesting you’ve been hiking in your sleep. Sterne’s Woods & Fen and Veteran Acres Park are connected via various hiking trails, so you could have easily started your adventure on the Veteran Acres side and crossed into Sterne’s Woods & Fen without ever realizing it.
You might think of Sterne’s Woods & Fen as the bigger brother to Veteran Acres Park. The two parks combined make up nearly 300 acres of natural area, yielding several miles of multi-use trails, ponds, and two dedicated Illinois State Nature Preserves. Like Veteran Acres, Sterne’s Woods & Fen is owned by the Crystal Lake Park District.
While Veteran Acres is very much a “park” area, with various activity facilities and designated sports fields and courts, along with nature trails, Sterne’s Woods & Fen is primarily a nature preserve, with the added benefit of a picnic shelter and nature trails.
The entrance to Sterne’s Woods & Fen is off Hillside Road and is only called out by signage along the road near the entrance. The sign is a bit dated and a little hidden by flowers and plants surrounding it, so don’t blink or you might miss it.
Once you pull in, you’ll round your way around an island of trees to a couple of parking areas and the picnic shelter.
Address: 5617 Hillside Rd, Crystal Lake, IL 60012
The Sterne’s Woods & Fen area was formed by glacial activity 13,000 years ago and provides a variety of natural habitats. While that may seem like an amazing amount of time, it has only been owned and protected by the Crystal Lake Park District since 1986, and has only been designated as an Ilinois Nature Preserve area since 1994.
The fen is a wetland that is fed by mineral-rich surface or groundwater. The fen serves as home to a number of plant species, including rare and endangered, and animal life. Sterne’s Fen comprises 30 acres out of the remaining 175 acres of high-quality gramanoid fen that still exists within Illinois.
Because the fen had been drying out and declining over the years, the Crystal Lake Park District joined with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission to undergo a multi-year wetland restoration project to help restore the fen. Much of the initial efforts to preserve and protect this area are due to the tireless efforts of Bill Wingate, a local naturalist and educator, and community volunteers.
If wetlands aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of woodlands to experience as well. There are a number of trails that work throughout the woods area, passing into Veteran Acres Park as well. These trails range in length as well as difficulty level. While some of the main trails are fairly wide, others become quite narrow, down to single-file.
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And while there are some trail markers and map stations, it can get a little confusing, so it may be advisable to print off a map or download the PDF version to your phone.
While all trails are hike-able, some are also designated for bicycling, as well as cross-country skiing over the winter months. And bicyclists may also enjoy riding the McHenry County Conservation District’s Prairie Trail South, a portion of which runs along the eastern edge of Sterne’s Woods & Fen as well as Veteran Acres Park.
Whether you are hiking, walking, or running, it pays to make note of the difficulty ratings for the different trails, as well as the trail-specific details which include slope information. You should also be aware that terrain may vary a fair amount, depending on the trail you are on.
While gravel is fairly prevalent throughout, you may also experience potentially muddy areas (especially around the fen), rocky or grassy areas, as well as some areas with very irregular surfaces due to ruts or tree roots.
The area is generally open from dawn to dusk, but most areas are only lit by daylight. Especially if you are on the trails toward the end of the day, it may be advisable to have at least a small flashlight on hand as some of the trails deeper into the woods are quite shaded, even during the lighter times of the day.
As always, plan ahead. In addition to proper shoes and clothing, remember your sunscreen as well as bug spray for mosquitos and ticks. While Sterne’s Woods & Fen is probably a fairly safe place and there are often others around, this is a very large area with intricate trails and forest areas, so you might want to plan your visits with a friend if you get uncomfortable alone in the woods.
It’s also important to remember that this is a preservation area. In addition to picking up after yourself, understand that all natural objects, plants, and animals are also protected by law.
This is a wonderful place to visit and experience year-round. And with so many different trails and routes, you can experience it in a different way, every time you visit. In the fall, the Crystal Lake Park District even hosts wagon rides!