McHenry County is truly blessed with numerous parks and green spaces. Many of us live within walking distance or a short drive, even without heading into the proverbial “country.” Of course, great as many of these are, the sounds of nature are often at odds against the “sounds of progress.” Traffic noises, whether by plane, train or automobile, often compete against the sounds of construction, mowers, or otherwise.
Yet, there is a place where you can go that is less than a half-hour away from nearly anywhere in McHenry County, where you may experience the sound of silence. Okay, silence might not be the right word.
Rather, you may find the sounds of nature on high, but without all those other unnatural sounds. And visually, other than the powerlines that run along one edge, you are plunked down into nature.
Pleasant Valley Conservation Area: 13119 Pleasant Valley Rd, Woodstock, IL 60098
Coming in around 2,080 acres, surpassed I believe only by the Glacial Ridge Conservation Area’s 3,439 acres, there is no shortage of nature and all the sounds to go with it. Located south of Pleasant Valley Road, west of highways 47 and 176, and south of Woodstock, the Pleasant Valley Conservation Area may be a little off the beaten path. It is quite possible that you have never been by or hardly noticed it from the signage at the single entrance off Pleasant Valley Road.
A Uniquely Transformational Past
Pleasant Valley holds an amazing history for such a large area that has only recently (less than 30 years ago) become part of the McHenry County Conservation District with the initial purchase of just 110 acres. Originally formed by glaciers, this area was and is currently still used in part for agriculture, but thankfully avoided urban development.
This area was likely settled originally by native Americans, followed by Irish immigrants who settled in the area and began farming the land throughout the early founding of McHenry County.
Pleasant Valley Farm was then created in 1952 by the Chicago Congregational Union to serve as a summer camp and retreat center for inner-city youth. Later renamed the Pleasant Valley Outdoor Center, for nearly 50 years, the PVOC served as an amazing, life-changing experience to thousands of youth who learned about nature and the environment, even helping on the farm with the animals, gardens, and preparing the meals.
Stories claim that Martin Luther King Jr, among others, stayed at Pleasant Valley to write and plan the Chicago Freedom Movement for open and fair housing and overall quality of life and civil rights.
Even before the PVOC closed, the McHenry County Conservation District acquired 110 acres in 1994. Thirteen additional land purchases were made to form what has now become the Pleasant Valley Conservation Area. And so began a project of restoration and preservation.
Return to What Was
The plans for Pleasant Valley were primarily focused on restoration and the creation of an environmental macro site habitat. The goal behind a macro site like this is to not only help protect plant and animal species but to allow them enough land to breed and thrive.
Free from urban development, much of the restoration centered around reversing some of the agricultural use of the area by re-seeding fields with prairie plants and removal of invasive species. Perhaps one of the greatest undertakings though was returning the natural hydrology of the 150-acre wetland complex. The end result was natural water flow across the wetlands, which attracts various herons, cranes, and other wetland birds.
Part of what made Pleasant Valley ideal for this as a macro site habitat is the large, contiguous, road-free land-mass that aids in protecting whole bio-environments. protects wildlife, and entire watersheds.
Pleasant Valley also contains Laughing Creek, a headwater stream that flows into the Kishwaukee River, the main branch of which crosses through the southwest portion of Pleasant Valley.
Preserving for the Future
Beyond restoration, environmental preservation is an important focus at Pleasant Valley. The area features one of the most biologically diverse areas in the county. It even features 13 rare native plants among the 274 that thrive within the ecosystem.
If that wasn’t enough reason, the stream and wetlands are home to two state-endangered animals, the petite Iowa Darter fish and Blanding’s turtles.
Nature Recreation Too
Recreation at Pleasant Valley is really centered around nature. If you are looking for splash pads, playgrounds, or sports fields, this will be a disappointing visit. However, I would propose that you will gain much more from what is here than what isn’t.
Instead, you get to take in what almost feels like untouched nature across nearly 5 miles of hiking trails (primarily composed of multiple little loops), over half of which can also be used during the winter for cross country skiing, fishing for largemouth bass or bluegill in the 2-acre pond, and even horseback riding on a horse trail that runs the length of the area (BYOH -bring your own horse).
You will find benches around the parking lot, the pond, and in various spots along the trails, however, picnic tables are, as far as I found, limited to the covered shelters. General picnicking is clearly meant to be contained within the shelters and the amphitheater when they are not otherwise reserved. The shelters and the amphitheater itself can be reserved though for private events.
Certainly one of my favorite discoveries was walking up the short set of flagstone steps that lead to the natural stone amphitheater. Even as an adult, the feeling of being magically whisked off to the land of Narnia, or another imaginary land, is hard to ignore. Not only is it a wonderful area to take in itself, with its surrounding majestic oaks and canopy overhead, but it’s also a great overlook of some of the prairie and wetlands.
And perhaps this is another land. A magical place that has been transformed…in a good way. While the photos here, a mere sampling of the sights, are an example of how our technology has opened up our discovery of the world, a visit to someplace like the Pleasant Valley Conservation Area also reminds us how crude and simple our technology can be when it comes to experiencing nature.
For even more information on Pleasant Valley Conservation Area, check out the McHenry County Conservation District page for Pleasant Valley, which includes more information including open hours, trail map, and links for reserving shelters and the amphitheater.