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Evanston cyclists whose destination is the Chicago Botanic Garden will soon have a safe alternative to Lake Cook Road, whether they travel the Green Bay Trail or the North Branch of the Chicago River Trail.
A new scenic bike trail, starting at the Braeside Metra Station in Highland Park and wide enough for bicycles, strollers and wheelchairs – and even hikers – will connect the trails with the garden.
From the Braeside Metra Station the bike path winds through Turnbull Woods, going west to Green Bay Road, and then through McDonald Woods.
This woods is a rare, 100-acre oak woodland that is host to a wide array of animals, birds and insects – more than 400 species of native plants, 20 species of mammals, 118 species of birds and thousands of different insects.
One of the most striking features of the new trail is the wetlands, protected from humans by a long wooden bridge. Jim Steffen, senior ecologist and manager of the garden’s McDonald Woods, said the moraine near there is about 40 feet higher than the rest of the woodland, “so all the water drains down to the bottom of that slope and it forms these wetlands. … They’re ephemeral in nature and don’t necessarily last all year with water in them, but they always stay damp. … We don’t have turtles in that part of the woods, but there are things like American toads and insects that depend on those wetlands, like the dragonfly and damselflies. There are probably a couple of dozen of those species.”
Bikers and hikers should not leave the trail, says Mr. Steffen, because of likely damage to the vegetation and because of the “fair amount“ of poison ivy there.
The wetland is also home to butterfly species such as the Broad-winged Skipper Butterfly, a small brown- and-gold-colored butterfly, and the Appalachian-Eyed Brown Butterfly.
Neither can be found anywhere where their habitat does not exist, and they cannot move from one habitat to another if the distance between them is significant.
For many years the Chicago Botanic Garden has worked to restore McDonald Woods to the diversity of pre-settlement conditions.
In the fall, migratory birds find a temporary home in the woods.
“Pretty much any bird that you could see in the region would be possible to see here, especially warblers and flycatchers, and occasionally birds of prey like great horned owls and red-tailed hawks, which nest in the woods,” Mr. Steffen says.
Wildflowers, more dramatic and prominent in the spring, also have their fall fling. Mr. Steffen says among the beautiful fall flowers are “several species of asters and goldenrod … Forked Aster, Side-flowering Aster. Short’s Aster, Zigzag Goldenrod and Bluestem Goldenrod.”
The bike trail is intended to increase free use of the garden. More than 90,000 hikers and bikers visit the garden each year. Admission is free for pedestrians
and cyclists, but nonmembers who come by car pay a $25 parking fee.
The website (www.botanicgarden.org) has an up-to-date schedule of hours, videos of McDonald Woods and other information.