Leave winter hibernation to wildlife – bundle up and explore the great outdoors with ideas from McHenry County Conservation District.
When the weather gets cold and the snow starts piling up, don’t get stuck indoors. With the proper planning and warm clothes, you can enjoy winter as much as any other season. Winter adventures don't have to be elaborate, expensive or take place in the Great White North to provide a great opportunity the whole family can enjoy. Put all that fresh snow to good use, bundle up, get active and discover the great outdoors with McHenry County Conservation District!
To really experience the outdoors this time of year, try winter camping at Marengo Ridge.
Sledding: Grab your favorite tube or saucer for some good old-fashioned sledding fun where laughter is abundant. The sled hill at McHenry County Conservation District’s Glacial Park in Ringwood (by the Wiedrich Barn) is perfect for an afternoon of free, unsupervised snow play. Don't forget to pack a thermos of hot chocolate. Afterward, stop in the Lost Valley Visitor Center to view the Only Owls traveling art exhibit (January 10-March 8).
Winter hiking: Maybe you'd rather hit the trails and enjoy a winter hike. Getting outdoors, even for a short loop, can energize you and make you feel more productive. The winter landscape offers solitude, inspiration and a place to get away. Explore the wooded trails at Coral Woods Conservation Area in Marengo, Hickory Grove Conservation Area in Cary or Rush Creek Conservation Area in Harvard.
Get energized with an afternoon of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or hiking.
Cross-country skiing: Want to get some exercise and enjoy the winter landscape? Take to the trails for some cross-country skiing. The district has both beginner and advanced trails. Go at an enjoyable leisurely pace or strain our quads to the limit. Either way, nothing can compare to the joy of cruising across a sparkling winterscape, feeling perfectly at ease with the motion and the wilderness. Pleasant Valley and Hickory Grove Highland stay open nightly until 9 p.m. for night skiing along solar-lit trails. A skate ski trail has also been added at Silver Creek. For some group activity, join Candlelight Ski January 30 and 31 from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. at Coral Woods in Marengo; and February 20 and 21 at Rush Creek in Harvard. Afterward, enjoy hot chocolate and cookies around the campfire. (A candlelight hike will be hosted in lieu of snow.)
Ice fishing: You didn’t already put away your fishing gear, did you? If so, dig it back out. There are plenty of fish to be caught on a snowy day, when the ice is good and solid. Pack up the auger, lures, jigging rods or tip-ups for a few hours of fishing fun. Don't forget your fishing license. Try your luck ice-fishing at The Hollows or Lyons Prairie & Marsh in Cary, Rush Creek in Harvard or Stickney Run in McHenry.
Winter camping – yes, camping! To really experience the outdoors this time of year, try winter camping at Marengo Ridge in Marego, which provides a different perspective into nature. There are several advantages to winter camping, including:
-Trees have shed their leaves, providing unobstructed vistas where the clear and open view is unparalleled.
-Clear night skies offer great star grazing opportunities.
-Winter camping can provide a feeling of solitude.
-Night time sounds carry easily, enhancing an audio landscape of coyotes, owls, trees snapping and ice cracking.
It’s a Wonderful Time of the Year! – Take a walk in the wonderful winter woods. We will explore using our senses even with our winter duds on. Imagine the wonders we will find as we hike, play winter games, and search for other winter inhabitants. Our frosty adventure will lead us to the wonder of a winter campfire. Dress for the weather.
Saturday, January 10, 3 p.m.–4:30 p.m., Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, ages 7+.
Winter Scavenger Hunt – Take a break from this busy time of year and gather the family for some outdoor fun and fresh air! We’ll start with an introduction around the campfire at the pavilion. Then your family will head out on a scavenger hunt, looking at winter plant life and searching for signs of animal activity.
Sunday, January 11, 1 p.m–2:30 p.m., The Hollows, Picnic Shelter #1, Cary, all ages, free.
Winter Constellations – Who is Orion and what is his story? Have you heard of the Seven Sisters? Just how are their stories intertwined? Under a hushed winter sky, learn to identify a few major constellations and listen to the stories behind them. Dress for the weather and be prepared to be outside for part of the program.
Friday, January 23, 7 p.m.–8:30 p.m., Glacial Park Lost Valley Visitor Center, Savanna Room, Ringwood.
Natural Valentine – Do you need a Valentine’s Day gift idea? Come enjoy a short hike, have your family’s picture taken, and then make a “natural” picture frame to complete your Valentine’s Day gift. Picture frames are limited to one per family. Note: Pictures will be emailed to participants after the program.
Sunday, February 8, 1 p.m.–2:30 p.m., Glacial Park, Lost Valley Visitor Center, Valley Overlook Room, Ringwood.
"Spotted Owl Study" by Robert Bateman is one of many works on display during the Owl Art Exhibit.
Spy Some Owls
Traveling Owl Art Exhibit – Artists have been inspired by these intriguing birds for centuries. Only Owls brings together an array of 40 artistic representations in pencil, charcoal, ink, watercolor and woodcut drawn from the Woodson Art Museum’s collection. Each artwork provides insight into the fascinating world of owls, while demonstrating the variety of approaches to the species taken by the artists. The Conservation District will complement this unique art exhibit with owl facts and artifacts, offering a blend of natural history information and art appreciation. Winter is also a great time to study owls, as most are year-round residents that begin their mating and nesting season during this cold, dark time of year. Attend one of our owl-focused programs in the weeks leading up to this exhibit to learn more about the artists’ subject matter.
January 10–March 8, Lost Valley Visitor Center, Glacial Park.
Owl Prowl – Winter is an ideal time to observe owls and owl behavior. Learn more about these elusive creatures of the night. Meet live owls, share stories and folklore, view an owl video, examine owls' diets by dissecting an owl pellet and go for a short hike in search of owls. Please be prompt and dress for the weather.
Friday, January 9, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, Ages 6–13 without adult.
Owls of McHenry County – Winter is the ideal time to observe owls and owl behavior. Owls are busy staking claim to territories and seeking a mate to share it with. Learn more about these "tigers of the sky." Meet live owls, share stories and folklore and go for a short hike in search of owls. Please be prompt. Dress for the weather.
Friday, January 9, 7 p.m.–8:30 p.m., Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, Ages 14+.
The crackle of a bonfire, the flicker of fireflies, the chirp of crickets, the twinkle of the stars above – connecting with nature and making memories at a campsite are what summer is all about. McHenry County Conservation District has your next camping adventure covered – just remember to pack the s’mores!
We all need to return to nature, if only to take a break from our ordinary weekdays and same old routines. An enjoyable, budget-friendly way to have family fun and keep the stress levels down is to venture out on a camping weekend. It doesn’t matter if you are an old pro or new to camping – what matters is that you spend an evening outside enjoying the wonders of nature. Sitting around a campfire under a clear sky, gazing up at the stars, and listening to the sounds of the night can strengthen our bodies, pacify our minds and restore our spirits.
So what inspires people to go camping? People have declared numerous reasons why a night outdoors can be better than a stay at a five-star resort – reasons that range from enjoying the change of pace it provides to the fact that it offers the opportunity to focus on family. Many appreciate the sights and sounds of nature while “living” outdoors as well as the beautiful landscapes you can experience in addition to the amazing people you will meet along the way.
And, an added bonus of camping is you won’t need to head to the hills or spend hours in the car to have fun sleeping under the stars – McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) has five campgrounds close to home to choose from for your family weekend outdoor adventure, group outing or individual getaway.
The following group campgrounds can be reserved April through October by calling 815-338-6223 visiting via MCCDistrict.org:
- Beck’s Woods in Chemung
Activities: Camping, hiking, fishing, picnicking and wildlife viewing.
- Hickory Grove Riverfront in Cary
Activities: Camping, fishing, hiking, horse trails, picnicking and wildlife viewing.
- The Hollows in Cary
Activities: Camping, fishing, hiking and picnicking.
- Marengo Ridge in Marengo
Activities: Camping, hiking, picnicking and wildlife viewing.
- Rush Creek in Harvard
- Activities: Camping, fishing, hiking, horse trails, picnicking and wildlife viewing.
Great American Backyard Campout
On June 28, MCCD invites families, couples and individuals to fill the campground at Thomas Woods Campgrounds in Marengo as part of the 10th Annual Great American Backyard Campout. Great American Backyard Campout is a part of National Wildlife Federation’s (nwf.org) efforts to help inspire Americans to protect wildlife and spend regular outdoor time connecting with nature. As an added incentive, each unit reserved will receive a $10 coupon off their next camping reservation and a backpack full of camping-related goodies upon arrival. It’s easy to participate – simply call 815-338-6223 and say, “I want to join the Great American Backyard Campout!
Around the Campfire
When camping with kids, it’s a good idea to know a few silly songs that everyone to participate in, simple recipes to cook over the fire and some storytelling games that get everyone involved. Try favorite sing-alongs like “When The Ants Go Marching,” “Oh! Susanna,” “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” and “Little Bunny Foo Foo.” Cook up some fun with roasted hot dogs on a stick, s’mores and popcorn, but also try stir-fry brownies, banana boats, orange muffins or baked apples. See sidebar for some recipes.
Ghost stories are perfect around the campfire, but I can never remember the ending! Instead, play build-a-story as you go where each member of the circle takes a turn adding only one sentence – you’ll be amused at the different twists and turns the story takes, the crazy characters that get added, the imagination of the little ones and how every age can get involved.
Another fun campfire circle game is Outrageous Sounds Orchestra. Everyone thinks of a sound, from thumping on their chest, clicking their tongue, rapping a beat or making repeated who-wishhhhh noises. One person is the designated conductor and gets the sound instruments started by pointing to a person who then has to make their noise. The conductor then moves on to the next person, starting and stopping people by pointing up or down, going faster and faster until arms are out signaling everyone to clap, rap, whistle and thump at will until it all usually breaks down in laughter.
You can also play memory games like “I’m going on vacation (or a picnic) and I brought …” where each person adds something to the list, but before you can name your item you have to recite every item from the players before you. The game keeps going until either someone can’t remember or the list gets too long and everyone is declared memory wizard. Variation: Each added item has to correlate with the alphabet; the challenge is to remember all 26 items.
Another easy game is naming songs with specific words or themes in them, like name all the songs with colors or the names of states in them – the end result is people singing mini clips from songs. This game can be played in teams with both older and younger generations mixed in to cover decades of music.
SIDEBAR I: The Ultimate Escape & Family Adventure
Camping is fun. It's cheap. It’s rejuvenating. It's a change of pace. It's a different kind of vacation. Camping is the only time I can collect my thoughts and feel the rhythm of life and how things fit together. It’s a recharge of my inner self. I love being outdoors. I can actually live outside without electricity, away from the hustle and bustle of telephones, computers, carpools and traffic. When the chirping birds wake me up before the sun comes up – now that's an alarm clock.
Our fondest memories have been around a campfire with friends and family. Everyone must work together for things to get done, including packing, setting up camp, breaking camp and putting things away at home. There is nothing like it for providing the opportunity to focus on the family. It’s the ultimate quality time – as well as a time to learn survival skills. Some of our most memorable experiences as a family have been while camping.
There is nothing like bacon and eggs, pancakes, and coffee cooked and eaten outdoors. We have met some of the most interesting people and have seen many beautiful places because of camping. –Wendy Kummerer, Communications Manager, MCCD
SIDEBAR 2: Yummy Campfire Treats
1. Peel one banana and slit open.
2. Stuff with mini-marshmallows and chocolate chips.
3. Wrap in foil and place in fire for five to 10 minutes. Enjoy!
1. Make brownie mix according to directions.
2. Pour a spoonful of oil into a skillet.
3. Cook the batter like scrambled eggs. Enjoy!