Riding the trails at the Herrick Lake Forest Preserve on a beautiful fall day, I encountered something that I generally don’t see—lots of people. The combination of brilliant fall colors, bright sunshine, comfortable temperatures and a Bears bye week seemed to attract the largest crowd I can recall ever seeing on the trails at Herrick. Hikers, cyclists, runners, and walkers were all basking in the day throughout the trail system, which I usually have mostly to myself, with only occasional runners and cyclists to give a nod to as they pass by.
Finally, I thought, people are figuring out what a great place this is. What’s taken them so long?
Herrick Lake is located just south of Butterfield Road and east of Herrick Road in Wheaton, along a corridor close to the center of DuPage County that features a collection of forest preserves and trail systems that allow runners and cyclists to easily string together dozens of miles of trails with only a handful of road crossings.
The parcel of land was originally the homestead of Ira Herrick, who arrived on the property in 1833. His family farmed the land until 1925, when the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County bought 90 acres to turn into a preserve. They made additional purchases from the 1950s to the 1980s to acquire the 885 acres in the preserve today.
Inside Herrick Lake
You can stay inside the boundaries of forest preserve and have plenty of space to explore. From the parking lots on both the north and west sides of the preserve, you immediately access 17-acre Herrick Lake, the only natural lake in the county. In the summer months, you can rent canoes and kayaks (although, unfortunately, you can’t bring your own), and you’ll find plenty of people fishing almost any time of the year. The trail circling the lake does get plenty of use, but on the south side of the lake you can access the trail system that will keep you coming back.
Of course, like most of the trails in the DuPage County Forest Preserve, these are crushed limestone. But the wandering paths—about half tree-lined and half through restored prairie—offer excellent scenic views, some surprising hills (although nothing you can’t handle) and enough variety to keep things interesting. The trail system at Herrick resembles a misshapen figure eight, with the bottom loop much larger than the top. Off of the bottom loop, there’s another mile circle in addition to the connecting trail to the adjacent Danada Forest Preserve to the east. You’ll find about six miles of crushed limestone trails, just in Herrick.
In the late fall and winter, it’s much easier to explore off-road, with several singletrack trails and deer paths to take you into hidden parts of the preserve. During the summer months, these are almost impassible with ground cover. But one of the joys in running in Herrick in the fall and winter is adding a bit of off-road trail to the mix. (Bikes, however, must stay on the crushed-limestone paths.) It’s also much easier to access Herrick Marsh, in the middle of the forest preserve. It's home, according to the forest preserve, to salamanders, northern leopard frogs, minks and muskrats.
I have actually spotted a couple of muskrats over the years exploring Herrick, but you’re much more likely to see deer, particularly early in the morning and close to sundown. Don’t be surprised if you spot coyote, especially in the winter with less foliage to hide them. They’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone, but I’ve been surprised how close I’ve gotten to them running on the path before they’ve made a dash for it. In the spring, you’ll see plenty of great blue heron, which have one of the largest rookeries in the county on the preserve.
The wooded sections of the property are filled with dense hardwoods, including 150-year-old red, white and bur oaks, especially around the lake. You’ll find plenty of elms and maples in addition to lindens, dogwood and hickories. Fall really gives you an appreciation for the variety of trees on the property.
Beyond the Preserve
Of course, six miles of fun trails isn’t bad, but it’s really just touching the surface of what makes Herrick so great. It may sound like faint praise to say that what makes Herrick so good is that it’s close to everything else, but it is indeed Herrick’s interconnectedness to all the area trails systems that make it the perfect base of operations to get started.
First of all, Herrick has easy parking, bathrooms and a water fountain that’s running all year. Head east on Herrick’s trails to connect to the Danada Forest Preserve, which houses the Danada Equestrian Center and another 4 miles of trails. The home of 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair, the property was once the farm of Dan and Ada Rice. The Equestrian Center offers group, private and semi-private lessons. Plus it’s an excellent destination for taking kids in the Burley, as the horse barn is open to the public year-round.
Go north of Herrick Lake on Wiesbrook Road, just north of Wheaton Warrenville South High School, and you’ll connect to the Illinois Prairie Path. Take the trail northeast about two miles and you’ll hit downtown Wheaton, which is mile zero of the three-pronged trail system. From there, you have more than 60 miles of trails to explore, taking you to Elgin in the northwest, Aurora in the southwest and Maywood to the east.
Continue east of Herrick Lake on the connecting trail south of Butterfield Road, and you’ll connect to St. James Farm, the newest preserve in DuPage County. It’s another one with an equestrian background—once the home of the McCormick family—with many of the farm buildings still preserved there. It hosts several cross-country meets in the fall and has plenty of room to run on the property.
Just south of St. James Farm, connect to the DuPage River Trail, a paved path that will take you all the way to downtown Naperville and then further south to Knoch Knolls Park. Keep going west at St. James Farm and you’ll hit the Blackwell Forest Preserve, with another 9 miles of trails and the biggest hill to climb in DuPage County.
As you can see, you really have lots of choices. For cyclists, getting in a 50-mile ride—all on trails with zero traffic—is easy. Runners have plenty of options to explore each of the preserves along the way, and even occasional singletrack. That so many trails are available to so many people in the heart of one of the state’s most populous counties is something not to take for granted.
So don’t wait for the next Bears bye week. Discover just how much there is to explore in your own backyard.