Mellody Farm, Middlefork Savanna Preserve, and Elawa Farm

High Quality Prairie Hiking and Restored Estates

Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve is a 567-acre park located in Lake Forest, IL and features a combination of sedge meadows (wet meadows dominated by grass-like plants), wet and mesic prairies, oak savanna, and woodlands. Middlefork Preserve is named as such because the “middle fork” of the North Branch of the Chicago River cuts directly through it, via a channel. The preserve is ecologically important. It contains many uncommon and endangered species that require large open areas, such as birds and butterflies. The park contains a 4-mile gravel trail, a 0.5-mile grass trail, a scenic overlook, and a 221-foot steel pedestrian bridge over the nearby Metra tracks. Activities at the preserve include hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing.

Middlefork Savanna is bordered by two historic, restored farm estates, once owned by the descendants of meat-packing industrialist Phillip Danforth Armour.

Our hike started at Mellody Farm estate, formerly owned by J. Ogden Armour. Mellody Farm contains over 75 acres of wetlands, prairie, and oak savanna. Of architectural significance, the preserve also features a restored Italian Renaissance gatehouse designed by architect Arthur Huen. The grounds also boasts a formal garden, pond, and council ring by famous landscape architect Jens Jensen.

Starting out the hike along a mowed path at Mellody Farm

The other estate you’ll encounter is Elawa Farm, once owned by Elsa and A. Watson Armour. A little less than a mile north of Mellody Farm, the non-profit Elawa Farm is a former “gentleman’s farm” or hobby farm. The 16-acre site was acquired by the City of Lake Forest in 1998. The farm includes a garden market, walking trails, historic buildings, as well as a variety of learning and volunteering opportunities.

Trip Report

I’d been looking forward to visiting Middlefork Savanna after seeing some photos of the beautiful meadow scenery, and the nearby historic Mellody and Elawa Farm preserves looked like they might provide winding trails. We made a plan to hit all 3 locations with one almost-looping hike.

hiking path from mellody farm to elawa farm
Our path through Middlefork Savanna, from Mellody Farm to Elawa Farm and back.

We started off by parking near the restored gates at the Mellody Farm near the corner of Deerpath and Waukegan Road. There was plenty of parking available on a Sunday, and only a handful of small groups walking around the meadow.

Restored Italian Renaissance gatehouse at the entrance to Mellody Farm

Mellody Farm has a mowed path through the prairie that leads to Middlefork Savanna. From there, you get to enjoy a nice walk through an oak savanna, featuring the famed and secluded Jens Jensen pond.

Jens Jensen-designed pond and landscapes at Mellody Farm

Because of the presence of the multi-million dollar homes of Lake Forest within less than a few-hundred feet of some of the prettiest parts of the trail, you never really feel that isolated. After about a half-mile, the trails at Mellody Farm connect to Middlefork Savanna preserve.

Oak Savanna near the end of the Mellody Farm trails

Once you leave the shady oak savanna at Mellody Farm, you’ll connect with the gravel Middlefork Trail and Greenway that runs the length of the park. This trail links up with the North Shore Bike Path on the north end, and Lake Forest Academy on the south end. Mellody Farm is on the south end of the preserve. You can see the scenic overlook and steel pedestrian bridge from where the Mellody Farm trails meet the Middlefork Trail, if you are inclined to check them out. From there, we hiked north along the shared, gravel hiking/biking trail while stopping to admire the wide variety of turtles, frogs, birds and flowers. This area was flourishing with wildlife and the sounds of nature.

Pond at Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve

Along the way north, you can detour west to the 1/3-mile, grassy, hiking-only Pond Path if you like. After about a mile, you’ll reach the center of the Middlefork preserve and you can take advantage of the half-mile interpretive loop trail that covers topics such as wildlife, history, and restoration projects. We were planning to take the interpretive trail, but we were melting from the heat and total lack of shade in the Middlefork Preserve.

Closed intepretive trails at Elawa Farm. Wildlife Discovery Center animal pens in the background.

We really needed to find a good lunch spot and take a break! Elawa Farm itself looked fairly busy—the parking lot was nearly full—and it appeared that some of the garden trails we planned on exploring were closed. We saw the Lake Forest Wildlife Discover Center nearby (home to 85+ animal species!), which was also closed to the public at the time. We’d love to come back and get a closer look at the animals sometime. To maintain a safe, social distance, we decided to avoid the crowd. We noticed a shady, wooded oak savanna just a little ways north, and a tiny sign next to an almost hidden path that said “NEW TRAIL”, which is like music to our ears.

Low-key entrance to the idyllic George Beach Trail nearby Elawa Farm

We decided to follow this trail and were richly rewarded with one of the most scenic, secluded, and idyllic spots of the entire hike. The trail led to about a half-mile, shaded dirt path loop around a lovely, algae-covered pond surrounded by sparse 200-year old bur oak and shagbark hickory trees. The pond had a nice bench where we took our lunch break. We only saw a few folks while hiking around here. The path features a nice boardwalk section as well. I couldn’t find much information, but later determined this gem is called the George Beach Trail, and the pond is called Hammer’s Mound. The location is a northern section of the Middlefork Farm Nature Preserve, which is separate from Middlefork Savanna Preserve.

Hidden wetland oasis along the George Beach trail, and a great bird watching or lunch spot

After taking our lunch break, we hiked back south along the Middlefork Greenway trail, back to our car at Mellody Farm. Overall, the hike from Mellody Farm to Elawa Farm and back was about a 5-mile round trip.

Ratings

Wildlife✶ ✶ ✶
Scenery✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Isolation✶ ✶
Difficulty
Upkeep✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Distance (from Chicago)33 miles
Middlefork Savanna offers gorgeous scenery and rare wildlife, but little isolation or off-trail adventure opportunities. The farm preserves holds historic and architectural significance, as well as shade and a change of scenery.

The scenery and overall variety of flora and fauna were the highlights of our visit to Middlefork Savanna. Coming from Chicago, the historic farm preserves are a little off-the-beaten path and were overall very well-restored and maintained. Both are operated by separate non-profit organizations (Elawa Farm Foundation and Lake Forest Openlands). While the farms offered some peace and seclusion, the main trail in Middlefork was busy with bikers and families with strollers.

If you’re looking for off trail exploration, there aren’t many opportunities at Middlefork. This is for the best, in this case, in order to preserve the delicate wetlands and endangered species. I did see an unmarked path near the bridge that crosses the middle fork, just south of Meadowood Park, but we were too tired to see where it went—maybe next time.

Mellody Farm, Elawa Farm, and Middlefork Farm Nature Preserve offered a little bit more room for exploration with their winding paths through shady oak savannas.

Overall, we’d like to return to Middlefork Savanna in the future as we certainly have more to see and explore in the area.

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