Thatcher Woods

Hiking near the Trailside Museum of Natural History

Within the expansive Thatcher woods lies a historic, 1876 mansion. This structure is now known as the Trailside Museum of Natural History. The mansion was periodically used as a finishing school for young women and an institute for men from broken homes. It was eventually acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Cook Country (FPDCC) and used as their general headquarters from 1917 to 1931. The estate was later converted to a “trail side” museum for display of plants and animals from the surrounding area. In 1991, the museum was nearly closed due to costly and extensive repairs needed, but it was fortunately saved and expanded via fundraising efforts.

Starting our hike on the well-maintained, paved Red Trail near the museum

Thatcher Woods was the third forest preserve property acquired by the county, and is named for the farming Thatcher family that moved nearby in 1854. At 245 acres, the preserve is considered to be a rare and high-quality floodplain forest, of which there are few in Cook County.

Trip Report

Typically in Chicago, where you have a nature center you also have excellent nature trails. The Trailside Museum is no exception. Even though we knew the museum itself was closed when we visited (due to the pandemic), we were excited to get out and explore the trails here.

trail map of thatcher woods
Lots of loop options and natural dirt trails make for a great time hiking at Thatcher Woods and the Trailside Museum. The Red loop is about 2.65 miles.

We parked at the Trailside Museum and saw a number of people fishing at Thatcher Pond, which is an old oxbow of the Des Plaines river. We checked out the area around the museum and saw a caged hawk, which was interesting. I believe they keep a few animals here for education or rehabilitation purposes.

Painted trail makers near the Trailside Museum

We started off on the paved red trail, which is very well kept, decorated with painted trail markers, and situated aside a peaceful and quiet residential neighborhood. Even though there were a few families hiking nearby, the trail was very quiet. There was plenty of wildlife out and about—we saw several deer up close. For the first few minutes of the hike, sunlight danced off the cottonwood, which delicately hung in the air all around us. It looked like snow had fallen in the middle of summer with the area covered in cottonwood fluff.

Thatcher Woods, covered in cottonwood fluff at the start of the unpaved Red Trail

As the paved portion of the Red Trail ended, we descended onto the dirt section of the Red Trail. Although it appeared to have been majorly washed out by the recent flooding, it was still fairly easy to follow alongside the Des Plaines River. This trail goes for about a mile north along the river, passing under Chicago Avenue at one point. After about a mile, you’ll see the turn off to the left back through Thatcher Woods. From here, you can choose to take either the Yellow or Red Trail back toward Thatcher Pavilion. Though we didn’t encounter many bugs along the Des Plaines River, we got eaten alive once we were a little deeper in Thatcher Woods, so I’d definitely recommend bringing bug spray. After you reach the pavilion, you can cut through the parking lot to meet up with the Brown Trail. This will take you back to the Trailside Museum.

Hiking along the Des Plaines River on the unpaved Red Trail in Thatcher Woods


Wildlife✶ ✶ ✶
Scenery✶ ✶
Isolation✶ ✶
Upkeep✶ ✶ ✶
Distance (from Chicago)13 miles
For being so close to the city, Thatcher Woods and the Trailside Museum are a gem for the loop-worthy hiking trails and abundant wildlife.

We saw a handful of deer and many birds during the hike. Though the woods on the higher ground around the museum were lovely, the area closer to the Des Plaines River was pretty beat up from the recent flooding. We only saw a few people as we hiked along the river, but there were quite a few families and people enjoying the museum and pavilion areas. The area around the museum was very well-kept. The hike was almost completely flat throughout and fairly easy, if not a little muddy.

1 thought on “Thatcher Woods”

  1. Beautiful write-up, thank you! Will be using this as the basis for a brief jaunt around Thatcher Woods with the kids.

    Good luck on your quest! We can recommend Big Marsh Park, it’s got lovely birds and they’re making some great additions to it. Cheers!

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