IL Lake County Forest Preserve Gander Mountain

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Gander Mountain - Lake County Forest Preserve - Illinois

Gander Mountain Forest Preserve, Dirt/Gravel road
Gander Mountain Forest Preserve, Prairie area at east end of preserve

Gander Mountain Forest Preserve is a rather unique place in Lake County in that it contains some rather rugged topography. This very scenic forest preserve is not developed (though there is some trail maintenance) and subsequently provides a much more wild and rugged experience than a typical Lake County Forest Preserve. The fact that the park is sandwiched between a ski hill Wilmot Mountain Ski Area and a gravel pit should give you some idea of the topography.

  • Terrain / Scenery: Scenic woodlands and prairies with rugged terrain
  • Fees / Permits: None
  • Trail Conditions: A rugged dirt/gravel road and numerous narrow hiking trails.
  • Trail Markings: Trails are not marked.
  • Facilities: none.
  • Official Web Page: http://www.lcfpd.org/preserves/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.view&object_id=20813&type=P
  • Restrictions: Mountain bikes and horses are only allowed on the "road".
  • Getting There: Gander Mountain Forest Preserve is located right on the Wisconsin/Illinois border south of the town of Wilmot on Wilmot Road. The only parking is a small widened shoulder area (enough for 3 to 5 cars). In winter, parking is even more limited or may be non-existent depending on plowing. There is a large Forest Preserve sign marking the trailhead. Google Map

Important Update *****Please Read***** In June of 2008 I received an email from someone at the Lake County Forest Preserve District asking me to "Please remove all red and yellow trails from your map as they are not authorized trails by the Lake County Forest Preserve District." I wrote back a couple of times trying to get some more clarification on this but didn't get a response. It's highly unusual to find trails like these on public lands that are actually closed to hikers so I was essentially asking them if this means that hikers are expressly prohibited from using these trails. Again, I didn't receive a response. I'm currently leaving the trails on my map because they do exist and you're going to see them if you head out there so it makes sense to show them on the map.

Unfortunately it seems like the concerns I made (at the bottom of this page) when I originally set up this page may be coming true. It's a shame because there is really nothing else like these trails in the Lake County Forest Preserve District.


Map Notes:

The color coding on the map is for demonstration purposes only (there are no color markers on the trails). Brown represents a rugged old dirt/gravel road. Red represents narrow rugged hiking trails. Yellow represents some trails through prairie and grassland areas that tend to be somewhat overgrown with vegetation. Green represents a short area of wide mowed grass trail near the trailhead.

The map uses a topographic map as a background to show the dramatic topography here. Trail locations on map are approximations (though I think I've got them pretty close). You may encounter additional trails that are not shown on my map.


Map IL Lake County Gander Mountain Forest Preserve.png


The Trails:

Biking

The terrain here and the narrow trails would make for some great mountain biking (I believe some of the trails were created by mountain bikers years ago), but the Lake County Forest Preserve District restricts bikes (and horses) to "Roadway Only". Since there is nothing here that represents a conventional park road, I assume they are referring to the old dirt/gravel road that makes up the main access trail. I used Brown on my map to represent this "road" but since I am not certain of their definition, you are on your own as far as staying legal if you bring your bike. Though the rugged old road would make for some fun mountain biking, I don't bring my bike here because there is only about a mile and a half of "road" to ride and I'm afraid I would be too tempted to hit the illegal singletrack hiking trails. I have seen posts on some web forums that they actively patrol here and give some pricey tickets to mountain bikers that wonder off the legal path.

Hiking

Fortunately for me, I don't limit my trail activities to mountain biking so I am able to enjoy the trails here on foot. And for hikers looking for rugged hiking trails, Gander Mountain is a great destination. The terrain here was created by glaciers and is similar (though a little different) to the terrain in Kettle Moraine State Forest further north in Wisconsin. Even though this forest preserve is not all that large, the scenery and topography is very diverse changing from rolling grasslands near the trailhead to rugged woodlands inland and then to prairie and wetlands in the low lying area near the Fox River.

From the trailhead, you will see a wide mowed path heading straight (east) and another heading to the right (south). The mowed path going straight will eventually narrow to a hiking trail heading towards the summit of Gander Mountain (the highest point in Lake County). The mowed path to the right is actually the beginning of the "roadway" (Brown on map) that runs south then east across the forest preserve. This "roadway" is essentially the main trail and runs about a mile before ending in the prairie/wetlands area west of the Fox River. The trails (shown yellow on map) in this prairie area tend to be rather overgrown. The prairie trail heading north to a short loop is worth a side trip because of the views of the prairie/savanna area and of the nearby ski hill.

The other brown trail shown on the map is the old dirt road heading north to the summit of Gander Mountain and is about a third of a mile in length. These old roads are rugged and obviously have some elevation changes, but they tend to follow the easiest routes through the area and subsequently are not all that steep.

I suspect most visitors will probably stick to the main trails (the old roads) and the stretch of trail heading straight from the trailhead to the peak. These trails provide some outstanding scenery (there are some great views from the peak and the inland wooded areas are very scenic) and are pretty easy to follow. However, the more rugged narrow hiking trails (Red on the map) are where the real hiking begins and where you get an experience that you will not find elsewhere in Lake County. As I've mentioned, these trails are very rugged in places; there are a couple of very steep sections (marked on the map) coming down the backside of Gander Mountain and additional not-so-steep but still challenging sections scattered throughout the trail system.

You can make a nice big loop by connecting all the outside sections of red trail and using the old road as necessary to access the hiking trails. The safer direction for this big loop would be to go counter clockwise so when you get to the really steep sections, you are going uphill (you are less likely to slip and fall going up a steep hill than down). Doing this big loop with a little side trip to that prairie trail I previously mentioned, you will experience everything this place has to offer. When you get to the peak, there is a geologic mark there (shown on my map). From the peak, you can either take the old road back to the trail head or use one of the two trails heading west towards the trailhead. I recommend the using the trail that starts a little south of the peak and eventually becomes the wide mowed path.

Skiing

I haven't tried skiing out here because I suspect most of the trail system is not skiable. With a decent snow cover, you can probably ski the old roads and maybe one of the trails running from the trailhead to the peak. The other trails are probably going to be too tricky for most cross country skiers. Availability of parking is questionable during the winter.


Though Gander Mountain Forest Preserve could use a parking area at the trailhead, the fact that this forest preserve is not developed helps to make it a special place (that and the terrain). I would hate to see them come in and eliminate the rugged hiking trails and replace them with the wide, gentle grade, crushed stone, multi-use trails that make up most of the trails in the Lake County Forest Preserve System. And as much as I would like to get my mountain bike on these trails, I guess I can settle with hiking them if that is what it takes to keep them open. Though I should mention that there is some real opportunity here to maybe replace a couple of the really steep sections with more sustainable trail and then open them up to bikes.


Links

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This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki