West Ridge Nature Preserve / Park #568

A new park recently opened on the far north side of Chicago. Park #568 lies in a previously unused corner of Rosehill Cemetery. They claim no bodies have ever been buried here, though from certain corners of the site, you can see straight through the chain link fence toward the westernmost headstones. There’s a strange feeling in the air. Felled trees criss-cross throughout the park, some half buried in the central fishing pond, strangled limbs reaching upward from a watery grave.

A few boardwalks snake through newly planted prairie grasses. The native woodland trees stand tall and thin, shooting fifty, sixty feet into the air before multiplying and dividing into thousands of tiny twigs. Most woody plantings have already lost their leaves — the forest floor, a multicolored carpet of maroons and purples, decomposing crab apples, and cleverly disguised wildlife. We spot a Giant Walkingstick, thin and brown, legs tipped in lime green. Body bouncing as he takes uncertain steps, slowly approaching the asphalt path.

There are dozens of signs scattered throughout the park asking visitors to stay on the trails, but many don’t. Or can’t. The adults are generally respectful. Though I imagine asking rambunctious kids to walk quietly along the walkway, observing nature from a safe distance, is a crazy request. Deep woods are where secrets are shared, and inside jokes are born, and the best swords are fashioned out of dead branches. Even for me, the pull to abandon the path is strong. There’s a certain quality of light and shadow you can only experience when you’re surrounded by trees. You can’t hear that familiar cottony squish of leaves and mud when there’s only paved clearing underfoot.

But we stick to the trail. And listen to mothers share news of their most successful nieces. Wander alongside families eating identical PB&Js and miniature explorers hunting wild mushrooms. Watch through the fencing as 49B buses and pickup trucks hurtle down busy Western Avenue, windshields glittering as brightly as ripples on the pond.

Park #568 is located near the intersection of Western and Ardmore, one block south of Peterson Ave. The park is free to the public and open from dawn till dusk.

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