The former site of the Highland Park Country Club golf course is now open to the public as The Preserve, a vast expanse of natural and recreational space that has undergone a $1.7 million conversion in recent years.

The project began its planning phase in 2018 when the Park District of Highland Park formally acquired the land from the Town of Highland Park.

To put 100 acres, or about 4,356,000 square feet, into perspective, that’s about the size of 75 football fields.

Brian Romes, the Park District Executive Director of Highland Park, said the space is one of the most exciting projects he has worked on.

“It’s pretty unique to see a community kind of gain 100 acres of space – natural area, walking and recreation trails, nature, play space,” Romes said. “What used to be a golf course, serving only those who play golf, now serves everyone in Highland Park, and even in Lake County and even in the state.”

Rebecca Grill, natural areas manager for the Park District of Highland Park, said an advisory committee made up of residents, city and county officials wanted to honor the wishes of responses to Park District surveys in 2009 and 2013, which which indicated a strong desire for a more accessible walk. and cycle paths.

Previously established conservation easements prohibited certain real estate developments on the site, but this was not a problem in the plan, which sought to incorporate the topography of the golf course – sandy bunkers, lush stretches of grass, wetlands and ponds – into the finished project.

“The band wanted to make sure we kept that natural field open and honored that aesthetic,” Grill said. “But, also, we wanted to have fun with the idea that it was a golf course. How could we take advantage of some of these features to create fun playgrounds? »

Located directly west of the East Fork of the North Fork of the Chicago River, known locally as the Skokie River, the addition of more native plants around the site and within its facilities should help mitigate runoff from stormwater in the river and nearby areas.

Over 50 acres of newly sown native plants line the site, arranged to match the underlying soil and water conditions. The project was partially funded by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the Park District worked with city officials and the Stormwater Commission of Lake County.

On June 4, the Park District of Highland Park officially unveiled the area to the public with a grand opening celebration that opened up the trails, nature maze and pollinator gardens and featured scavenger hunts and games on the grass.

“So many people were involved in this,” Romes said. “The list is so long, and it’s a great example of community cooperation.”

“Rebecca and her team, staff and volunteers, have done an amazing job of bringing this to where it is today and transforming it from a golf course into a beautiful natural area for all to enjoy,” said Roma.

Grill said each of The Preserve’s attractions was designed with wildlife, education and recreation in mind. One such example is the Sand Playground, which features two “turtle mounds” modeled after the painted and spotted turtles native to Illinois.

“We wanted to let the kids have an experience a bit like playing like a turtle, digging in the sand, which is how they make their nests,” Grill said. “At the same time, getting to know these creatures and hopefully learning to care about them.”

According to Grill, visitors might even spot painted turtles during their visit.

As people move around the site, they can walk on shorter or longer paths, some paved and others using the grassy paths used by golf carts. Further away from the old golf clubhouse there are specialist gardens including monarch lodges which provide milkweed, nectar plants and may provide shelter for monarch butterflies in the area.

Romes hopes The Preserve will have a positive impact on Highland Park residents and visitors for many years to come.

“As we look to the future, it will become more beautiful and more used for people to enjoy in an open space for years and generations to come,” Romes said.