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Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens, Palos Heights, IL

Lisa is a writer and gardener with extensive knowledge of plants and plant care. Her articles focus on easy-care tips for home gardeners.

Lake Katherine—Then and Now

I remember Lake Katherine when it was just a small lake located in a wooded area without much of anything else around other than a suburban cul-de-sac of homes and townhouses. Over the past 20 years, the Cook County Forest Preserve District has worked hard to improve the site as a multi-function and educational place. It welcomes school groups, kids and adult classes at the nature center clubhouse, and nature buffs who use the place to hike the trails around the lake and visit the botanical gardens.

Lake Katherine's large man-made falls.

Lake Katherine's large man-made falls.

Where to Find Lake Katherine

Location: 7402 W. Lake Katherine Drive, Palos Heights, IL 60463

Hours of Operation: Open dawn to dusk every day. The Nature Center is open 9 am to 5 pm on weekdays and 10 am to 4 pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays and Holidays.

The Lake and Preserve sit just south of the Cal-Sag Channel and just west of Harlem Avenue (Route 43) in a suburb of Chicago. It is a large urban area and a nice respite from the hustle, bustle, and traffic in the area.

One of several "Secret Gardens" near the waterfall

One of several "Secret Gardens" near the waterfall

Visitor Amenities

The Lake Loop Trail circles the lake and is approximately a one-mile hike. Be sure to visit the large man-made waterfall and botanical gardens, located on the east end of the preserve just east of the nature center.

The Nature Center offers many programs including:

  • Youth Programs
  • Adult Education Classes
  • School Field Trips
  • Scouts
  • Nature Talks
  • Outdoor Weddings
  • Wedding Photography
  • Corporate Events

Some fees apply, so be sure to check the website for more information!

Secret garden entrance

Secret garden entrance

Visitor Guidelines

As always when visiting a nature site, take heed of the visitor rules and etiquette when visiting!

  • No Fishing in Lake Katherine
  • No Swimming
  • No operation of motor vehicles in the preserve
  • Do not disturb wildlife
  • No hunting
  • No littering
  • No drugs/alcohol is permitted
  • No fires unless approved by the nature center
  • Picnic only in approved posted areas

Nature Conservancy

Conservation efforts at Lake Katherine are always ongoing. The use of native Illinois plants, flowers, and grasses, plus restoration of prairie have helped Lake Katherine become a true nature preserve.

Some of the native plants you will encounter in the preserve:

  • Indian Grass
  • Little Bluestem
  • Canadian Wild Rye
  • Switchgrass
  • Cup Plant
  • Blazing Star
  • Pale Purple Coneflower
  • Purple Coneflower
  • New England Aster
  • Milkweed
  • Compass Plant
  • Trillium
  • Blood Root
  • Wild Geranium
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Goldenrod
  • Cattail
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Wild Indigo
  • Blue Flag Iris
  • Wild Columbine
  • Water Lily
Mallard Ducks on the Lake

Mallard Ducks on the Lake

Animal Life at the Center

There are over 85 bird species found at the preserve, which makes it a great place for bird watching. You can also encounter 14 different types of butterflies and moths, 16 different types of dragonflies and damselflies, and several amphibious animals including snakes, turtles, frogs, and salamanders that call Lake Katherine home. Over 20 different mammals have been spotted at the preserve as well. The most common are deer, coyotes, squirrels, and other small rodents.

Swan came over to say hello

Swan came over to say hello

The top of the waterfall

The top of the waterfall

The Waterfall

This beautiful man-made waterfall is located just east of the Nature Center. It is 300 feet in length and at the highest point is 30 feet. It joins up with the lake on the east side of the park and provides aeration for the lake. Even though this is a man-made structure, it fits wonderfully with the overall look and flow of the park. There are several areas where you can view the falls either standing on the trail or seated on one of the many park benches found in the park.

Standing at the top of the falls looking down

Standing at the top of the falls looking down

Lake Katherine is a Part of a Much Bigger Waterway

Adjacent to the Lake to the north is the Cal-Sag Channel, which is a 16-mile-long channel that connects to the Little Calumet River at the east end. The Little Calumet River is one of several tributaries (Little Calumet, Grand Calumet, and Calumet Rivers) that link up to Lake Michigan on the southeastern side of Chicago and Cook County. The Cal-Sag was created in 1922 to change the flow of the Calumet Rivers to flow away from Lake Michigan, carrying with it waste water and runoff that once polluted the Lake.

Along the Cal-Sag and Calumet Rivers, you will find aeration mechanisms that help filter and oxygenate the system. Without this system, the rivers would not be able to support any aquatic life. The Rivers themselves are great to travel down via boat, but they are still heavily polluted. I would not swim or eat any fish that comes from these waterways. The IDNR and IEPA have a long way to go to clean up the pollution in these areas.

Norfolk Southern Railroad spans over the Cal-Sag Channel

Norfolk Southern Railroad spans over the Cal-Sag Channel

Entryway of Palos School in 1939 that once stood near the site.  A nice place to sit and contemplate life.

Entryway of Palos School in 1939 that once stood near the site. A nice place to sit and contemplate life.

Nature Preserves are Important

It is important to visit these sites to learn about the ongoing conservation efforts. It is nice to see so many improvements to this site over the years. The Center is primarily funded as a non-profit through the city of Palos Heights. There are ways to get involved such as sponsoring an animal or dedicating one of the many park benches to the memory of a loved one. It is a nice little getaway close to the city to enjoy all that nature has to offer. I hope you enjoyed my visual tour of this peaceful place!

Questions & Answers

Question: Is Lake Katherine naturally occurring or is it man-made?

Answer: I believe the Lake is natural, but the waterfall is man made.