Five Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“When you think that your walk is profitless and a failure, and you can hardly persuade yourself not to return, it is on the point of being a success, for then you are in that subdued and knocking mood to which Nature never fails to open.”—Henry David Thoreau


The hashtag #getoutside is seen on Black Friday on social media accounts, when a hike is a preferred alternative to shopping, post-Thanksgiving movies, or other entertainment. For more of our friends and family, this hashtag—rather than popping up occasionally—is now a regular occurrence. The outdoors is a lifeline during the pandemic, whether as a safer place to socialize with friends from a social distance, or as a much-needed break from being in the house. Feeling depressed? Going for a walk, many are discovering for the first time, calms the mind, stretches stiff muscles, and refreshes the spirit. And there is no prettier place to hike than the tallgrass prairie. But in January? Really?

Trail through Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

Let’s go for a prairie hike and discover five reasons to get outside this month.

  1. The Contrasts of Color with Snow: Color, you might say? In January? Yes, January is a month when the gray skies accentuate what colors nature has left to us. The hunter green of a row of pines, offering retreat on the edges of the tallgrass.
Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

Ring-necked pheasants aren’t native to our prairies in Illinois, but what a joy when one unexpectedly struts across the snow.

Ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL. (Photo courtesy John Heneghan).

The pheasants are infused with the reds and greens, taupes and whites of the winter prairie. Such color! What would the artists of the 19th Century impressionism movement have thought of the tallgrass prairie in winter? The contrasts of dark and pale; soft and sharp?

Afton Forest Preserve, Sorensen Prairie, DeKalb, IL.

I think they would have been enchanted. And inspired.

2. Looking for Lichen: In January, lichen on the edges of the prairie seem to clamor for our attention. We’re not distracted by the bright colors of the summer wildflowers; nor are we absorbed in butterflies and bees and pollinators, gone silent this season. Lichen the color of ecru. Unbleached linen. Chartreuse. They all clamor for our attention. The gray-blue lichens remind me of a Sherman-Williams paint color, “Rain.”

Mixed lichen, Afton Forest Preserve.

Limbs and limbs and more limbs are limned with lichen.

Mixed lichen, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

Each limb and branch and log has its own winter palette to explore, name, and enjoy.

3. The Loveliness of Shape and Line: January has drained the life-juice from the prairie, leaving her dry and spare.

Dogbane, or Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

Someone has randomly scribbled shrubs and grasses onto the prairie page with a giant Sharpie marker.

Afton Forest Preserve in Winter, DeKalb, IL.

The sounds of the prairie are sharp and spare as well. A murder of crows hurl their insults from a nearby stand of trees, then peel off to harass a red-tailed hawk. After a few passes, they regroup, muttering imprecations.

Afton Forest Preserve, Sorensen Prairie, DeKalb, IL.

White wild indigo pods rattle gently in the slight wind, adding their notes to the tallgrass musical score.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

Prairie grasses hiss and swish as the breeze tousles them: Canada wild rye, Indian grass, big bluestem, little bluestem. The snow has its own melodic crisp crunch under my boots. Winter sounds.

4. Frozen Features: Water mesmerizes—and winter shows us another facet of her charms. There is the disparity of freeze and thaw.

After Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

The awareness of life lived on the edge.

Beaver lodge, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

The knowledge that below the surface of the water creatures are going about their business. Dragonfly nymphs and damselfly nymphs. Frogs and fish. Turtles. Some active, some hibernating. Life in its infinite variation, engaged in winter pursuits or resting until spring.

5. The Solace of Trail Serendipities: As you hike the prairie paths in January, who knows what is just around the corner?

Perhaps a familiar plant, looking alien in its winter form.

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoilatum), Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

Maybe it will be a new bird you’ve not seen before, dallying here before heading north in the spring. The shock of seeing an insect flitting by. In these temperatures? Who would have thought! Or perhaps the fragrance of something you can’t put your finger on; the laundry-clean snap of winter air with the acid tang of decay.

You come to an opening through the trees.

Tree opening, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

Through it, you see cornfields. Miles and miles of corn. You are reminded that the tallgrass prairie once covered 22 million acres or more of Illinois, and now, has mostly vanished.

Corn fields, close to Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

You ponder this. Then, feel a renewed gratitude for the people who cared enough to care for this place.

This prairie.

Mixed prairie grasses, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL.

This respite from the challenges of a chaotic world, even if only for an hour or two.

And then you feel it—-for the first time in many days.

A sense of peace.


The opening quote is from Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) from the University of Chicago Press’ wonderful little book, The Daily Henry David Thoreau: A Year of Quotes from the Man who Lived in Season. Thank you, Lonnie Morris, for this lovely gift. If you’ve found reading Walden a tough proposition but longed to read Thoreau, give this little gem a try.

Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for the hike at Afton Forest Preserve.


Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 6: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person Zoom, Tuesday, February 23, 12-1 p.m CST with Cindy. You have 60 days to complete the course! Join me! Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

6 responses to “Five Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

  1. Cindy
    Have you ever walked Rollins Savanna in Grayslake?


  2. Cindy thank you! This is
    a great visualization meditation!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You help us see so much beauty in winter when too often we hear others complain. Thank you. Afton Prairie – I will have to investigate!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, Paula, for reading and for commenting. Do check out Afton — it has terrific walking trails. They are doing great work out there! — Cindy 🙂


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