2,080 acres | 5 miles of trail
Open Daily Sunrise to Sunset (Some sites are subject to Seasonal Closures or closures due to special circumstances).
13315 Pleasant Valley Road, Woodstock
Pleasant Valley expands 2,080 acres and is a mosaic of natural areas. In addition to viewing native wildlife and plants, visitors can explore over five miles of hiking and nature trails, gather at the natural amphitheater, go fishing at the small two-acre pond, reserve one of the two picnic shelters for a larger group gathering, and even cross-country ski the solar lit trail in the winter.
Within its borders exist a high-quality oak savanna, a grade ‘A’ stream, a never before plowed wetland and an impressive prairie ecosystem. This special combination of habitats creates one of the most biologically diverse, stunningly beautiful, and locally accessible sites in the county. Pleasant Valley is also home to a variety animal species, including hawks, turtles, salamanders, fox, deer and numerous warblers. In addition, 274 native plant species, 13 of which are rare, thrive in this environment. Plants such as the northern bog violet, short green milkweed, prairie star sedge, prairie buttercup, swamp thistle and prairie Indian plantain help give this area a high ecological rating, while the more common sunflowers, milkweed and wild black cherry can also be seen.
Establishing and Protecting a Macro Site
Pleasant Valley is the District's second largest site and is the largest property in McHenry County with no bisecting roads. Originally formed by glaciers, this site is a combination of wetland, prairie, and magnificent oak woodlands all at one site. The Conservation District made its first purchase at the Pleasant Valley Conservation Area in 1994. The initial purchase was a 110 acre parcel, followed by 13 additional purchases, contiguous to the first, totaling 2,079 acres. Pleasant Valley is considered a macrosite, one of a handful of areas remaining in McHenry County where it is possible to protect enough land to create large blocks of habitat containing remnant natural communities or populations of key plants and animals. Macrosites allow species that are sensitive to genetic isolation or require large blocks of continuous habitat to maintain viable populations. Pleasant Valley Conservation Area was acquired for the primary purposes of the establishment of a macrosite, as well as for protecting the main stem of the Kishwaukee River and associated floodplains, protection and expansion of high quality prairie remnants, and to recreate a large marsh and grassland complex.
Over the years, wetlands were re-created, stream corridors stabilized, upland natural communities restored to mitigate erosion, and site de-fragmentation projects were completed. Restoration work also included returning the natural hydrology to a 150-acre wetland complex. As a result, the shallow marsh, sedge meadow and wet-prairie complex created a wetland rookery that attracts numerous visiting herons, cranes, terns, rails and blue-winged teals. In addition, the site provides functional breeding habitat critical for neotropical migrant/grassland and wetland breeding birds listed on the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan. In 2014, Pleasant Valley Conservation Area was awarded the Platinum level in Excellence in Ecological Restoration from Chicago Wilderness.
Pleasant Valley Conservation Area has a rich and varied history. When glaciers moved through the area thousands of years ago, the natural landscape consisting of hills, valleys, and streams was formed. The Indigenous history of the area records people having lived in McHenry County for thousands of years. Artifacts such as arrowheads and stone tools have been found throughout the county, including at Pleasant Valley. At different times, McHenry County may have been at or near the very northern edge of the territories of different confederation members. The Ho Chunk, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo people are also known to have lived in McHenry County. In the early 1830’s, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act was passed and by 1836, the last group that left the Chicago region was the Potawatomi. According to historic accounts in a personal journal entry, it was recorded that several families still living in the Marengo area around 1835 - not too far from Pleasant Valley.
By the 1830s, Irish immigrants settled the land and established agricultural farms to support their families. In 1931, McHenry County held the national record for the second largest number of cows in America and was a premiere dairy producing area. Many, if not most, small farms raised cows as well as crops.
Pleasant Valley Farm
In 1952, the Chicago Congregational Union purchased the land and converted it into a summer camp and retreat center for inner city youth and called it Pleasant Valley Farm, which later became known as Pleasant Valley Outdoor Center. For over forty years, thousands of city children ventured into the “wilds” of McHenry County to work and learn in a rural setting. Campers explored their natural environment through activities ranging from natural history studies to social sciences. It was a place where children could experience nature and farm life - often for the very first time. They assisted with the day-to-day duties of the center by learning how to farm, taking care of farm animals, tending to the vegetable garden, and helping to prepare the meals. From the bubbling creek and wide open prairies to the oak canopied trails, the camp provided an experience that these children may otherwise never have known. For many children, this was their first time visiting a rural place, seeing the stars at night, hiking through forest, or experiencing wildlife up close. Campers helped take care of the farm animals and vegetable gardens, made art projects, took nature walks, swam in the pond, and played games. Over time the camp grew to include farm animals, bunkhouses, a mess hall, a swimming pond, trails through the woods, a solar-powered program building, camp staff housing, and gardens that produced food for the camp. Camp counselors and staff came from all over the world. Many staff and campers said in later years that this place changed their lives and taught them about nature and building community.
Camp staff stories say that Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph Abernathy, and other Civil Rights leaders came to stay at Pleasant Valley to write and plan the Chicago Freedom Movement of the late 1960’s. The center remained in operation for 46 years, officially closing in 1998.
In 1994, the Conservation District purchased 109 acres of the Pleasant Valley property. Over the following 10 years, the District made several other adjacent land acquisitions and restoration efforts began in 1997.