The 192-acre Powderhorn Lake Preserve is located in the Village of Burnham. The preserve is owned and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and 130 acres have been designated as a state nature preserve to protect its diverse plant and wildlife habitat.
To get to Powderhorn Lake, take the I-94 Bishop Ford Freeway and exit at 130th Street. Then head east for 1.5 miles to Brainard Avenue (also called Saginaw) and turn right. Take Brainard 1.8 miles to the preserve entrance on the left side of the street.
On the north and northwest side of the preserve, remnant dune and swale habitat, including prairie, marsh, and savanna can be seen. Thousands of years ago, Lake Michigan completely covered the area, and as it shrunk over time, drifting sands were deposited, creating sandy soil and low swampy areas that support a great diversity of species.
Industrialization of the Calumet area has destroyed much of the vast complexes of wetlands, lakes, and prairies that used to concentrate along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, but remnants such as the habitat preserved at Powderhorn remain, and the Calumet area is still globally significant for its ecology.
The 48-acre Powderhorn Lake itself did not exist until the 1950s, when it was dug as a borrow pit for the sand needed to construct the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago Skyway.
Paddling Powderhorn Lake is appropriate for beginners and families. There is one established boat launch on the west side of the lake, which can be reached by following the right branch of the parking lot from the preserve entrance. Once on the lake, water depth can reach 20 feet near the center and is surrounded by a shallow, marshy shoreline.
Powderhorn Lake sits in one of the most biodiverse areas in the Chicago region. The dune and swale habitats host a variety of plant life such as prickly pear cactus. Paddlers can further explore the natural areas surrounding the lake such as Burnham Woods and Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve.
While paddling, keep an eye out for Osprey. These birds are known for catching fish “on the wing,” or while flying. The Forest Preserves of Cook County installed two Osprey nesting platforms 40-60 feet off the ground, where Osprey can nest and remain safe from predators such as raccoons. You may see the birds flying above the lake, and if you look west from the water, you can see the tall poles that hold platforms. Osprey, once declared extirpated from Illinois, began to recover in the 1970s as water quality improved and DDT, a notoriously harmful pesticide, was banned. High nesting platforms that keep the birds safe from predators give the population an extra boost.
Depending on the season, anywhere from 40-100 bird species can be found near Powderhorn Lake, including blue jays, great egrets, and the black-capped chickadee. The lake itself is home to an abundance of fish species including largemouth bass, blue gill, northern pike, bullhead, and many more.
Sections of wetland, prairie, and savanna surrounding Powderhorn Lake are currently ecological restoration sites. Friends of the Forest Preserves and Calumet Stewardship Initiative hold regular volunteer events.