By Lauren Zumbach
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Sledding enthusiasts won't be able to zoom down the 100-foot slope at Swallow Cliff Woods near Palos Park this winter, but officials of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County said they're working to build a "new and improved" recreation area there. Winter events offer alternative to hibernation "It's a site that's being heavily used for recreation and fitness, so we're trying to enhance that and keep it one of our premier recreation sites," said Chris Slattery, the forest preserves director of planning and development.
Changes will include making the sledding area less steep, adding another set of stairs and constructing a new warming shelter.
The new shelter is under construction and should be completed by June, Slattery said. At about 3,000 square feet, it will be larger than the old shelter with a fireplace, concessions, meeting room, bathrooms and an outdoor patio and fire pit, he said.
For the fitness enthusiasts who climb the preserve's 125 stairs year-round, district officials plan to add a second set of stairs on the right side of the hill, creating a loop that should eliminate some of the up-and-down traffic, Slattery said.
"Especially on the weekends during the summer, it's so packed it's ridiculous," said Kevin McGreal, of Orland Park, who was finishing a 45-minute stair session Monday evening and said he hits the Swallow Cliff stairs a couple times a week, often with family. "I think it's a great idea."
But some of the changes will tame the thrills of Swallow Cliff, which currently has a steeper grade than other forest preserve sledding hills, and may disappoint sledding enthusiasts with a need for speed.
Swallow Cliff Woods, at 11918 S. La Grange Rd., used to feature toboggan runs that ran from the bluff's peak to base, but they were "a bit of a hazard" and closed in 2004, at least in part due to safety concerns, Slattery said.
Until this winter, people could still sled on the hill, though only from a little more than halfway up. But once the toboggan chutes and their supports were removed, the hill began eroding, Slattery said.
To stabilize it, the district needs to regrade the slope to a gentler incline, Slattery said. The district also will add a platform marking the official starting line, still midway up the hill. The hill likely will be closed for sledding next winter too.
"I know that's part of the thrill, but since the chutes were removed, it just isn't stable. Making it a little less steep will help keep it from eroding," Slattery said, explaining the changes weren't just about safety.
The hill is in bad enough shape that the district closed it to sledding this winter, even though construction on the hill and new stairs likely won't start until spring, Slattery said.
When the district sought input on the upgrades in 2013, there was talk of eventually adding an alpine slide that would allow year-round riding. Slattery said they've put that idea — floated after a few mild winters when there was rarely enough snow for sledding — on hold because it would require getting rid of the sledding hill.
"We want to see how popular the renovated hill is before we go there and see what happens to the climate," he said.
All of the preserves features, including the new stairs and sledding hill, should be ready to open in 2016, Slattery said.
In the meantime, officials are directing sledding enthusiasts to nearby Pioneer Woods, at 9966 W. 107th St. in Willow Springs, with a sledding hill that opened Jan. 4.