Swallow Cliffs

Those of you from the Chicago area probably remember the Palos Toboggan Chutes (officially Swallow Cliffs). For those of you who haven’t.. These were probably the most awesome winter entertainment available. There are other places to go Tobogganing, some even have chutes (Ryan’s Woods on the south side was another spot that had chutes).

But Palos had a “seriously steep” hill. When you were sitting in the front of the toboggan ready to do down, it wasn’t possible to see the bottom of the hill. It dropped off in front of you, then reappeared a long way down.. but there were parts that you couldn’t see. That is until you started down… For a kid in Chicago, this was a winter experience.

The park district closed the chutes a while ago. I suspect that at least part of the problem was that too many people would try to go down the wooden chutes during the summer. Well, apparently you can still make use of the hill during the winter. “At your own risk”.

Jeremy recently sent around a notice about the sale of toboggans by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, after it closed down all of its toboggan slides a couple years ago. (The District sold 150 toboggans in 15 hours at $20 each.)

The Park District has converted the Swallow Cliff Toboggan Slides into a sledding hill this winter, and with all the snow and cold weather we’ve been having lately, it has become a pretty popular destination.

One of the women at work told me of a trip there with her 4 year-old daughter in early January, just after we had about 6 inches of new snow. She said her daughter was a little frightened at first, but after the first trip down (riding double with her mom), she loved it, and they made several more trips up that high staircase and down the steep slopes.

So, on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Holiday, Andrew and I took a look see for ourselves. Andrew loves winter. Especially sledding and – more recently, snowboarding. His only compliant isn’t about the weather conditions, but empty slopes… Andrew likes it best when there are a bunch of other sledders.

There we were. Swallow Cliffs. Andrew and I and a couple cheap plastic sleds. Looking up that incredible slope and watching bodies get tossed around all the way from the top to the bottom. Sometimes still in the sleds. Often, though, just bouncing and rolling along like store front dummies.

C’mon, Grandpa, let’s go!!” Andrew said enthusiastically.

I wasn’t going to argue. The faster we got started, the less likely I was to chicken out. The sounds of the screams and sight of flailing body parts already littering the slopes did nothing to encourage my courage.

Let me describe Swallow Cliffs.

I don’t know how high it is. I remember there being 123 steps to get from the base to the peak. Those were flagstone steps, so I figure about 10 inches each. That’s 1230 inches or about 100 feet. But height is not the most impressive aspect. I calculate that even Dan Ryan Woods in Beverly is about as high.

The most defining feature of Swallow Cliffs is its steepness. It’s not called a cliff for nothing. There are portions where the drop is nearly pure vertical. Where you honestly cannot see where the drop off ends. A normal hillside might have a slant of about 45 degrees. Near the top, Swallow Cliffs the slant might be 90 degrees. There are even spots where the cliff overhangs!

There are steps going to the top of the cliff. In fact, they are nice wide, concrete, evenly-spaced steps. Shoveled well, and salted. With handrails on either side. Unfortunately, those are for the walkers only. The exercise enthusiasts who are only interested in staying healthy, and getting a nice safe cardiovascular workout.

For those interested in heart-stopping thrills and the risk of bodily injury, there is a set of “sledder stairs.” These run adjacent to and to the right of, the walker stairs, with which they share a common hand rail. (The difference is that for the walkers, the handrail is about waist high. For the sledders, whose stairs are lower, the handrail is about head high.) The sledder stairs are composed of temporary wooden stairs – about 6 inches wide, set unevenly in the dirt, and randomly spaced – anywhere from 8 inches to 3 feet apart. The sledder stairs are usually covered with snow that has been shoveled from the walker stairs. Sometimes, though, they’re just iced down.

To the immediate right of the sledder stairs is a sledder’s “gutter”. It literally looks like the gutter of a bowling alley. Its purpose is t o help get those sledders who chicken out before they get to the top out of the way as quickly and easily as possible. You see, as sledders get closer and closer to the top, common sense unfortunately often prevails, and those sledders can “butt-scoot” down the gutter. (or “rectum scoot” if you prefer – as in, “This hill has a lot of sledders, and for a lot of them it’s wrecked ’em.”) The gutter is also pretty good at channeling those sledders who have slipped on the sledder stairs and started their down-hill run early – often taking with them other sledders behind them on the sledder stairs – much like pins in a bowling alley… This dodging of falling sledders helps build reaction skills needed when it’s your turn to actually sled down the slopes.

The right of the gutter is one of those orange plastic fences that look like the top of the biggest package of 12 ounce beer cans you can imagine. In theory, that fence is supposed to keep the sledders going down from colliding with the sledders going up. In theory.

Once the sledder has managed to reach the top of the sledder stairs, the next obstacle is “the ledge”. Previously, tobogganers merely stood in long lines at the top of the hill.

  No longer.

The top of the hill is for walkers only!

For some reason, the Park District decided to plant shrubbery in the top 15′ of the cliffside. I think it was provide a “sensitivity shield”, keeping the walkers from having to view the bloody spectacle that is occurring just below the shrub line.

So, as it is now, instead of a nice, large flat cliff-top to rest upon, sledders must creep carefully along a 3′ wide ledge dug across the cliffside.

The ledge is dirt. Covered with ice. And the ice is covered with snow. All designed to make the entire experience even more hair-raising.

Along the downhill side of the ledge is another length of orange plastic fencing. An obvious effort to give the sledders the illusion of security, trying weakly to keep the sledders from randomly slipping off over the ledge and down the slope.

There are six gaps in the fence, theoretically creating six chutes for six separate lanes of sledding.


When Andrew and I were there the first, second, fourth and sixth chute openings were all “securely” closed with a couple strips of that wide yellow plastic tape. The type that police use at crime scenes. Evidently, sledders had met with suspicious, untimely fates while using those three chutes earlier in the day, and the police didn’t want the crime scenes disturbed. What was especially exciting was watching clumsy sledders slip on the icy ledge and fall under the warning tapes and descend, unassisted by any sled, the entire length of the slope in incredible varieties of uncontrolled falling.

(As you might have realized already, Swallow Cliffs is quite notable in the way it “weeds out” sledders who are too meek, too clumsy, and /or too sane.)

Now, at last Andrew and I are at the top of this top-rated sledders hill.

And I realize that this was not the same sledding hill that my fellow worker had taken her 4 year old daughter down a few weeks earlier. Her hill was covered with soft, thick, freshly-fallen snow. This hill was covered with marble-hard ice, with myriad patches of bare dirt, exposed roots, and a boulder or two. Her slope was a smooth, freshly-graded surface. This slope was pitted with foxholes and ski ramps.

Oh, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I went first.

Sitting upright on a sled made of plastic so thin you could cut it with a fingernail.

The speed itself was enough to break the speed of sound. I didn’t hear my own screams till I hit the bottom.

Add to speed, a wide variety of bumps.

Some were just designed to throw you off the sled. You hit the bump, and wham! the sled slowed down, but the body retained forward momentum and continued on its merry way unprotected by any sled.

Then there were the bumps that acted like ramps. With most sledding hill ramps, the sledder will go up a few feet and then down a few feet. But these ramps were built into a near vertical hillside, so the effect is that the sledder doesn’t just go “up”, but “out” – away from the face of the cliff. The sledder doesn’t come “down” until the cliff has fallen about 25′, meaning that instead of just being airborne a few feet, the sledder makes contact after a 25′ free fall drop. Usually in the sitting position.

And then there are the bumps designed to change your direction (skewing you in random directions across the face of the slope, into the paths of other sledders) and/or change your facing direction (causing you to slide down the hill sideways, backwards, or in the famous “log roll” facing).

And then there are those foxholes……..

I went over the first ramp in a state of excitement. Then my body dropped. About 10 seconds later, my head dropped, and my neck collapsed like an accordion. On the next ramp, I managed to keep my head more securely attached, and tightened up my whole backbone. Which did my tailbone no favor when I landed. By then I gave up trying to ride the slope, and concentrated on surviving.

I did manage to miss the foxholes.

I got to the bottom, crawled over to the “hospital zone” rose stiffly to my feet and waved jauntily to Andrew, who was still waiting his turn at the top.

“Come on down, Andrew.” I yelled.

“The ride is great.”

Post Note: I rode the slopes of Swallow Cliffs once that day. Andrew went down twice before he admitted that he was hurt enough. Then we went to another sledding hill near Maple Lake. Very long, gradual, and “terraced”. It ended up on the mostly frozen surface of Bullfrog Lake. Really a nice sledding hill. But it was pretty empty, so Andrew got tired of it after a few rides…not enough obstacles to dodge.

But, as Andrew noted, we earned our “bragging rights.”

And I had fulfilled my DAMSO for the year!

(A long note here. Many years ago, around 1990, I was talking to my Dad over the phone while getting ready to take my kids and their friends on a sledding trip to Dan Ryan Woods, in nearby Beverly. Dan Ryan Woods had – and still has – one of the best sledding hills in Chicagoland – a high, long, and fairly steep amphitheater-shaped hillside. Not only does it provide a long, swift ride, but also provides the excitement of almost guaranteed near-misses (and frequent non-misses) as all the sledders would cross paths at the narrow base of the half-bowl. It also has the perks of a nice “warming house”, and until about 10 years ago, a pair of decent toboggan runs. It is the site of many, many happy winter memories for me – as a son, as a dad, and a grandfather too.

Dad, who was about 70 at the time, said, “Boy, I really wish I could still go sledding.”

I said, “C’mon out Dad, we’ll wait for you.”

He said, “No, I don’t think sledding would be a good idea. But I sure miss it.” It was the first time I had heard Dad express regret. And the only regret that I can ever remember him voicing.

So, every year since then, I have made it a point to go sledding at least once each winter. Kind of a “Dad’s Annual Memorial Sledding Outing.” DAMSO!

Most years, the DAMSO was with my own children and grandson and their friends. But there’ve been a few years when I’ve had to go by myself… a middle-aged man riding the slopes by himself. And there were maybe one or two years when I couldn’t go at all. When the snowfalls and opportunities didn’t fall on the same days.

But I don’t want to start missing that experience younger than I have to.)