It took Justin Valentine a week to recover from his first workout a few weeks ago on the stairs at Swallow Cliff.
"My calves were hurting, my quads were hurting," said Valentine, who was back for more on a recent Sunday morning.
He drove all the way from Chicago's South Loop so, together with his friend and their kids, he could shoot for 18 laps up and down the limestone steps.
"Last time, I did 17. I want to top that," Valentine said.
He had double the opportunity.
A new set of stone stairs opened informally June 2 at the Cook County Forest Preserves site in Palos Park. The official ribbon-cutting for both the new stairs and a newly opened Swallow Cliff Pavilion isn't until June 25, but hundreds have already tried the second set of steps, comparing and contrasting the incline, the spacing and the demands.
Lambrini Lukidis, spokesperson for CCFP, said recognizing the popularity of the original 100-foot staircase, which used to provide tobogganers access to the top of a sledding hill, but now serve as a workout mecca that links to hike and bike trails, the county decided to add an additional set, at a cost of $750,000 for the stairs and an additional $1.5 million for the pavilion, which includes a café.
"We always wanted to do something with that area, and since so many people were using the stairs for fitness, it just made sense to sort of complete the circuit," Lukidis said.
The additional 168 steps in the new set brings the total number of stairs built into the bluff to 293, she said.
Valentine said: "I think the new set is easier because you actually have landings that you can rest on. You can rest on a step on the old set, but you'll be stopping traffic."
Valentine also said he thought the newer set, located to the west of the original set, would inspire users to go up one way and down the other.
"I thought it was going to be a one direction thing," he said. "That would free up some space, but that's not the case."
For years after the toboggan slides were taken out at Swallow Cliff, fitness strivers from buff athletes and firefighters to wobbly beginners and post-surgery patients have flocked to the stairs for an exercise in strength and endurance among the forests of one of Cook County's largest preserves.
Terrence Spencer of Evergreen Park said, in addition to the inspiring setting, there is motivation in numbers.
"You've got people who are fit, running up and down the steps; people who are a little bigger and can't run them, but still do it. It's motivation for you to do it," he said.
Ariana Falk of Park Forest came to the outdoor workout area with friends, Julia Broadwell of Lansing, and sisters Liz and Samantha Frassinone of Crete.
"Going down is a little easier on the new side," Falk said, noting that in the newer set, all of the steps are the same height and evenly spaced, with landings every 10 steps. "On the old side, the steps vary."
Still, she added, both sets make for good exercise, good enough to make their leg muscles shake.
"I think it's really cool to see everybody out and moving. I like seeing people working out down here on the fields, stretching and kind of doing their own thing, too," Falk said.
After he saw a Facebook post about the new set of stairs being open, Melvin Gonzalez, 14, of Burbank, convinced his parents to bring him and give it a try.
"I did it five times," he said. "I like it a lot."
Other first-timers Mary Roberts and Carly Basile of Chicago's Mount Greenwood community said despite their aching thigh muscles, they would be back.
"It's hard, really hard, but it's a really good workout," Roberts said.
Susan Bright of Willow Springs used the stairs a few years ago to get in shape for a trip to the Grand Canyon.
"I would come several times a week and do them 10 or 12 times. That got me in shape," she said. "I couldn't have hiked the canyon, up and down, if I hadn't done that."
Now the 70-year-old is back. "This is my third time this year. The first time I did it twice, last week I did it four times, today I'm trying for five."
What a difference a few years makes, she said.
"Two weeks ago, I think there were about 120 people on these stairs," Bright said. "It's hard to find parking."
Lukidis said Swallow Cliff has long been a popular spot for fitness. And even though that is something Forest Preserve officials celebrate, she acknowledged that at certain times on certain days, the spot can be a bit too popular. Regulars say on the weekends, there can be a wait for a parking space.
"We definitely recognize that parking is an issue. We've surveyed the area and we will be adding a new parking lot, which will provide an additional 20 spaces in a gravel lot," she said. In addition, she said, the preserves will continue to have law enforcement on hand to help with traffic control.
She said officials also encourage people to plan their visit outside of peak hours, which are before and after work during the week and on weekends.
If that's not possible, she suggested patrons consider one of the many parking lots at other preserve areas, such as Horsetail Lake and Palos Park Woods-North, that also connect to Swallow Cliff.
"We're hoping if they're there for fitness, they won't mind a walk to the stairs from a parking lot," she said.
At the newly constructed Swallow Cliff Pavilion, visitors will find restrooms, a warming shelter, outdoor picnic tables and Vamoose Cafe, which offers a variety of beverages and grab-and-go snacks.
"The Palos preserve system is one of our larger complexes," Lukidis said. "There's a lot there, a large trail system, Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, the newly opened campsite at Bullfrog Lake and the stairs. It's just a beautiful part of the county. Really that whole southwest suburban area is just a really beautiful spot for a lot of different interests."
She said similar enhancement work is being done across the county. Later this month, she said, the county will debut Tree Top Adventure, with ziplines and a high ropes course at Beamis Woods South in Westchester. And later in the summer, an event is planned for the Oak Forest Heritage Preserve in that town.
"We want the forest preserves to be a destination. We want people to know you don't have to go to Wisconsin or Indiana or Michigan. You can be close to a lot of beautiful nature, landscapes and activities very close to home," she said.
For more information, plus locations of additional parking lots, go towww.fpdcc.com/swallow-cliff/