STARVED ROCK: Illinois’ Most Visited Park

Less than an hour drive west of Chicago sits a series of state parks that beckons to the adventurous spirit. Starved Rock State Park is the largest and most visited, but nearby Buffalo Rock and Matthieson State Parks are similar in terrain and history.  We spent a day at Matthieson in 2014, but had only briefly seen the splendor of Starved Rock during a stop on the way home from Iowa back in 2010.  We knew we had to go back someday, and that day had finally come.

More info on Starved Rock: Starved Rock State Park official site

It’s a rare occasion to see temps near 70 degrees in February, but that’s what this weekend called for, with almost no chance for rain. We had hoped to go camping, but unforeseen circumstances limited us to a day trip only.  Not wanting to waste it on a local trip that we have done a hundred times, we chose the 3 hour drive from Lafayette, Indiana to Utica, Illinois.  We arrived at the park by 9am, thinking we would beat the crowds of weekend warriors also getting out to enjoy the unseasonably warm winter weather.  It appeared pretty crowded already, but we had no idea just how crowded this place can get.  It is the most visited park in Illinois with an average of 2 million visitors per year. Only 11 national parks host more visitors per year than this state park does!

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Catfish and Flutterby atop a sandstone butte overlooking the Illinois River

We stopped in the Visitor Center first, learned some of the history, and picked up a trail map.  The parks boasts 13 miles of trails, through 18 canyons and multiple waterfalls.  We decided to take the River Trail, which would lead to most of the river overlooks, sandstone buttes, and entry into the canyons.  While the trail system is only 13 miles, when you add in all the canyons and everything to explore, it is considerably more.  Our first stop was on top of Starved Rock itself, which got it’s name back in the 1700s when a tribal council meeting between the Potawatomi, Ottawa, Illinois, & more native tribes resulted in the murder of the Ottawa Chief Pontiac by the Illinois.  Chief Pontac’s followers chased the Illinois looking for vengeance, and trapped them on top of this sandstone butte, where legend says they trapped them until they starved to death, resulting in the name Starved Rock.  This sandstone butte was once also the location of the French Fort St. Louis, which was both a trading post and a fort to keep the English from colonizing further east.

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Starved Rock sandstone butte

Our hike continued through many canyons, the most scenic of which were French Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, Tonti Canyon, and LaSalle Canyon.  While most of the early trails were well maintained and often on boardwalks, the canyons were all natural, muddy, which made for an entertaining time watching many unprepared people trying not to get their hip colorful shoes dirty.  On the spur trail that leads to Tonti Canyon, a bridge that crosses a stream was out, blocked on both ends for safety reasons.  People didn’t know what to do, so many actually climbed the barriers and took their chances on the rotting bridge, while others attempted to cross the creek on some unstable logs.  We chose the latter.  From here, we seen many other examples of bridges and steps that were quite weathered and unsafe, most of which were easily avoided by going around them.  It appears that Illinois State Parks have the same problem that Indiana does, lack of funds for proper maintenance.  Even so, I enjoyed these distant trails more, as they were more rugged and natural.  Tonti Canyon featured a frozen pool beneath it’s waterfall, which we crossed but not sure we should have!  The ice creaked and even cracked under my feet.  Not that it was deep had we broke through.  LaSalle Canyon was as far as we went (about two thirds through the length of the park), but it was by far the most scenic of all the canyons we had entered this day.

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On thin ice in Tonti Canyon

The crowds had noticeably increased at this point, so we backtracked a bit and took a spur trail up some steep steps to reach the Bluff Trail for our hike back.  This trail winds along the uplands, looking down on the Illinois River and offering views into the canyons from above.  Some of the canyons can only be seen from this trail, as there are no trails into some of these canyons.  The Bluff Trail dumped us out at the park lodge, which was humming full of people.  This was by far the most crowded park we had ever hiked in at this point.  Glad we got an early start!  We tried to find a secluded spot to do our “final word” spot for our video, but even while doing it, we had people walking right through us and around our camera.  My advice, go visit this park!  But do so through the week when it’s less busy, and get an early start.

Check out our video adventure:

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