Tag Archives: Illinois

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!

20170219_104011
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.

20170219_102236
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.

20170219_123022
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:

If you enjoy our adventures, please consider becoming a Patron! We can use all the support we can get. Thanks!  Click below:
Support Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions!

Advertisements

Adventuring in Shawnee National Forest

When most people think of Illinois, they either picture Chicago in their mind, or miles and miles of corn fields.  But there are some hidden gems, including the southern tip of the state where you’ll find Shawnee National Forest and it’s many special places.
We were looking for somewhere to go backpacking on this Mother’s Day weekend, May 7-8, but the forecast had rain and thunderstorms predicted for most of Indiana as well as Kentucky.  I had been interested in seeing the Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee N.F. for some time, and it just so happened the forecast there was sunny for this weekend.
Typically I do a lot of homework for new places we plan to explore, but honestly I couldn’t find a whole lot of information (trail maps, backcountry camping areas) for the Shawnee.  I printed out a simple map I found online for the Garden of the Gods Wilderness, and off we went.  From Lafayette, it was about a five hour drive, we arrived about 8am Saturday morning at the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area.  First thing we wanted to do was take a hike on the Observation Trail around the park’s main feature, sandstone outcrops that have been weathered in amazing patterns.  Getting out there so early beat the crowds, so we mostly had it to ourselves.  We love geologic formations out in nature, whether it’s the canyons and ravines of Indiana state parks, or the gorges and arches in Kentucky.  Looking upon such features and trying to comprehend the millions of years it took to form these layers of rock, the elements within them, and the erosion and weathering to create what we now see is truly awe inspiring.

20160507_082527 (2)
Camel Rock – Garden of the Gods

Observation Trail is only about a quarter mile long, not much of a hike, but there is so much to explore in and around the rock formations.  We spent nearly two hours weaving through the many crags, jumping from boulder to boulder.  The views out over the wilderness were simply beautiful.

20160508_125831
Robin – Garden of the Gods

We finally went back to the car, grabbed our backpacks, and hiked out Indian Point Trail to find a place to set up camp.  We passed by a few campers set up not far from the trail head parking, and passed a cool little pond full of lilly pads and lots of frogs.  Some were simple leopard frogs, other species were absolutely HUGE!  After awhile, the trail goes out on a ridge, and we spotted a campsite that was a few hundred feet away from the main trail.  We investigated, and to our delight, the site was empty (though previous campers had left a bit of a mess) and best of all, there was a large rock outcrop with an amazing view.  We had found our camp.

20160507_115324
Robin & Kaden hanging out at the rock outcrop at our campsite

After setting up camp and eating some lunch, we put on our daypacks and headed out into the wilderness for a hike.  Unfortunately, there are no trail maps onsite, not from the trail heads, nor from the informational billboards.  I had a small map I had downloaded, and thought surely that would be enough for a loop hike.  And it started out okay, we hit all the intersections we expected to at first.  We found the first landmark that was on my map, “H Rock”, which is an eroded arch high up on a cliff side that is indeed in the shape of an H.

20160507_135353
“H” Rock

However, that was about where the fun stopped.  The wilderness trail was extremely rugged, not from roots, not from rocks, not from ups and downs.  No, it was rugged because of the massive trail damage done by horses.  Shawnee National Forest is very popular with trail riders, which tears up the trails immensely, and making us constantly avoid the “road apples” left behind.  Like many national forests, there are many “unofficial” trails that veer off from the main trail, but with all the trail damage, it was nearly impossible to tell which trail was the right one.  I knew from my map that we had missed something, so we finally backtracked a bit and found a trail up the side of a hill that looked like it would take us where we were supposed to go.  It kind of did, we came out at an intersection with an actual trail sign (something they don’t have nearly enough of in this forest, nor trail markers).  The sign pointed left to go back to the Garden of the Gods parking area, so that’s the way we went.  However, after another hour of hiking, we found ourselves back at the same spot we had stopped at earlier!  It was like a scene right out of The Blair Witch Project, where they kept coming back to the same spot when they were trying to escape the forest.  Kaden thought we were lost, but I knew how to get back from this point, it just wasn’t the loop trail we had expected.  But after nearly 7 hours of hard hiking through rutted trails, we made it back to camp.  I would say this was the first time in all of our adventures that I couldn’t keep my bearings and find the proper trails.  One thing is for sure though, we got a heck of a workout, and spent a lot of time in nature, hardly seeing anyone else on the trails.

20160507_204439
Camp off of Indian Point Trail

We ate dinner and watched the sunset.  Though the wilderness hike was exhausting and disappointing, our spirits were still up, looking forward to a good night’s sleep and more exploring the next day.

20160507_202235
Sunset from camp

Sunday we got up bright and early, drank our coffee and ate breakfast, wished Robin a very Happy Mother’s Day, then tore down camp and hiked back out to the car.  The only downside we discovered with our campsite there off of Indian Point Trail were ticks, lots of small ticks crawling all over.  But that is the risk we take being in nature! On our way back, we took a few minutes to admire some butterflies and checked out the frog pond again, and then went back to the Garden of the Gods Observation Trail and did some more exploring around the cool rock formations.  Check out the highlights in our video:

That afternoon, we drove east to Pounds Hollow Recreation Area, and hiked the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail.  Also not a long hike, but heavy on history and features.  Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans lived on this hill, called the Pounds Escarpment, where there was only one way to the top.  The Indians built a stone wall at that point to safeguard their village on the hill.  In the 1800s, settlers moving west took the land.  Most of the hike around the top is an easy hike and has some excellent views from sandstone outcrops, but the best feature is a wooden staircase that goes down the backside of the hill, through giant fissures in the rock, down to the creek below, and “Ox-lot Cave”.  The cave is actually a huge rock shelter in which settlers fenced in and used as a stockade for their oxen, even with a natural spring in the back.  We played around on the rocks and cliff side, and cooled off in the giant cracks before heading back to the top and finishing the hike.

20160508_144316
A view from above one of the fissures in the cliff side of Rim Rock

Check out the highlights from our Rim Rock hike:

Afterward, we had a couple hours to spare before the drive back home, so we stopped at Pounds Hollow Lake where Robin and Kaden played in the chilly water.  This trip might have been more of a true “adventure” than most of our trips, as it was mostly done on the fly without too much planning or knowing what to expect.  While these areas were very neat to explore, we know there is much more to the Shawnee National Forest that we still haven’t seen, including numerous waterfalls, canyons, and more cliffs.  In Illinois, of all places!

Matthiessen S.P.: Canyons, Creeks, & Waterfalls

This Memorial Weekend, we had too much going on for a camping trip, but we still set aside a day to get out into nature.  Instead of visiting one of our usual destinations in Indiana, we drove 3 hours northwest to Utica, Illinois, where the Illinois and Vermilion rivers have cut into sandstone creating multiple state parks in the area.  Our destination was Matthiessen State Park, which features a mile long canyon system with an upper and lower dells, several waterfalls, caves, and a man-made lake.  It did not disappoint!  Our only complaint was the lack of trail maps, and the trails not being marked clearly.  It created a lot of confusion for us first timers to the park, but we figured it out.

We ventured around the upper rim of the lower dells until we found a concrete bridge and stairway down.

Bridge over the lower dells.
Bridge over the lower dells.
Bridge & stairs from below.
Bridge & stairs from below.

Once to the bottom, it’s like stepping into a different world.  Canyon walls 100 feet high, it’s sides pocked with nooks, crannies, & small caves.  A shallow stream flowed through it’s center, with sides that were extremely muddy in some areas.  Off to the side was the Devil’s Paint Box, a circular canyon with a small waterfall.  Further down the main canyon we found Cascade Falls, caves we could walk through, and lots of interesting carvings in the rock faces.

[Click on Pics to Enlarge]

The Lower Dells
The Lower Dells
Inside the Devil's Paint Box
Inside the Devil’s Paint Box
Cascade Falls
Cascade Falls
Cascade Falls
Cascade Falls
Inside one of the caves
Inside one of the caves
Looking out from inside a cave
Looking out from inside a cave
Stone face carving
Stone face carving
Muddy creek (close to the Vermilion River)
Muddy creek (close to the Vermilion River)
View of Cascade Falls & the lower dells from above.
View of Cascade Falls & the lower dells from above.

After getting our feet wet, we headed back up the stairs and across the bridge to hike the upper dells.  Though the canyon walls in this section aren’t quite as high, they are equally spectacular, if not more so, for all the formations from erosion.

Entrance to the upper dells involves some rock hopping.
Entrance to the upper dells involves some rock hopping.
Robin & Kaden creekside in the upper dells.
Robin & Kaden creekside in the upper dells.
Kaden balances across the creek.
Kaden balances across the creek.
Robin *might* be getting a little tired of me taking pictures ;)
Robin *might* be getting a little tired of me taking pictures 😉
Playing in the small waterfall
Playing in the small waterfall
An interesting formation that is a little tight to get around (trail follows the lip of the canyon on the left)
An interesting formation that is a little tight to get around (trail follows the lip of the canyon on the left)
Inside a tunnel under the trail.
Inside a tunnel under the trail.

Matthiessen Lake is a man-made lake.  The original resident of this land in the early 20th century had a dam built at the end of the upper dells, and went to great lengths to make it look natural.  The upper half of the waterfall is concrete, but it blends in seamlessly with the canyon walls.

Matthiessen Lake
Matthiessen Lake
Lake Falls, from above
Lake Falls, from above
Walking around a swimming hole heading towards the falls.
Walking around a swimming hole heading towards the falls.
Playing below Lake Falls
Playing below Lake Falls
Me and the boy in front of the falls
Me and the boy in front of the falls
"Giant's Bathtub"
“Giant’s Bathtub”
Roots!
Roots!
Love the erosion on the rocks, but look closer and you can see lots of carvings as well.
Love the erosion on the rocks, but look closer and you can see lots of carvings as well.

This isn’t even half of the photos I took, it’s just an awesome park for people (such as myself) who love geology featuring canyons.  Being Memorial Weekend, it was overcrowded, which was really our only complaint.  If you really want the full experience, the next best thing to going there yourself is to watch the video of our experience.  Enjoy!