Tag Archives: State Park

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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How To Do Florida…On A Budget!

Florida has something for everyone. Whether it’s the high rise hotels overlooking tourist-filled beaches, theme parks with all your kids’ favorite cartoon characters, or wildlife preserves filled with great hiking, camping, fishing, birding, kayaking, etc., Florida has it all, and they have it year round. One day you can be in tourist heaven, the next day you can be lost in a swampy tropical forest. But one thing is for sure, you’ll need some money to make it happen. How much, is totally up to you. This story is how a family from the midwest makes lifelong memories in the Sunshine State on a budget.

When talking about vacationing on a budget, we can throw out several of the things listed above. High priced beach hotels, theme parks, and all such tourist traps are extremely non-budget friendly. So what is?  Probably the same things that are in your own state.  Florida has one of the best state park systems in the nation, and one of the most varied. They have parks that feature history, natural springs so big you can swim with manatees in them, caves, rivers, lakes, dunes, bays, wildlife refuges, and of course…secluded beaches. Look for where the locals go to get away from it all. For us, we found paradise along a stretch of the panhandle known as “The Forgotten Coast.”

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Gulf Coast on the left, campground to the right

From our location in northcentral Indiana, it is about a 14 hour drive to the Forgotten Coast. In our Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, it cost us around $160 in gas, round trip, far cheaper than flying and renting a car. So we packed it up with just enough supplies for a week long camping trip!  This was our fourth camping trip to Florida’s panhandle, and our second time to this destination: T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.  It’s on a long narrow peninsula about 45 minutes south of Panama City Beach, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on one side, and the pristine St. Joseph Bay on the other. This park features about 9 miles of secluded beach on the Gulf side, with some of the tallest dunes in Florida. There are two campgrounds; last year we stayed in Shady Pines, which has larger sites with more privacy and shade, but this year we stayed in Gulf Breeze, which is more open but much closer to the beach (you can literally here the surf from the campground).  Both are great campgrounds with easy access to the beach, but Gulf Breeze definitely had the nicer bath houses. A campsite here includes your own water and electric hookups, all for $26/night. For the week, we paid $156 in camping fees, less than a single night would cost in a tourist hotel.

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Gulf Breeze Campground

So what does a family do for a week on St. Joseph Peninsula?  Live the good life!  On the Gulf side, we swam, wave jumped, went shelling, sunbathed, walked the beach, enjoyed amazing sunsets; and after sundown, we walked the beach with our red LED lights watching for sea turtles (2016 has set a new record for the amount of nesting sea turtles), playing with the ghost crabs, observing bio-luminescent phytoplankton, and star gazing in the darkest skies we’ve ever seen. The Milky Way is amazing over the ocean.  On the Bay side, we went snorkeling and kayaking. St. Joseph Bay is unique in that there are no rivers or streams that empty into it, keeping it pristine for observing all sorts of crabs, starfish, sea urchins, sea snails, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, and if you’re lucky, manta rays.  On the peninsula itself, there are two nature trails, plus a much longer wilderness trail that goes out into the seven mile wilderness preserve.  There is plenty of wildlife to observe, but we mostly seen deer, egrets, herons, small Florida island mice, anoles, and crabs.

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Kaden with a sea urchin shell and live sand dollar

South of the park on the peninsula is Cape San Blas, a small community with lots of locally owned shops and eateries, and vacation rentals.  We really only went into the community to buy ice, and the occasional ice cream treat.  Cape San Blas does have several public beach access points.

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One thing to keep in mind when visiting St. Joseph Peninsula is that it sits right on the time line, so your smartphone will constantly be switching between eastern and central times.  The only time this was an issue for us was when we rented kayaks; the park goes by central time, but Scallop Cove II (rental store) goes by eastern time.  This messed us up and caused us to lose an hour of kayak time.

There is really no way to describe the memories we make on such trips without seeing it for yourself. Sure, Disney would be nice, but what is more amazing: seeing a six foot tall MIckey Mouse, or holding a starfish you found yourself while snorkeling?  The answer is simple for us, and much cheaper.

This how we do Florida…on a budget.
Gas: $160  Camping: $156  Food/Ice: $200  Kayak Rental: $95/two

But don’t trust my words, watch our video!

Summer at Salamonie

Salamonie has something for everyone. When I think of Salamonie, I encompass it in it’s entirety, both the Salamonie River State Forest and Salamonie Reservoir. I credit Salamonie with being where I first realized my love for nature, for camping, and for hiking, I’ve been going there for as long as I can remember. Salamonie is located between the Indiana cities of Wabash and Huntington, not far from my hometown. The reservoir is one of three in the vicinity that help control flood waters of the upper Wabash River basin.
This camping trip, our base camp was in the modern campground near the beach. Salamonie also offers primitive camping on the reservoir, as well as primitive camping in the state forest, and even a couple horsemen’s campgrounds. The modern campground is quite large with multiple comfort stations and playgrounds, a few sites actually overlook the lake (though those are mostly reserved for the big RVs). Most of the sites are small, as was our case. Our camping spot was like a small community with 5 campsites all backing up to each other with a shared large grassy area and playground, normally not the kind of spot I would reserve, but it was totally worth it for us to be able to keep an eye on Kaden in the playground from our campsite.
We arrived on Thursday, setup camp, Kaden immediately made friends with the neighbor kids, and we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over the lake just a short hike from our camp. Within 50 yards from our camp was the access lane down to the boat mooring area, where we were able to walk the shore half way around the peninsula that we were camped on. On Friday, Robin left camp early to go to work in Logansport, leaving Kaden, Akira, and I to find our adventure for the day. With the beach not being dog friendly, that was out of the question, and most of the trails in the area I’ve walked hundreds of times so offer nothing new. Time for a new adventure!
To the northwest of the reservoir is the state forest, located on the south side of the Salamonie River. However, to the north side of the river, is Kokiwanee Nature Preserve, with nearly 200 acres of wooded ravines, bluffs, and waterfalls. Apparently, it is the former site of a girl scout camp from years ago. I was pleasantly surprised, the trails were well developed, followed creeks, lead to the river, and we even took a break to play in the water below the largest watefall. There wasn’t a lot of water this time of year, but I can imagine how spectacular it must be after a good spring storm. Funny thing is, if you were to cross the river from this waterfall to the other side, you’d just about be right at the biggest waterfall located in the state forest as well. Very cool area made for a great 2 mile hike, and Kaden was hard at his scavenger hunt all the way. From there it was a short drive to visit Hanging Rock on the Wabash River, and then back to the Salamonie Dam before heading back to camp. Friday evening was all about relaxing while Kaden played on the playground with all the other kids.
Saturday, Robin and Kaden took a boat tour on the lake. Pirates Cove Marina is attached to the park and offers boat rentals, boat mooring, bait & tackle, a camp store, and boat tours. So Robin and Kaden took 1.5 hour tour on the lake, seen an Eagle’s nest with two baby eagles in it, and learned about the sunken towns under the lake. Meanwhile Akira and I took a hike along the shore, but I had to keep Akira away from this part of the water as the blue-green algae blooms were pretty thick in this area. After the boat tour, we checked out the nature center, and then Robin & Kaden went to the beach to have a little fun in the sun & surf.
Saturday evening was an eventful one around the campground, as Salamonie was celebrating Smokey the Bear’s 70th birthday with a parade, plus it was Christmas in July weekend. There were a handful of campsites actually decorated for Christmas, but for the life of me, I didn’t get it. The last thing I want to think about in the middle of summer is a winter holiday! But Smokey’s birthday celebration was fun, Kaden got a free frisbee, punch & cookies, and his photo taken with Smokey. Then it was back to the campsite for hotdogs over the fire and another awesome sunset over the lake.
Sunday we broke down camp, and spent the rest of the day at the beach or on the trails. Robin & Kaden naturally chose the beach, so Akira and I hiked nearby trails, and even checked out the youth campground. Seemed weird to have such a huge, well maintained camping area with all the amenities and right on the lake, sitting there completely empty. I’d almost be interested in booking the entire group camp area for myself if I could afford it! It was overall a good day, and another great weekend of camping. Funny thing is, as many times as I’ve been to Salamonie, there is still a lot there that I’ve not seen. The Bloodroot Trail is a 13 mile hiking/biking trail that I’d love to bike sometime. And there are other recreation areas I’ve never been to. I’m sure my brothers know more, as they used to fish the lake often, and were the ones who got me started camping here clear back to my teen years. There really is a little something for everyone in Indiana.

(Click Pics for a Slideshow!)

Turkey Run Rehab, Day 2

(Continued from Turkey Run Rehab, Day  1)
The Easter Bunny managed to find our camp site, and was smart enough to hide eggs in the ravine right behind our camper, just out of reach of Akira.  Kaden searched out the goodies while Robin and I drank our morning coffee and got prepared for the day.  Fortunately, Sunday check out times in Indiana State Park campgrounds is 5pm,  so no hurry to pack up.

(Click pictures to enlarge)

Campground Easter Egg Hunt
Campground Easter Egg Hunt

Knowing we did have to pack up at some point, we decided to cut a couple miles off of our hike for the day by driving over to the park’s main parking lot and heading out straight from the nature center.  We wanted a hike that was big on features, but easy on the legs, as they were still kind of jello after our first big hike of the season the day before.   Here’s our path for the day:

Hiking Path
Hiking Path

With backpacks on, we set out on Trail 2 heading east.  Right away we enter Box Canyon, much to the squirrels chagrin, chattering as we invaded their territory.

Entering Box Canyon
Entering Box Canyon
Family in Box Canyon
Family in Box Canyon

Possibly the coolest feature on Trail 2 is a man made staircase through stone, likely carved out by the Civilian Conservation Corp many years ago…

Staircase in Stone
Staircase in Stone

Trail 2 mostly follows a ridge well above creek level, but shadowed by huge sandstone cliffs.  We weaved in and out of giant boulders that have broken free from the cliffs above.

Traversing Trail 2
Traversing Trail 2

One of the most picturesque areas along Trail 2 is Gypsy Gulch.  Boulders every where, plus a small creek that tumbles down from above so high that it’s practically just a mist by the time it wets the trail.

Gypsy Gulch
Gypsy Gulch

Around the corner from Gypsy Gulch, you see huge boulders down below beside Trail 1 and on the edge of Sugar Creek.  These boulders were once part of the cliff side.  This is Goose Rock.

Goose Rock
Goose Rock

About this time, a large bird swooped down through the trees and took perch on a nearby tree.  Near as I can tell, it is a Red Tailed Hawk.  It sat for quite awhile, watching the forest floor, and even giving us the occasional look.

Red Tailed Hawk
Red Tailed Hawk
Red Tailed Hawk
Red Tailed Hawk

From here, the trail leveled out and was just a nice stroll through the woods.  Eventually Trail 2 comes up to the Lusk Earth Fill, a feature from before park days.  The Lusk family owned this land, and at one time the state planned on building a road through this spot, so they had Lusk fill in this ravine for the road bed.  The state ended up changing their route, and st. rd. 47 is now just south of the park.  But the “bridge” of land is still there, and it formed a pond on the east side of the earth fill.  The pond is full of frogs and turtles, but no fish.  It’s a bit of a frog sanctuary.

Lusk Pond
Lusk Pond

We were in luck too, as a single Painted Turtle was out basking on a log…

Painted Turtle on Lusk Pond
Painted Turtle on Lusk Pond
Painted Turtle on Lusk Pond
Painted Turtle on Lusk Pond

We walked the short distance from the pond to the Narrows Covered Bridge.  The bridge spans a narrow part of Sugar Creek that is technically a flooded canyon, more than 30 feet deep.  Here’s a view from inside the covered bridge, looking west on Sugar Creek:

Sugar Creek at the Narrows
Sugar Creek at the Narrows

And down stream from the bridge:

Narrows Covered Bridge
Narrows Covered Bridge

We hiked a short way down Trail 4 and found a spot to rest and grab a quick lunch.

Geese on Sugar Creek
Geese on Sugar Creek
Kaden and Akira
Kaden and Akira

Trail 4 from here is a leisurely stroll through the woods, with the occasional cliff to the right and creek to the left, and early spring wildflowers popping up.   We reached the trail junction between 4 and 8, and this is where we find the Coal Mine.  It was a personal coal mine for the Lusk family and then the state park, but was closed up several decades ago.  Though the entrance is blocked from humans, the gate allows bats to freely fly through.

Coal Mine
Coal Mine

We climbed the hill from here and made our way back to the main area of the park, spotting the suspension bridge as we came back down the hill.  It was a day well spent at a much more leisurely pace than the day before.  While our camping and hiking fever has been satisfied after a long winter, we can’t wait until our next adventure.

Looking down at the Turkey Run suspension bridge
Looking down at the Turkey Run suspension bridge
Below the bridge
Below the bridge

 

Turkey Run Rehab (Day 1)

What a great couple of weekends we’ve had here in Indiana to get out into nature!  Mostly sunny with highs near 70, and nightly lows around 40.  You know what that means… Camping season has begun!

It’s been a couple of years since we’ve made it down to Turkey Run State Park.  Last year (2013) the park suffered a flood that damaged their famous suspension bridge, which is the main gateway to the park’s most popular features, so we didn’t visit.   How better to kick off the 2014 camping season than a beautiful spring weekend, EASTER weekend, set up at one of Indiana’s most popular and diverse parks?  The campground features over 200 sites, so we had plenty to choose from.  While there are some great wooded sites at the west end of the campground, we prefer to stay at the northeast end for the quick access to the park’s trail system.  We spent Friday evening setting up camp and roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, though Kaden’s favorite were the S’moreos.

(Click images to enlarge)

Site 39
Site 39
S'moreos
S’moreos

Saturday morning we were slow moving, drinking coffee and eating donuts, until the temps crept up into the 50s and got our blood moving a bit quicker.  We packed our back packs  with some snacks and lunch, filled our water reservoirs, and hit the trail just before noon.  The campground connecting trail meets up with Trail 7 west of the main park, and quickly descends to a creek bed in the first of many canyons we’ll be seeing on this day’s journey.

Trail 7 descent
Trail 7 descent
Trail 7
Trail 7

Trail 7 winds through this short canyon and comes out by Sugar Creek just below Lieber Cabin, where we take Trail 1 at Sunset Point and follow it past the bulk of the park’s visitor buildings (Nature Center, Pool, Pavilions, Inn) on our way toward the suspension bridge.

View from Sunset Point
View from Sunset Point
Turkey Run Suspension Bridge (rebuilt in 2013)
Turkey Run Suspension Bridge

After stopping for last minute restroom breaks and our husky Akira cooling off in the creek, we crossed the bridge and took a left onto the south leg of Trail 3.  It’s an immediate ascent that gets your blood pumping and your legs burning, just the first of many times on this hike.  We pass through boulders and pass under giant sandstone cliffs.  As we come down, off to the left is a feature known as the Ice Box, a squarish small canyon that got it’s name because of the immediate temperature drop you feel when entering it.

Cliffs over Sugar Creek
Cliffs over Sugar Creek
The Ice Box
The Ice Box

Shortly after, Trail 3 turns north but we continued west now on Trail 5.    This portion of our hike mostly follows Sugar Creek, with the creek and sandy flood plain to our left and trees and cliffs on our right.  Early spring wildflowers were popping up, but no sign of any mushrooms…yet.  We took some time to climb trees, grab some lunch, and play in the creek.

Climbing a tree. I did used to be called "Uncle Monkey" by my nephews and nieces.
Climbing a tree. I did used to be called “Uncle Monkey” by my nephews and nieces.
Lunch on Sugar Creek
Lunch on Sugar Creek
Geese on Sugar Creek
Geese on Sugar Creek
Walking on water
Walking on water
This is how he re-energizes
This is how he re-energizes

After some rock and fossil hunting, we got back on the trail, now heading north on Trail 9.  This is one of our favorite trails at Turkey Run, it starts out hiking a creek bed through tight canyon walls in Falls Canyon, levels off, then straddles the side of a ravine in Boulder Canyon, culminating in a scramble up a boulder field.  What more could you ask for?  Well, my son would ask for restrooms along the trails.

Trail 9, Falls Canyon
Trail 9, Falls Canyon
Trail 9, Falls Canyon
Trail 9, Falls Canyon
Trail 9, Boulder Canyon. This is boulder field you must climb up.
Trail 9, Boulder Canyon. This is the boulder field you must climb up.

Once out of Boulder Canyon, it’s an “easy” hike east from here on Trail 9.  And by “easy” I mean up and down lots of ravines, with more steps than you can count.  One single stair case, which features both wooden steps and old stone steps first laid down when the park was formed nearly 100 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is actually called “140 Steps.”  Fortunately, we were going down on that one.  Just beyond the bottom of that stairway is the junction with Trail 5, where “the ladders” climb out of Bear Hollow beside a small waterfall.  With our husky Akira along for the hike, we couldn’t do the ladders, but still a cool feature.

Trail 5 junction, "The Ladders"
Trail 5 junction, “The Ladders”

From here, we rejoined Trail 3.  A few more up and down steps, and we finally reach a small creek bed that leads us toward Rocky Hollow Falls Canyon.

Trail 3
Trail 3

But before making our way into the main canyon, first some play time inside the Punch Bowl.

Punch Bowl
Punch Bowl
Kaden re-energizing in the Punch Bowl
Kaden re-energizing in the Punch Bowl

After the Punch Bowl, Trail 3 bottle necks.  I lead Akira through, followed by Robin and Kaden.

The bottle neck. Straddle the center crevice, or climb the ledge?
The bottle neck. Straddle the center crevice, or climb the ledge?
Take the ledge!
Take the ledge!
Watch your step
Watch your step

Finally into Rocky Hollow, the canyon is expansive (by Indiana standards).  Every time I walk through this canyon, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time.  The steep cliffs, tree roots winding in and out of cracks, boulders strewn around.  This would be an excellent site for a Jurassic Park movie to be made!  Of course these canyons aren’t actually that old, most of them carved out by the melt water of glaciers from the last ice age.  Still…

Rocky Hollow Falls Canyon
Rocky Hollow Falls Canyon
Looking up at Wedge Rock
Looking up at Wedge Rock

We came out of the canyon and crossed the suspension bridge, tired but loving the experience.  The mile hike back to the campground was spent admiring flowers, and holding Akira back from all the squirrels hopping in the leaves.

Heading back to camp with tired legs, but a fresh spirit.
Heading back to camp with tired legs, but a fresh spirit.

There is something about Turkey Run that is inspiring, it is so unlike the usual boring terrain of our Hoosier state.  It is generally crowded with weekend warriors like ourselves, but so worth it.   We were out on the trail this day for six hours, probably logged somewhere around five miles of hard hiking (GPS says seven, but I doubt that).   We ate good back at camp, colored some Easter eggs, and slept hard that night, knowing we get to do it all again the next day.

To be continued…

Decorating Easter Eggs
Decorating Easter Eggs
Hiking Path
Hiking Path