Just how flat is Chicago? Well, with a local sledding hill called “Mt. Trashmore,” it’s not hard to get an idea of just how far people will go to get a little topography in this town. But it turns out you don’t have to make mountains out of landfills after all. Instead, you can drive an hour and a half southwest of the city, to Starved Rock State Park.
If you’ve only got one day, grab a quick breakfast and start out early. For the time being, resist the temptation to explore the two blocks that constitute Utica’s quaint downtown, and follow the signs to the Starved Rock Visitor Center.
Once inside, check out the various exhibits explaining the park’s natural and cultural history. If you’d rather see your critters alive and un-stuffed, though, head straight for the information desk. Just give the knowledgeable park staff an indication of how long you want to hike, and they’ll mark up a trail map with a system of loops that will take you anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours to navigate. The park’s lush vegetation supports a wide variety of birds, including vireos, catbirds, yellowbellied sapsuckers, scarlet tangers, cedar waxwings and indigo buntings. Watch the river’s edge for wood ducks and blue heron, and the trails for cottontail rabbits and white-tailed deer. Look up and you just might see a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead in search of voles and field mice.
Just out for a stroll? Take the short walk from the visitor’s center up to Starved Rock, the 125-foot sandstone butte for which the park is named. According to legend, in the 1760’s the Potawatomi and the Ottawa surrounded a band of Illiniwek atop this butte, and held their ground until the Illiniwek died of starvation.
The walk up to the bluff lookout is a far cry from a path through the wilderness. It is a system of boardwalks and wooden steps that will leave you, at best, a bit winded, and at worst, longing for something unpaved and unpopulated. Not to worry. With thirteen miles of trails in this park, there is something for everyone.
Once you’ve seen the view from Starved Rock, drive out to the main road and head south on Route 178 until you come to Route 71, and head east until you find the first parking lot on your left. From here you can access the trail to LaSalle Canyon. It starts off as a tame path on the edge of the woods along the Illinois River, and then winds inland toward the canyon and one of the most breathtaking sites in the park.
Here you’ll find few people and even fewer boardwalks or other man-made intrusions on the trail. You’ll also find bluffs that overlook steep-walled canyons, and narrow dirt paths as you make your way down into the canyons. So, heed the warnings to stay on the path; sandstone crumbles and becomes slippery when wet, so it’s dangerous to stray too close to the edge of the bluffs. Depending where you are at any given time as you wind your way into more wooded areas, light becomes dark, streams become waterfalls, and, if you time your visit right, green gives way to the rich yellows and reds of autumn.
After all that hiking and exploring, it’s the perfect time for lunch. Remember those two-blocks of downtown you drove through on the way to the park? Here you will find Common Grounds, a coffee shop that offers soups and sandwiches, espresso and cappuccino, an array of books and even internet access, just in case you’re missing civilization.
Once your legs have had a rest you should be ready to give your arms a workout. Call the nice folks at Canoe the Vermilion. This mom and pop team will give you directions along back roads, through cornfields (don’t get lost-one cornfield looks pretty much like the next) to a little unpaved road where you can park your car. From there they’ll drive you–and a canoe–to a point upstream. Trips can last for as little as two hours to all day. Even inexperienced paddlers can enjoy the calm, flat water on the Vermilion River. If you’re more experienced, let them know and they’ll set you up with something more challenging. Either way, you’ll likely see deer along the thickly wooded banks, large birds circling overhead and the kind of tranquility you only find on rivers.
If you decide to stay the night, you have options. The Starved Rock Lodge has guest rooms as well as cabins, a lounge, and a restaurant that offers three meals daily, along with a weekly Sunday Brunch. If you like your lodging, like your hiking, a little more remote and a little less peopled, try Kishauwau on the Vermilion, where the cottages have a rustic feel, but come complete with central air, full kitchens, and in some cases, giant whirlpool tubs. Build a fire in the wood-burning stove, listen to the crickets chirp and forget, for a while, that you live in a large, flat city in the Midwest.
What & Where:
Starved Rock State Park (2568 E. 950th Rd, Oglesby; 815-667-4726)
Common Grounds Book Café (723 S. Clark Street, Utica; 815-866-5167)
Canoe the Vermilion (RR 4, Streator; 815-673-3218)
Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center (Rt. 178 & 71, Utica; 800-868-7625)
Kishauwau on the Vermilion (901 N. 2129 Rd., Tonica; 1-800-659-0627)
Getting There from the Chicago area: Take I-294 or I-355 south to I-55. Take I-55 south to I-80. Go west on I-80, 45 miles to Exit #81 (Route 178, Utica). Go south (left) 3 miles on Route 178 and follow the signs into the Park.