By Jason Maholy
The COVID-19 outbreak put a damper on many a person’s plans for vacations and outdoor adventures during the early spring, but with parks and other public venues in Illinois re-opening it’s time to knock off the quarantine rust and get active again.
For those people who enjoy exploring the outdoors, Starved Rock State Park offers a welcome respite from the grind of work or the monotony of daily life. Really, it is simply an outstanding place to be amongst nature, decompress and get a good workout. Roughly 90 minutes west from the Southwest Suburbs and just south of Interstate 80, the park offers hiking, camping, fishing and boating, and features the historic Starved Rock Lodge.
Starved Rock State Park is a geological anomaly. Here, just south of the village of Utica, the otherwise largely unbroken, low-lying plain of northern Illinois is pocked with canyons in the sandstone bluffs that line the south bank of the Illinois River. This landscape was formed by the Kankakee Torrent, a catastrophic flood that originated from a breach in the moraine that impounded prehistoric glacial lakes. Geologists believe the torrent may have been several floods that occurred over hundreds of years between 14,000 and 19,000 years ago.
The large sandstone butte that carries the park’s namesake is among the main attractions, and is accessible from the “lower” area just east of the Visitors Center. The stair climb to the top and the observation deck that overlooks the river is a moderate workout, but one even young children can typically handle without assistance. The views of the river are worth the effort, and the panoramic view is perfect for photo ops.
The true experience of the park, however, lies in exploring the 13 hiking trails and 18 canyons within the park’s 2,630 acres. Trails meander through the forest atop of the bluffs along the aptly named Bluff Trail, which provides views into the canyons below. It is easy to lose one’s self amongst the trees, which shield hikers to some degree from the sun, wind, heat and humidity. Steps seem to within no time become miles, and while the multiple staircases that must be climbed can cause the legs to burn and the pulse to race, these are good things.
Among the most popular and picturesque of the park’s canyons are LaSalle and St. Louis. The former is accessible after a good hike down the River Trail and is one of the only canyons that has a waterfall most of the year. The falls here can dry up completely during the summer, and while this may limit some people’s ideas of a good photo op, they are impressive and fun to explore, regardless.
St. Louis Canyon is among the furthest away from the Visitors Center and is one of the minority not accessible from the River Trail. The path into the park from the auxiliary parking lot south of the Route 178 entrance is the quickest way to get to St. Louis, which is a popular spot for picnics and photo shoots. Children – and adults, for that matter – enjoy playing in the several small “caves” in the canyons walls and splashing in the shallow pool below the park’s only spring-fed waterfall.
Visitors should also bring more than enough drinking water, as there are no sources of drinking water while out on the trails or exploring the canyons. Trudging up and down the numerous staircases and hilly terrain can cause dehydration, even during moderate temperatures. This also burns a lot calories, so bringing a pack containing snacks and lunch are also recommended.
Also, with the legalization of cannabis in Illinois this year, many visitors openly smoke the herb. The aroma can be prevalent in the canyons and on the riverfront and bluff trails.