Thursday, June 27, 2013

Starved Rock State Park: Bluff/River Loop (Blog Hike #383)

Trails: Bluff and River Trails
Hike Location: Starved Rock State Park
Geographic Location: south of UticaIL
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2012
Overview: A highly developed trail exploring canyons, overlooks, and rivers.

Directions to the trailhead: An hour southwest of Chicago, take I-80 to SR 178 (exit 81).  Exit and go south on SR 178.  Take SR 178 though the town of Utica and then across the Illinois River.  Less than 0.2 miles after crossing the river, turn left at the signed state park entrance to enter the park.  Follow signs for the Visitor Center and park in the very large paved parking lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: I first planned a trip to Starved Rock State Park back in 2002 when I lived in Ohio.  The park’s Illinois River views and sheer rock wall canyons are regionally famous, drawing my attention to the site.  Unfortunately, a major spring rainstorm came that weekend, forcing me to not only cancel the hike but the entire trip.  Years later, when I realized I had a half-day to spend on the trail while driving from Georgia to Minnesota, I jumped at the chance to come here.
            Thus, more than 10 years after my first planned visit, I finally drove through the entrance gate at Starved Rock State Park on a warm, sunny Sunday morning.  My enthusiasm was such that I arrived 30 minutes before the gate even opened.  The park was congested on this nice summer weekend, but the scenery did not disappoint.
            I am certainly not the first person to recognize this area’s scenic value.  The Hopewell, Woodland, and Mississippian Indians lived here as early as 8000 B.C.  In 1673, French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette became the first Europeans to explore the Illinois River valley.  The French also built Fort St. Louis on this site because it provides a commanding view of the river valley.  The park’s name comes from an incident during the Indian wars of the 1760’s.  According to local legend, a band of Illiniwek Indians sought refuge atop the rock from their enemies, the Potawatomi and Ottawa Indians who surrounded the base of the rock.  Unable to escape or find sustenance, the Illiniwek died of starvation atop the rock.
            In 1911, the site became one of the Illinois’ first state parks.  In addition to scenic hiking, the park offers many picnic shelters, a seasonal campground, a lodge, and river access for boaters and anglers.  Yet most park visitors will find their way onto a hiking trail at some point during their visit.  The park’s scenery and easy access from Chicago make Starved Rock one of the most visited state parks in Illinois.  Try to plan a weekday or winter visit to minimize the crowds.           
Trailhead at rear of Visitor Center
            The Visitor Center contains some interesting exhibits; it forms the starting gate for the park’s trail system and this hike.  Exit the back of the Visitor Center and walk down the concrete trail to reach a major trail intersection.  Our first destination will be Starved Rock itself, and a sign indicates a left turn is required here to reach it.
            The trail climbs an extensive set of wooden steps to reach the top of the rock.  If you look under the steps on your way up, you can see the old stone steps that predated these more comfortable wooden ones.  At the top of the steps, a short loop takes you around to the various overlooks.  A few of the overlooks look inland across the treetops, but most overlooks give views of the Illinois River.  The large island just downstream is Plum Island; it hosts a bald eagle colony in the winter.  The dam and locks visible upstream remind you that the Illinois River is a working river providing an important waterway linking Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River.
View of river dam from top of Starved Rock
            After seeing all there is to see from atop the rock, walk back down all of the steps you just walked up to arrive at the main trail intersection behind the Visitor Center.  Turn left to head deeper into the trail system.  0.7 miles into the hike, the wide gravel trail forks.  We will eventually take the left fork, but for now turn right to head for French Canyon and your first canyon experience.
            The creek flowing out of French Canyon appears to your left as a trail heading for the lodge exits up some steps to your right.  Soon you enter the canyon at its mouth.  Vertical sandstone walls tower more than 30 feet on either side.  The canyon is so tight that the trail must use the slickrock creekbed as its treadway.  When I hiked this trail during a summer drought, the creek was nearly dry, making the hiking in the canyon not much more challenging than on a graded trail.  After a rainstorm, the canyon may be impassible due to high water levels.  When enough water is present, the head of the canyon features an attractive waterfall.
Dry waterfall at head of French Canyon
            There is no way to exit the canyon other than the way you entered.  Thus, when you reach the head of the canyon, you need to turn around, hike back out of the canyon, and turn right at the trail fork you left a few minutes ago to continue this hike.  The trail climbs some wooden steps to arrive at the major trail intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  This description will turn right for now and use the left trail as the return route.  Crowds thin out considerably after you pass this intersection.
            Now on the Bluff Trail, the trail continues upstream with narrow Pontiac Canyon and the broad Illinois River downhill to the left.  The blazes at Starved Rock use a complicated rectangle and circle system.  The color of the rectangle tells you whether you are on the Bluff (brown), River (red), or connector (green) trails; the color of the circle tells you whether you are heading away from (yellow) or toward (white) the Visitor Center.  The blazes going this direction are brown rectangles inscribed with yellow circles.           
Bluff Trail crossing a boardwalk
            1.4 miles into the hike, you arrive at an overlook for Wildcat Canyon.  Horseshoe-shaped Wildcat Canyon is the widest and deepest canyon you will see on this hike.  Like French Canyon, the head of the canyon features a fantastic 75-foot waterfall when enough water is present.
            The trail heads around the perimeter of Wildcat Canyon to reach a second overlook on the opposite (east) side.  At a trail intersection near this overlook, stay left to descend a long set of iron and wooden steps to reach the floor of the canyon.  If you want to tour the interior of Wildcat Canyon, turn left and descend a few more steps to begin a short spur trail that deadends at the canyon’s head.
Interior of Wildcat Canyon
            The main trail continues a short distance to intersect the River Trail nearly 1.6 miles into the hike.  Turning right would lead upstream to more canyons, but this description turns left to begin the journey back to the Visitor Center.  The trail crosses the outlet of Wildcat Canyon on a wood-steel bridge before arriving at a steep set of steps leading upward and right to Beehive Overlook.  Feel free to climb the steps to this somewhat overgrown overlook, but there are better river views to be had on this hike.
            Past Beehive Overlook, the trail climbs a long set of wooden steps to arrive at a T-intersection.  The route back to the Visitor Center goes left, but first take a short detour to the right to arrive at Eagle Cliff Overlook, the best view in the park.  The bare rock of Eagle Cliff stands nearly 100 feet above the river, and great views open up both upstream and downstream.  Some benches give the opportunity to sit, rest, and take in the view.
View up river from Eagle Cliff
            Past Eagle Cliff, Lover’s Leap Overlook is reached quickly.  This overlook offers a view similar to Eagle Cliff, but its location closer to the Visitor Center ensures that Lover’s Leap gets far more traffic.  Past the last overlook, the trail descends an intricate set of wooden steps and boardwalks to close the loop.  Turning right and following signs back to the Visitor Center will complete the hike.

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