May, 2018 – Utica, Illinois

The trip north to the Illinois River was along US 51, which was a good highway and merged with I-39 out of Bloomington.  Consequently, the 3 hour trip north was relatively easy and without incident.  Last week was our final COE campground for the rest of the summer and we were heading for the first of two state parks in Illinois.  We knew nothing about Starved Rock State Park, our first destination, except that it was along the Illinois River.  It turns out this is the most popular state park in Illinois with over 2 million visitors a year.  Of course, the proximity to Chicago is one reason, however, the site along the Illinois River is spectacular.  The Illinois River connects Chicago to the Mississippi and was a major reason for the growth of Chicago into the major inland port of the country it is today.  The I&M Canal bypassed this section of the river in the mid to late 19th century, but with the building of dams along the river it has once again become the main waterway out of Chicago.  Since the last Ice Age the Illinois River and its tributaries have been carving the river basin, which in this region was through some tough sandstone.  Consequently there a number of sandstone bluffs and canyons along the river.  The campground is located in between two of these canyons which means you have to access it from the flat farm land south of the river.  We did not know this and followed our GPS which took us to the Visitor Center along the river.  As you can guess this meant a winding drive down to the river and then back up under a low walking bridge that was just barely high enough to clear the RV!!  We could have turned right and missed all this if we had known better.  Once we got to the campground we found nobody at the entrance booth which had signs out that there was no vacancy.  Since this was just after noon on Memorial Day, we were concerned our site may not yet be opened and did not want to pull the RV into the campground to find out.  I therefore went looking for the campground host which turned into a half mile hike.  I finally found one of the campground host who’s only advice was to pull into the other loop where our site was and see if it was occupied since most of the people had already left.  In this she was correct, most of the Memorial Day campers had already left.  We found our site to be unoccupied, however, there were two problems.  First, there were no water hookups at any of the sites and we had not filled up our fresh water tank.  The water spigots we passed coming in did not have any way to attach a hose, so we were just going to have to use their single bathroom at the entrance to the loop for showers and haul water for dishes.  The second problem was that this is one of the most rustic sites we have stayed in.  This meant there was trees and brush right alongside the narrow paved road and both sides of the RV pad leaving very little room to maneuver.  Thankfully there was a campsite directly across the road which gave me a little room to swing the truck around and the site was angled to make it at least possible.  I was very proud of myself when I was able to angle the RV into the site on the first try and only had to pull forward a little bit to straighten it out.  I was able to back the RV into the site like a pro and we got set up with no problem.  This will be the first time we have stayed for a week without any water in the RV, it should be interesting.

Campsite

All we did on Tuesday was to take the short drive back to the Visitor Center to check it out and obtain a map of the trails in the park.  The weather was still very hot with temperatures in the low 90s and high humidity, so we decided to wait until later in the week for any hiking.  We were right in the crosshairs for the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto which would bring us rain and cooler temperatures on Wednesday.

As predicted Alberto did deliver rain on Wednesday, although the worst stayed off to the east.  However, since it was going to rain it was our day to visit a local casino.  The closest one was the Par-A-Dice Casino in Peoria, Illinois, just over an hour to the southwest.  So we headed out through the farmland of northern Illinois to try our luck.  The Par-A-Dice Casino is actually located on a ship tied up to a dock in the Illinois River.  It has four floors devoted to slot machines and gaming tables.  On-shore are the luxury hotel, shops, and restaurants.  Therefore, once you get onto the ship, there is nothing but gambling going on.  We had an enjoyable couple of hours playing the slot machines while it rained outside.  Thankfully, I hit a jackpot on the first slot machine we played and Kal won a couple of minor wins so we managed to lose only about half off our stake.

With the rain on Wednesday, the creeks should be flowing maximizing the view of the waterfalls in the park.  Therefore, we selected a couple of falls that were close together and away from the Visitor Center.  The trails were suppose to be easy and less than a mile in length from the trailhead.  We got an early start on Thursday and were the second car in the very small parking lot at the trailhead.  As advertised the trails were easy in the sense they were relatively flat.  However, the rains had turned them into muddy trails and the small creek coming out of the gorge was running full.  This trial gave access to two waterfalls up the Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons.  Before the trail split there was a neat geological feature known as the Council Overhang.  This is an impressive sandstone overhang about 30 feet high that was used by the Indians for thousands of years.  After crossing the creek without the benefit of a bridge of any kind and getting our boots covered in mud, we realized that the trail up Ottawa Canyon was completely flooded.  Since most of the water in the creek was coming own Ottawa Canyon, the trail up Kaskaskia Canyon relatively accessible.  It was still necessary to make our own trail up the side in a couple of places.  At the second location, Kal descended back down to the creek at a precarious looking slope that looked very slick, so I decided to continue on along the slope for a ways to another spot that looked safer.  However, the slope I was on proved to be a mistake as I went into a slide and tumbled the 6 feet back to the edge of the stream.  Except for mud on my arms and trousers, the only thing I injured was my pride.  We still had to cross the stream one more time across a couple of small branches that had washed down the stream and were quite slick.  I am probably making this sound a lot worse then it actually was and the waterfall at the end of the canyon was well worth the effort.  After resting a while on a log at the waterfall we headed back to the truck.  By this point it was not yet 10:00 in the morning and we had only hiked about a mile in distance.  So we decided to explore another trail to a couple of other canyons, although these were listed as overlooks which implied they were above the canyon.  These were Owl and Hidden Canyon.  The trail was more moderate with some steps and slight grades, but at least it was not walking through mud and jumping streams.  We saw some interesting canyons that we assume were Owl and Hidden Canyons, although without signs we could not be sure.  This hike added another 1.5 miles to our total for the day and we decided to call it.

We spent Friday and Saturday in the campground for the most part.  We both drove into Ottawa on Saturday to do our laundry and grocery shopping, but other than that just took it easy.

Sunday was our last day in the park and with the cold front that pushed away the tropical storm, the weather was finally more typical for this time of year and stayed in the 70s most of the day.  We decided to check out the signature trails of the park from the Visitor Center which included their namesake, Starved Rock.  In 1684, La Salle constructed the first Fort St. Louis on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River as a combination defensive fort and trading post for the growing fur trade between the French and local Indians.  It was to be the first of string of forts along the river to the Mississippi River.  Nothing of the fort remains today although archeological digs have verified its location.  Even though the wooden trail that circles the sandstone bluff does not include any old remains of the fort, you do get some great views of the Illinois River along with the dam and locks.  You can also see Plum Island, which is a bird sanctuary and is the winter home of a number of bald eagles. They have found that the turbulence of the dam keeps the river from freezing over and is a prime fishing habitat.  The trails from the Visitor Center are much better maintained, but are also much busier.  Especially since it was a beautiful Sunday day, there were hundreds of visitors out for a hike.  Since the hike up to Starved Rock is only 0.3 miles up a lot of stairs, we continued down the trail to French Canyon.  While the waterfall at the head of the canyon is not as spectacular as Kaskaskia, the sheer walls of the gorge leading up to the waterfalls is well worth the trip.  Once again, this side trip was only about another 0.25 miles, we continued on further to Lover’s Leap and Eagle Cliff Overlooks.  Once again this meant climbing over 200 steps to the top of the bluffs.  There are a number of nice overlooks of the river where we spent quite a bit of time attempting to get a good picture of what looked like pelicans just below the dam.  When we checked it out once we got back to the campsite, I am convinced they were White Pelicans since we are just barely within the migratory route on their way to Canada for the summer.  By this point, we had both had enough of climbing stairs and even though we had only hiked about 1.5 miles we headed back to the campsite.  Without realizing it when I made the reservations, it turned out we stayed at probably the best place to see one of the greatest natural wonders in Illinois.  The Illinois River cuts a wide swath through the flat farm fields of northern Illinois creating some spectacular sandstone gorges.  While I was not thrilled with the campgrounds, I would certainly recommend this as a place to visit.

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