Up On Starved Rock
Even in the Great Nowhere, you can find a good-sized piece of prettiness.
by PAUL GERALD
Driving out of Chicago on Interstate 55 is like driving down 10,000 South Getwells. From each edge of the road to each horizon are so many warehouses and smokestacks that the overwhelming reaction is a question: “What on Earth is all this stuff?”
Chicago is just a monstrous city, especially in its sprawl. I was escaping it one day with my friend Suzanne, who lives in Carbondale, in “downstate” Illinois. We had a whole day to make the three-hour drive to her place, so she said she wanted to show me “the prettiest place in the whole state of Illinois.” As we cruised along I-55, going south and west through hell, I thought going to the prettiest place in Illinois would be like going to the highest cliff in the Mississippi Delta.
But lo and behold, by the time we turned west onto Interstate 80, which heads out into the Great Nowhere of Iowa and Nebraska, I noticed some hills with trees on them. Then we cut through the outskirts of Utica and across the Illinois River and, yep, no doubt about it, it was downright pretty. There were bluffs and trees and a winding river and everything. A few miles later we turned into Starved Rock State Park, and the world around us was transformed.
The park is a 5-mile-long strip of land along the south bank of the Illinois, consisting mostly of a huge sandstone cliff that has been cut by erosion into 18 different canyons. The main thing to do is to hike about 15 miles of trails that explore these canyons, some of which are so narrow in places that you have to skip from side to side to keep from walking in the creek.
Suzanne and I went up into a few of them, and to think we were in the same state as the Sears Tower and the Chicago River just made no sense. We were walking among oaks and cedars and pines. The rocks in the upper parts of each canyon were covered with moss and dripping from the rain.
At the top of each canyon is a waterfall – at least during the wet seasons of the year. The one that most impressed me dropped into the canyon about 100 feet above us, formed a small but deep pool in the floor, then cascaded down through the narrow gorge toward the river.
On top of the bluffs is a 1930s-era log-and-stone lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. We ducked in to avoid a rain shower and found ourselves in the Great Room, furnished with rugs and art and rustic wood furniture. We lingered by the big stone fireplace and said to each other, “ ... and this is in Illinois.”
The lodge, by the way, has 72 hotel rooms and 22 cabins spread around the grounds. Rates are in the $65-85 range for two people, and the cabins, at least, looked pretty nice.
The other things to do in the park are fishing (for catfish, bullhead, white bass, suager, walleye, carp, and crappie), horseback riding, and camping in a 133-site, full-service campground. In most winters – but not the last one, since it was warmer and drier than usual – there’s cross-country skiing, and when the waterfalls freeze people climb them.
A good time to visit would be the first weekend in May, which is Wildflower Weekend. A ranger told me they have up to 50 different kinds of wildflowers in the park, with guided hikes at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. both days, where you can learn about Native American and pioneer uses of the wildflowers. The waterfalls are at their best in April and May as well.
It turns out the park isn’t the only interesting thing in the area. Right across the river is the Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor, a 61-mile historic trail that traces the route of the I&M Canal. The canal was built in the 1840s and was Chicago’s first connection to the Mississippi River. It was also the final link in an all-water route between the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, so it was of tremendous significance. Now it’s a trail of museums and parks and neat old towns.
But you must be wondering why this place is called Starved Rock. Well, it seems that back in the 1700s, Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa tribe, was killed by a member of the Illiniwek tribe. During a subsequent battle, a band of Illiniweks sought refuge on top of the 125-foot sandstone butte, which offers a tremendous view of the prairie. Their enemies surrounded them and, unable to reach them up there, just waited for them to starve to death.
Now that I’ve found something interesting in northern Illinois, I think I’ll make it a point to go a little further west on I-80 and see if I can find something interesting in Iowa or Nebraska.
For more information on Starved Rock State Park or the I&M Canal, call 815-667-4726, or surf to http://dnr.state.il.us/i&m/east/starve/park.htm.