While most people would like to go away for vacation, it is not always possible to pack up and catch a flight to England or Ireland, Germany or France, Mexico or Colombia. In fact, it may not even be possible to take a trip for a few days to another domestic locale by train, bus or automobile. If your time off of work is mostly given up to obligations around town, you may wish to consider a day trip. This could be one overnight, or just somewhere close enough to visit during the day and return home by nightfall.
When my “old friend” and occasional travel companion came to visit for a week, we each had a list of things to do together, and some with others. He had dates and I had social and medical obligations to attend. When he arrived we went for deep dish pizza, of course. We found a few hours here and there for socializing together. We went to a baseball game, his first trip to the south side park. And we went off on a “day trip.”
About two hours southwest of Chicago, along the Illinois River, is Starved Rock State Park. The canyons and sandstone bluffs mark an area that is not typical of the state. Outside the Chicago area, Illinois is known more for corn and soybean fields than anything else. When I took a trip through Illinois to St. Louis with another friend, he remarked that there was nothing remarkable about Illinois. In fact, it was the flattest land he had ever seen. Obviously, we had not gone to Starved Rock.
Interstate highways will take you most of the way, before narrow scenic roads take you the rest of your journey. After stopping at the visitor’s center for refreshment, we headed out to find the trail map to decide on our route. Since one of the sites my companion wished to see was a long walk and we were right at the Starved Rock, we decided to go for the long climb to the top.
Prior to human habitation, the floods of melting glaciers had carved out these canyons and created the beauty that stands today. By the late 1600’s the French had established a fort atop the large sandstone “Rock” that overlooks the river. Eventually they left.
Legend has it that in 1769 the Illiniwek Indians or Illini, pursued by two other ethnic groups, took refuge atop this same sandstone butte. They were under siege by the tribes below and eventually starved to death, hence the name Starved Rock. The University of Illinois teams are known as the Fighting Illini, although it seems the actual Illini chose not to fight. The school mascot is Chief Illiniwek, but that is clearly another story for another time.
As we made our long climb to the top of the rock, we found an elderly couple seated on a bench a short way up the path. They doubted they would make it all the way. Much of the area was built over with a steep wooden stairway. This is not sort of climb I would normally do either, but my friend was content to move at my pace, so I persisted.
The view at the top was worth the climb. High above the Illinois river, you can see up and down the waterway, a major tributary of the Mississippi. You can also see that there is no retreat. If the rock is surrounded, there is nowhere to go. You are too far from the river and too high up to even consider jumping.
The Illinois River lock and Dam at Starved Rock is one on eight along the massive Illinois river and is located 231 miles from the Mississippi River. The Illinois River provides a path from the Great Lakes at Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico. For city kids from the nation’s third largest city, it is an amazing view. It is also a historically important site to the State of Illinois where archaeological digs have taught us much about local history. The view, the canyons, the waterfalls, the hiking trails, the campgrounds, the large state park for picnics and fun have made Starved Rock one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.
From the top of the rock, you can find a view of Plum Island. It is reported that in 1997 the bald eagle, symbol of America, began to return to this area after near extinction in this region. The increase in the eagle population is believed to be a direct result of the banning of DDT, an argument for the EPA (yet another story for another time). In the years that followed there was a battle over development of the land, but the Illinois Audubon Society purchased it in 2004. Today it is a sanctuary that is closed to the public but in full view of the Rock. Plum Island is a winter home for the majestic eagle who come to fish the river. This makes the top of Starved Rock a year round attraction. It may be a difficult or impossible climb in foul (or fowl) weather, however.
At just two hours away, and with two drivers in the car, we were able to head out in daylight and return in daylight with no problem (late June). The small and somewhat historic towns that are near to the Park (Utica, Oglesby. Ottawa) show off quaint, small town America. In addition, the large Matthiessen State Park is just down the road and was our second stop on this trip. There we were able to go down into the canyons to view a waterfall, a chief interest of my travel buddy. If you have to stay home on vacation, you do not have to stay home.
Resources: Illinois Waterway, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illinois_Waterway
Starved Rock State Park, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starved_Rock_State_Park
Illinois Starved Rock State Park, http://www.starvedrockstatepark.org/