Sunday, August 11, 2013

Day 91 - Starved Rock State Park

I have never been to Starved Rock State Park. While many from my area are unaware of this canyon-laden park in central Illinois, its presence is widely known to many in the state of Illinois. In fact, Starved Rock State Park claims the title as the top attraction in the State of Illinois. Apparently, the features of this state park emerged after a massive flood event occurred centuries ago, revealing the rocky outcrops and creating the runoff channels that would later develop into towering channels and canyons in the unassuming flatlands of central Illinois. To this day, these features produce waterfalls and pools during periods of heavy rain, which many claim makes Starved Rock an unbelievably scenic and memorable place.

After learning about the park and its history, I knew I wanted to make the trip to Starved Rock at some point, but I didn’t have immediate plans to do so. That changed this week when a sudden cancellation in my plans opened up my Sunday. With the weather permitting a day trip, I figured today was the best chance I had to experience Starved Rock this summer. In turn, Rachael and loaded up the car with enough gear to get through the five hour round trip drive and an afternoon of hiking before hitting the road late Sunday Morning. With Buddy and Baxter tagging along, I knew the day would provide a scenic, memorable day of exploration among the bluffs and canyons of Starved Rock. I just didn’t expect we would be sharing the experience with so many other people.

Made it!
On the way to the park, the drive through the flatlands of Illinois proved awfully boring, but the anticipation of spending some time at Starved Rock made the trip seem relatively quick. Upon arriving at the park, we followed a long, winding road into an area of forest covered, rolling hills. We slowly made our way along the pavement as we followed signs for a parking area until we rounded a corner and entered an open area. It quickly became apparent we were entering a massive parking lot, which was packed with cars and teeming with people. The entire space between us and a visitors’ center on the far side of the lot was occupied by groups of people using the sidewalks, asphalt, and manicured property for summer activities. For the first time in my life I saw a summer fair sized crowd at a state park, which surprised me greatly. While I was happy to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, I knew such a substantial crowd would likely take away from the natural beauty and preservation of the park. Slightly disappointed, I parked the car, gathered my gear, prepared the dogs for a trek, and turned to Rachael. “Well, let’s do this...” I said with a hint of reluctance in my voice. Realizing my disappointment, Rachael agreed and we headed into the park.

The view from Starved Rock
After obtaining a trail map, Rachael and I first headed to the top of Starved Rock. The towering outcrop was hard to ignore in the terrain, which made it easy enough to locate. After climbing the stairs to the top, Rachael and I walked a long stretch of deck circling the top of the bluff overlooking the Illinois River far below. Without question, the scenery was beautiful, but we found groups of people at nearly every bend in the walk. As a result, we walked with the dogs in a single file line, hugged the rails of the walkway, and waited for groups to clear clogged areas of the trail. Eventually, we made it back down to the base of the bluff and continued on to a bluff and canyon trail.

Comparable to Starved Rock, the trail offered amazing views of surrounding scenery. Worn rocky outcrops poured into canyons below the trail as we walked, and empty white creek beds only forced to life by rainfall wound through the forest around us. The sights made me wish we had visited during a period of heavy rain as to see the parks rare rain waterfalls that cascade over the cliffs... and to avoid to overwhelming crowds of people. Like our trip to the top of Starved Rock, the canyon trail was laden with couples and families, which required us to walk in groups of single file lines as people worked down the trails. Nearly every scenic overlook required waiting or tolerating unruly kids excited by a new experience. Now, as I type that I realize I might sound like a grumpy old man, but I swear I’m not exaggerating. As we walked through a woodland trail perched over canyons we saw kids scaling rock walls, screaming from the top of 300 foot canyons, bouncing in groups on wood planks over gaps in rocks, and generally making the trip a living hell for their parents and older siblings. The whole scene provided a unique contrast in experiences. We were surrounded by natural beauty that is unlike nearly every place I have ever been, and the space was occupied by crowds comparable to those you find at amusement parks. It was strange and altogether disappointing. I wanted to take in the park so much, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the people around me.

A rare moment of peace...

My anxiety over the crowded, chaotic space around me building, I quickly guided Rachael and the dogs deeper into the park. Hoping my efforts would reduce the number of people we encountered, I moved along the right side of the trail, still walking single file as groups passed us on the opposite side of the trail. About one hour after we entered the woodland trail our efforts finally began to pay off. We began encounter fewer people in our path and finally had enough freedom to occupy more space on the trail. Unfortunately, I found the earlier experience hard to shake as we proceeded deeper into the forest. I could feel the turbulent parts of the park had worn on me, and I knew it was likely the feeling would remain for some time. Regardless, we wanted to experience the park, which spurred Rachael, Buddy, Baxter, and I to continue down the path leading through the park.

After traversing the riverside and climbing to the top of another canyon, it became apparent the sun had begun sinking toward the horizon. In turn, Rachael and I decided to find our way back to Starved Rock and our car to begin the trip home. The walk back was surprisingly quiet, but our race against the coming night made it difficult to take in much of our surroundings. As we came closer to our starting point, the familiar sights of crowds began reappearing, which kept my legs in motion as we traveled through the remaining parts of the woods. Eventually, we broke through the forest and came upon the familiar sight of the visitors’ center parking lot that served as our introduction to the park. Winded from a hike of several miles along crowded trails, Rachael and I loaded the dogs into the car, had a quick snack, and began the ride home.

On the way back...

On the ride back Rachael and I talked about our first experience at Starved Rock State Park. While we agreed the park was full of unique and unbelievably majestic scenery, we both seemed to agree it was hard to take in among the crowds of people. I can honestly say Starved Rock State Park is definitely a sight to see, but I truly believe our first experience there was an exercise in poor timing. The late summer weather prevented any waterfalls from flowing and our visit during the waning peak of the summer travel season meant Illinois’ top attraction was overwhelmingly busy with people. There is no doubt I would go back to Starved Rock State Park again, but I would definitely try to plan around the cooler, wetter days of spring and autumn when it is more likely one can gain the full Starved Rock experience and have enough calm to enjoy it. I guess this is one to put back on my list for the future. If not in the next nine months, I’m hopeful I’ll one day get to experience Starved Rock State Park in all its wonder. With all of the park’s potential, I would be foolish not to give it another try.

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