Prairie Fever » Good walks, unspoiled

Good walks, unspoiled

From swamps to moraines, area hikes turn up surprising variety

Julie Deardorff
Chicago Tribune
Apr 23, 2006. pg. 3

Cheri Lewis missed her Adirondacks. After routinely hiking the deep forests, rolling hills and soaring peaks of the northern New York mountain chain, the outdoors lover had one question when she moved to the Chicago area.

Could she still find close-to-home treks?

After listening to hiking enthusiast Ted Villaire speak recently at the outdoors store REI in Niles, Lewis, 46, had some answers. Although the Chicago area isn’t exactly renowned for its natural scenic beauty, it does boast hiking trails, unique wetlands and subtly beautiful prairie flowers, said Villaire, author of “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles, Chicago” (Menasha Ridge Press, $16.95 paper). The tricky part is finding them between the strip malls, expressways and skyscrapers.

In addition to Villaire, several other outdoors enthusiasts have tried to help fill the gap left by national guidebooks that usually overlook the heartland. While Villaire’s guide covers Chicago, Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, the Indiana Dunes and Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, Susan Post’s book “Hiking Illinois” (Human Kinetics, $19.95 paper), features 100 day hikes across the state, which runs 400 miles, north to south.

“For a state known for its agriculture, Illinois is incredibly diverse,” said Post, a research biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. She noted that it’s possible to find everything from remnants of a northern forest at the Volo Bog in Ingleside to Missouri Ozark-like limestone cliffs and Appalachian-like wooded coves at La Rue-Pine Hills, a patch of land in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.

In addition, Illinois has more than 54,000 species of organisms. Although you’ll never see most of these, “a hike in any forest preserve or state park will always yield surprises,” Post said.

Villaire, who focused on the northern half of Illinois, recommends more than two dozen good hikes for children as well as urban hikes, solitary hikes and locations that are accessible by public transportation.

He even picks out specific hikes for cyclists, runners and cross- country skiers; hikes that offer wildlife and seasonal wildflower viewing, and hikes with wheelchair-access sections.

“My hope was to raise awareness about good places to go and make people feel more connected to these places,” he said. “There’s probably a lot of good hiking not far from where you live.”

For her fix of nature, Lewis, of Lake in the Hills, plans to head for the Indiana Dunes State Park, based on Villaire’s recommendations.

Here are Villaire’s and Post’s top spots.

From Villaire:

Indiana Dunes State Park

A variety of terrain–bottomland forest, marshland, Lake Michigan shoreline, dunes, ravines and large depressions created by blowing sand–with tremendous views from one of the highest points of the Indiana shoreline of Lake Michigan. “It’s one of the most beautiful and dramatic settings in the Chicago region,” Villaire said.

Notable features: The Dune Ridge hike is one of the best ways to get the heart pumping, as sand is one of the more challenging hiking surfaces.

Matthiessen State Park Dells Area

Fewer trails than nearby Starved Rock State Park but tons of geological charm. The quieter, unjustly ignored Matthiessen features a narrow, milelong canyon carved in sandstone by a stream and waterfalls that turn into icefalls in the winter.

Notable features: Has both cross-country ski rentals and equestrian trails.

Chain O’ Lakes State Park

Straddling the Lake and McHenry County line, Chain O’ Lakes has the largest concentration of lakes in the state and is Illinois’ largest state park.

The busy east section includes expansive wetlands, gently rolling prairies, pleasantly wooded areas, a gleaming stretch of the Fox River and the shoreline of Grass Lake.

The calmer west side offers dense woods, savannas, wetlands and some of the steepest hills in Lake County.

Notable features: One of the few local trail systems that offer on-site camping, Chain O’ Lakes offers boating, fishing, picnic areas and playgrounds as well as boat, canoe and horse rentals.

From Susan Post:

Heron Pond Trail

Heron Pond Trail is in the Cache River State Natural Area, the watery home of Illinois’ oldest tree, a bald cypress, with a landscape that is reminiscent of the bayous of Louisiana.

Post hiked the same trail for three days, and every day it was different, from a mink along the side of the river to a large flock of glistening male wood ducks, she said.

Notable features: The swampy area was once considered “cheerless” and a “pit of hell,” but now a boardwalk allows visitors to experience what Post calls “the strange, silent, primeval world of a southern Illinois swamp.”

Glacial Park

The McHenry County region features glacial landforms called kames, or circular mounds of sand, stone and gravel that resulted when holes in the glacial ice were filled with debris from streams.

Post likes hiking up the 100-foot camelback kames and through the oak savannas.

“Usually there are bluebirds darting back and forth and sometimes the ancient rattle of a sandhill crane,” she said.

Notable features: It’s a great place to view red-winged blackbirds and creek-patrolling kingfishers. In addition to kames, the area also features kettle holes, which were formed when large pieces of ice detached from the glacier and were buried by the outwash.

Moraine Hills State Park

Glaciers left this area of northeastern Illinois with bogs, fens, marches and glacial lakes; in fact, half of the park’s acreage comprises wetlands and lakes. Watch for turtles basking in the sun or sandhill cranes strutting in the tall reeds.

Notable features: “There are several of the namesake moraines [mounds of stones, boulder sand other debris that formed when the glaciers retreated] to add relief, so that it isn’t just a flat hike,” Post said.

(Copyright 2006 by the Chicago Tribune)