Prairie Fever » Illinois

Get to Galena

If you live in or near Illinois, you’ve likely heard of Galena–a small historic town in the northwest corner of Illinois not far from the Mississippi River. The town, perched on the side of a hill above the Galena River, is chock-full of restaurants, shops, and attractive historic architecture. Galena claims a few museums, including one devoted to its most famous resident, Ulysses S. Grant. Not surprisingly, the town is one of the region’s major tourist destinations.

The rolling hills near Schapville

The rolling hills near Schapville

What the throngs of visitors to Galena often fail to fully experience is the countryside surrounding the town. Hands down, it’s the most scenic terrain in northern Illinois. The big hills and valleys, small dairy farms, lush woodland, and streams flowing through small limestone canyons offer a sharp contrast to the Prairie State’s nearby fields of corn and soy. All this combined with fairly quiet roadways that twist and curve like wriggling snakes make the Galena area a top-notch road biking destination.

One of the best rides in the area heads into the hills north of Galena and then runs east along an old stagecoach route to Apple River Canyon State Park. From the park, it loops back to Galena along a series of quiet scenic roads offering plenty of far-off views. Saddle up for this 57-mile ride at the Tourist Information Center in Galena.

Getting the lead out

In the 1830s, as a result of its booming lead mining industry, Galena’s population of 1,000 far outnumbered the 100 residents who lived in the swampy town of Chicago. The lead mines and associated commerce catapulted Galena into one of the busiest Mississippi River ports in the 1850s. Many of the buildings from the era still stand. Indeed, 85 percent of the town’s buildings–including the entire downtown district–are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

All this history and picturesque architecture can turn Galena’s Main Street into a half-mile long traffic jam. If you’re biking on a summer weekend, you’ll likely feel some relief as you head out of Galena and leave its crowds behind.

Apple River Canyon State Park

Apple River Canyon State Park

Following the Stagecoach Trail

A mile or so outside of Galena, you’ll encounter a few short downhills, but mainly your pistons are pumping upward. While continuing a gradual climb, don’t forget to raise your head to see the expansive views of the farms and woodland to the south and north. Soon, the road descends and you’ll fly across the Galena River. Start climbing again, and far-off views in nearly every direction compete with the need to watch the road in front of you.

As West Stagecoach Trail dips and bobs, you’ll see old farmhouses, swaths of dense woodland, and occasional gatherings of Holsteins in green fields. This scenery probably hasn’t changed much since this road served a 40-mile stagecoach route between Galena and the town of Lena to the east. Local historians say the stagecoach operated from the mid-1830s until the mid-1850s when the railroad arrived in the area.

Into the canyon

Heading south from West Stagecoach Trail, the route zigzags along a few quiet farm roads on the way to Apple River Canyon State Park, which hosts fine picnicking spots and a small limestone canyon carved out by the Apple River. This is a perfect place to unpack the sandwiches from the pannier, admire the surroundings, and give your hardworking, hill-climbing legs a bath in the cool river.

South of the park, Townsend Road immediately takes you on a sometimes gradual–and sometimes screaming–descent for a couple of miles. Pure joy. By now, you’ll see a pattern emerge: the longer descents often lead to a river or stream crossing–in this case, the Apple River.

Riding the ridge

In Schapville, look for the Zion Presbyterian Church, a wood country church built in 1886. Beyond Schapville, the road mounts a ridge that occasionally offers jaw-dropping views of far-off countryside. The scenes bring to mind idyllic pastoral paintings of 19th century America: a series of overlapping hills adorned with lush greenery, happy farm animals, and the occasional garnet-colored barn.

The road gradually descends about 350 feet before crossing Smallpox Creek. Two minor climbs bring you back to West Stagecoach Trail, over the Galena River, and back into town.


The Route

Most of this 57-mile loop ride follows quiet roads. West Stagecoach Trail is busier and traffic can move fast, but motorists seem accustomed to cyclists and provide a wide berth while passing. Near Galena, roads seem to change names randomly.

  1. From the Galena Visitor Information Center, head north out of town on Main Street.
  2. Bear left on North Council Hill Road.
  3. Continue straight ahead as North Council Hill Road turns into West Council Hill Road.
  4. At West Stagecoach Trail, turn left.
  5. After passing through the small village of Apple River, turn right on North Canyon Park Road.
  6. Left on East Sweet Home Road. Right North Canyon Park Road. Right on East Townsend Road.
  7. Right on North Scout Camp Road.
  8. Left on East Schapville Road.
  9. Left on North Elizabeth Scales Mound Road (County Route 4).
  10. Right on West Rawlins Road.
  11. Continue straight ahead on Guilford Road as West Rawlins Road turns to the right.
  12. Left on West Stagecoach Trail to return to Galena.

If you’ve still got energy to burn after returning to Galena, consider taking a spin on the 3.4-mile Galena River Bike Trail, which starts at the parking area near the visitor center. The smooth crushed gravel trail runs along the river and adjoining wetlands, and ends just shy of meeting up with the Mississippi.


This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Silent Sports magazine.


Overnight hiking trips near Chicago

Sleeping under the stars is one of the great pleasures of summer. Listening to owls, crickets, and tree frogs while drifting off to sleep promises a peaceful slumber. For many, camping is even better if you’re able to get further into the wild woods, away from parking lots and Dairy Queens. Of course, camping in remote places usually means carrying your own gear. Strapping a tent, sleeping bag, and food on your back will sound unappealing to some. For others, it instills a sense of adventure, freedom, and self-sufficiency.

While plenty of options exist for camping around Chicago, most of these places are very busy during the summer. Camping overnight on trails takes you away from the hubbub of a campground. Campsites along trails are nearly always empty and quiet; sometimes reservations may be required, but generally, few people entertain the idea of visiting regional trails overnight.

This is part one of a two-part article focusing on overnight excursions that can be found hiking and biking trails in the region. The first installment highlights a few backpacking trails within 3 hours of Chicago. The next installment will look at overnight biking trails in the region.

Forest Glen Preserve

Forest Glen Preserve is a surprisingly large county park nestled alongside the Vermillion River, just south of Danville, Illinois. The park’s 11-mile backpacking trail takes hikers through prairie, savanna, and bottomland woods. Dozens of ravines blanketed with maple and oak trees provide hikers with a thorough workout. (Be sure to hike clockwise so the trail markers are visible). Some of the campsites for the backpacking trail are perched on the edges of these ravines.

In spring, the trail comes alive with wildflowers. Some 230 species of birds have been seen in the park, including pileated woodpeckers, a variety of owls, and a full compliment of Illinois warblers. Don’t miss a climb up the observation tower overlooking the river valley. In addition to 25 miles of hiking trails, the park contains a pioneer homestead exhibit, a nature center with live animal displays, and an arboretum where visitors can walk among hundreds of native and non-native trees, shrubs, ornamentals, and conifers. The park is located on the Indiana border 180 miles directly south of Chicago.

Kettle Moraine State Forest North Unit and South Unit

When completed, the Ice Age Trail will follow a snaking route for some 1,000 miles through Wisconsin along the southernmost edge of the last glacier. Currently, 600 miles of the trail exists in discontinuous segments throughout this terrain dense with lakes, ridges, and rugged hills. Fortunately, a couple of excellent segments of this trail are within striking distance of Chicago.

A 35-mile segment of the Ice Age Trail runs through the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s southern unit and an 31-mile segment of the trail runs through the park’s northern unit. The north unit is 150 miles north of Chicago and south unit is 100 miles northwest of Chicago. While the southern unit is more accessible from Chicagoland, the northern unit boasts fewer visitors, more of an isolated ambiance, and less encroachment from nearby development.

Both parks feature rugged glacial terrain with ridges, bluffs, thick hardwood forests, and expansive hilltop views. Wetlands, ponds, and small lakes are a matter of course. Both parks offer a handful of primitive shelters alongside the trail for camping. Because you’re in Wisconsin where people like to spend time outdoors, call the park for reservations. Visitors thin out considerably midweek.

Sand Ridge State Forest

A sand desert in the middle of Illinois cornfields? Well, yeah, sort of. Fifteen thousand years ago the floodwaters of the most recent glaciers receded down the Illinois River Valley leaving a vast deposit of sand in the area. Shifting winds sculpted 100-foot high sand dunes that now are the wooded ridges for which the forest is named. Sand Ridge State Forest is one of few places in Illinois that supports an intriguing variety of plants and animals more associated with the Southwest than the Midwest. The rolling terrain is covered with oak-hickory woods, plantations of pine, open grasslands, and unique sand prairies. Prickly pear cacti thrive in the sandy soils.

At 7,200 acres, Sand Ridge State Forest is one of Illinois’ largest state-operated natural areas. A dozen primitive campsites are located along more than 40 miles of trails. The yellow trail is the longest loop at 17 miles, with tent sites along the way. Be warned, though, many of the trails have a sandy surface, which can be difficult hiking for some. Sand Ridge is about 15 miles south of Peoria and about 185 miles southwest of Chicago.


Check out my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in its second edition by Menasha Ridge Press.


Increased camping fees and 72 hours of birding

  • It now costs more to park your RV in state-owned campgrounds. The fee hike applies to sites with electric hookups and to holiday use of those hookup sites. Tent campers rejoice–no fee hikes for you.
  • Eddie Callaway, a 25-year-old birder/photographer in Rockford, Illinois, is engaged in a 72-hour birding extravaganza. Along with some nice shots of the birds he’s counted, his blog, “Birdfreak: The Bird Conservation Blog” includes landscape photos of Deer Run Forest Preserve that are stunning.

Southern sojourn

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been wandering through the southernmost reaches of Illinois gathering information for the outdoor guidebooks that I’m currently writing. In addition to charting a handful of road biking routes and dozens of camping destinations, I also was documenting hiking trails for the Backpacker magazine website.

I was especially eager to explore the Shawnee National Forest, a huge tract of wilderness at the southern tip of the state, known for its rugged beauty. As it happened, rain fell frequently. Floodwater swallowed up a few of the trails and campgrounds I visited. Two campground access roads were blocked with mud slides. My bicycle survived heavy downpours; my boots were frequently caked with mud.

While dodging the worst of the rain, I discovered plenty of scenic spots. The subtle beauty of the cypress swamp at Horseshoe Lake (pictured here) and the jaw-dropping drama of the rock formations at Garden of the Gods were just a couple of places that left strong impressions on me. In coming weeks, I’ll be sharing highlights from my downstate travels.



Tomahawk Lake at the Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve

Thanks for visiting Prairie Fever. My name is Ted Villaire, and I’m a writer from Chicago who delights in open-air excursions. I spend a great deal of time hiking, biking, and paddling.

My activities are typically focused near Chicago or elsewhere in Illinois. Occasionally, though, I’ll venture out into other corners of the Midwest. My outdoor travels allow me to gather information for books and articles. In 2005, I wrote a guidebook for day hiking near Chicago, and currently, I’m writing four more guidebooks focusing on biking and camping near Chicago and throughout Illinois.

I’m glad to reveal that not all of my excursions are work-related. Sometimes, I lace up my hiking shoes simply because I enjoy exploring the local landscape and seeing what’s around the next bend. In any case, through the posts on this page I intend to share my discoveries and offer suggestions on where readers can pursue outdoor wanderings of their own.