The Pines Are White; The Leaves Shine Gold

White Pines State Park.

Near Dixon, Mt. Morris and Oregon. From Dixon, we take Lowell Park Road from Route 26 and hang a right at a stop sign far out in the country. This eventually leads to the distinct boundaries of the park. Field after field suddenly rams up against a dark wall of pines. It reminds me of the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings. The change is so abrupt, you rather wonder if there’s something mystical about the woods.

After three hours of wandering the paths, though, I can attest that it’s pretty safe.

White Pines is nothing new on my radar. I’ve enjoyed hikes there since I was young. The park’s fall brilliance is something I had yet to experience, however, until a few weeks ago.

White Pines Fall
At the crest of this drop off, the trees are clad in fall’s finest colors.

What a day for a hike. The sun shone brightly and a breeze complemented the brisk morning air. I dressed in layers and repeatedly removed and put on my sweatshirt. My coldness varied wildly depending on level of activity and whether we were in the sun.

White Pines Fall
The sun illuminates color in the forest’s canopy.

From the main entrance, we took a left at the fork and went to the farthest parking lot possible. From there, a neat stone bridge crosses Pine Creek and provides access to our first trail of the day: straight up the side of a timbered ridge that borders the creek for a time before drifting off to the left.

The sun, on its upward arc in the sky, threw light straight through the canopy of gold above us. What a beautiful, beautiful sight. I stopped several times at the top of the uphill climb to gaze at the fall wonder.

Resting On The Hill
My hiking companions pause to rest atop a steep incline. One of the park’s famous pines dominates the foreground.

After the initial steepness, the trail isn’t too difficult. We crossed paths with an older couple, at least in their 70s, several times. The two were very well dressed. They could’ve stepped off a subway in New York and fit right in with the cityscape, but they also looked classy traversing the paths dusted with pine needles.The sight of them was as inspiring as the dappled sunlight that sank through golden boughs and speckled the path ahead of us. Yeah, pretty inspiring. The first time they appeared on the trail and walked past us, I turned my head to watch them negotiate the cement stones spaced across the creek. They did it with ease. How cool is that?

Crossing The Creek
The creek flows over the road several places in the park, so cement barrels in place help hikers cross without getting drenched.

We ran into other small groups, but morning hikes are an almost surefire way to avoid crowds. That’s a good thing if you enjoy experiencing the nature-y side of nature like I do. Woods, as far as I know, don’t usually have indigenous species of cellphone-wielding hipster humans wandering about. If such a thing does in fact exist, then that’s my Discovery Channel moment of the day.

It was a beautiful out and we felt pretty invigorated, so it was only natural to keep walking. White Pines is crisscrossed with paths with names such as “Red Squirrel Trail,” “Sunset Trail” and “Whispering Pines Trail.” Many of them intersect and are marked with colored guide posts. We didn’t pay particular attention to where we were going. Unless you’re stressed for time, sometimes it’s fun to just go where your feet take you. However, pay attention to your energy level. When you’re starving and limbs are dragging and you find yourself in a campground on the opposite end of the park from where you parked, it won’t be quite the exhilarating experience in nature on the way back. Bring water and granola bars or pretzels. You’ll be happy to have it if you need it.

White Pines isn’t completely isolated. A roller skating rink is across the road, as well as the White Pines Inn, home to the popular Wedding Canyon. I think you know what happens there. The park is about 30 minutes north of Dixon and 20 minutes west of Oregon.

For the best experience, go wherever there’s a concentration of deciduous trees in the park, and wait until peak color is almost winding down. I would consider it the second stage of fall. Some of the trees were already bare, but then you get a round of brilliant gold contrasting against the pale sky. Maybe you’ll even see the mythical hipster human in residence under the railroad trusses from the Look Out Trail at the far edge of the park.

Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

View From Look Out Trail
Trees part just enough to reveal the railroad bridging the creek. People sometimes try jumping from the high walls into the pool below in the summer. Park rules forbid swimming.

The Place You Knew But Didn’t Know Existed

Admit it. We all have at least one of those; a park or place whose name is so synonymous with your area, you tend to forget about it.

For the Bureau County area, that award mostly goes to the Hennepin Canal.

The canal traces through the whole area on a map; it swings south of Interstate 80 and brushes Wyanet before plunging southwest of Princeton. Everyone in the area knows what it is. The canal is like an artery: We all know it’s there, and it’s important to the body’s functions, but that doesn’t mean we give it the attention or respect it deserves.

A creek converges with the canal at the base of this bridge, located between Wyanet and Tiskilwa.

I’m no history buff. I do know that by its completion, railroads had rendered the canal obsolete. If you’re curious beyond that, a visit to the Bureau County Museum might provide a better background, or look at the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s page about the canal. It provides background, including that it’s a “104.5-mile linear park spanning five counties,” and helpful information for planning a visit.

Free Ride
Sarah embraces the exhilaration of riding along the canal during an autumn afternoon.

The canal might not be used for its intended function now, but it’s been a great resource for the area. A gravelly and sometimes paved trail is good for walkers, bikers and equestrian use. I know that because of the occasional piles of you-know-what I encountered. There’s also fishing, camping, a plethora of animal and bird species to watch for, and many points along the canal are picturesque backdrops for photography and portraits. It’s an extended park with numerous entrances and lots of variety.

For all its graces, I don’t see a lot of people out when I’m there. Oftentimes months or years pass between my own visits. For such a wondrous resource, the canal is little used. I was awakened to this fact on three recent occasions, all within the last two to three weeks: two brisk walks to enjoy the fall colors and a photography bike ride.

I’ve gone on walks there before, but believe me. If you’re a walker, the canal can seem like heaven on earth. The same goes if you’re into bike riding. The trail is fairly flat, so you can focus more on the surrounding scenery. Fall is an especially beautiful time to visit with all the changing leaves.

Colors Along The Path
Sunlight and shadow creates a striking contrast with fall colors on the Hennepin Canal.

On both walks, my cousin and I barely saw anyone other than a few fishermen near where we parked. My friend and I saw more people on our bike expedition, but we did cover more ground over a longer period of time. We saw two groups of bikers, a few people fishing and two groups of walkers. In the same setup in the suburbs, the place probably would’ve been choked with people. I think they appreciate open spaces all the more because of the crowded nature of city life. Not to say that rural folks don’t appreciate it as much, but we’re used to it.

That’s my point about the canal. I think we’ve collectively grown used to the place.

In some ways, that gives the visitors who do go more peace and quiet to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. But mostly, I think it’s a shame. We’re lucky this park was preserved and not destroyed. The locks are still there, albeit covered in spiderwebs. Trash also has a tendency to collect in places just before the water drops off.

The Hennepin Canal isn’t perfectly manicured, and I don’t think it should be that way in some respects.

Sarah and I jumped off our bikes to explore the ruins of some old building right off the path. I wondered what it was, what it was used for. The foundation was still solidly there, like the basic blueprint of a building. Vines were creeping up the walls and pillars that stood freely in the interior. The place had an aura of mystery. There it was, but there was no plaque, no clue as to what the building was in its former life. It’s cool to have places like that along the path to discover.

Me Amongst The Brambles
Sarah shot this photo of me taking in the remnants of this abandoned building.

If we started rediscovering the canal, maybe we could do a better job keeping it trash and graffiti free so we could preserve the canal’s antiquity and continue to step back generations and walk along a literal path of history.

If and when you do decide to pay your respects to this age old fixture, it doesn’t matter what lock you go to. You will find something worth experiencing. There are points when the trail tunnels under the road. There are old railroad bridges and bridges. There are old locks with massive wooden gates. At times the canal is straight and narrow, and sometimes it billows out into a refuge for shorebirds.

We saw snakes, cranes, cardinals, blue jays, fish jumping out of the water, frogs, fuzzy caterpillars and all sorts of creatures. You might even bring a guidebook to identify the various flowers and native plants adorning both sides of the trail. Maybe you want to bring a pole (and your fishing license) and settle down for the afternoon. Primitive camping your thing? It’s there too.

If you’re at a loss for where to go first, the official Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park bordering I-80 and near Sheffield makes a good starting point. Informational displays help visitors get the most out of their time at the canal. Whatever you choose to do, don’t just think about it. Thoughts are nice but don’t accomplish anything unless they are carried out through actions.

Let’s get back to knowing the treasures that are a stone’s throw away from our backyards.

Epic Jump
Sarah takes a leap on the bridge halfway between Wyanet and Tiskilwa.

Green River Walk

One recent adventure took my mother, sister and I out to Green River State Wildlife Area to explore the area’s fall colors.

About six miles north of Ohio, this gem is a mix of swamp, prairie and wooded areas. The landscape is reminiscent of what Lee County looked like hundreds of years ago before the swamps were drained for farming. It’s a perfect off-the-beaten-path destination for hikers looking for some solitude and light to moderate exertion.

Gravel Road
A gravel road slices through Green River’s vast fall acreage.

Green River can be accessed by a network of several country roads that border and cut through the 1,000 or so acres. It’s littered with parking lots for the mainly hunters and equestrian groups who use the space. When we went, we had the paths almost all to ourselves.

Sunshine peeks through a row of pines that shade one of the park’s many paths.

This year’s drought dried out even the marshiest areas of Green River but fortunately did not drain all the color from the changing foliage. The first path we walked on led around bits of prairie and woods and opened to a wide field. To get the most out of this, take a field guide with you for identifying plants. Fortunately I was with a walking field guide when it comes to that subject, so I heard the names and other facts about such plants as lamb’s ear.

The park doesn’t seem like it was designed primarily for hiking, because there are no trail maps. You don’t quite know where you’re going to end up when you embark on a path, but that’s part of the fun.

Cattail Sunset
The slough on Green River’s western edge is a great place to catch a sunset.

We sidestepped on a few offshoot trails for a quarter mile just to see where they led. One path we walked on, or rather waded through, was a mowed over cattails and reeds in a dried up slough. The sun was falling toward the horizon when we turned back and caught the most spectacular light.

Fall and spring are the best bets for experiencing either peak floral or fauna activity. Visit before most of the birds have migrated. One of the drawbacks of our trip was that there were very few birds, and we had been looking forward to seeing and identifying them. On the plus side, there were plenty of fall colors: gold in the trees, deep red in shrubbery, and everything in between.

I counted at least five species of wildflowers as well. I can only wonder what Green River looks like in the spring when a plethora of blooms are emerging.

This patch of wildflowers brightened up the browning grass around it.