Tag Archives: illinois

Hike #4: Southern Illinois State Parks

(This is the extremely belated fourth post of my Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months series.)

At the very beginning of last April, I set out on a day trip with my mom and sister to explore some of the lesser visited natural areas in southern Illinois. Many people familiar with the region think of mainstays like Giant City State Park and Garden of the Gods as worthy hiking destinations. However, if you’re interested in places a little off the beaten path, read on for highlights of that spring day extravaganza.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

We began our day at Ferne Clyffe State Park on the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. Located about a mile outside the town of Goreville, this state park is smack dab between interstates 57 and 24, making it easily accessible for day-trippers.

(Fun fact: Goreville sat in the path of totality during the 2017 solar eclipse, and will be close to, if not in, the path of totality during another solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.)

Big Rocky Hollow Trail is a wide, level path that cuts through woods in a small canyon until it arrives at a short waterfall. A different trail branches off early on and follows the rising bluffs to the right. In early spring, bits of vegetation and hardy flowers pop up among boulders and under the tree canopy. Rock faces are covered in springy, bright green moss. Walking among those boulders was an otherworldly experience for us. To lengthen our hike, we followed the path partway up the bluff and then returned to follow the main trail to the waterfall and back.

Dixon Springs State Park

About 25 minutes southeast of Ferne Clyffe is Dixon Springs State Park. While it does have a few hiking trails, we stopped off to use the park’s picnic facilities.

The almost 800-acre site sits on a rock face and was used as a health spa in the 19th century because of the seven mineral springs onsite. The remnants of a small community remain, including at least two old church buildings perched atop a hill.

We ate lunch at a picnic table right next to a beautiful stream, and spent some time exploring the immediate area and soaking in the lovely spring air. We crossed a bridge overlooking one of the springs and walked up to the site of the old settlement. Because we had packed our day with destinations, we then moved on to make the most of it.

Golconda

We couldn’t come so close to the Ohio River, just ten miles from Dixon Springs, and not go take a look at it. So we turned left out of the park onto Illinois Route 146 and drove into Golconda, a historic river town with a population of 2,000.

Main Street was absolutely lined with motorcycles that day. We kept going and parked near the Pope County Historical Society, across from the courthouse, and proceeded up the levee steps to peek at the mighty Ohio River.

The Pope County Historical Society was also well worth a visit. Rooms upon rooms tell the story of Golconda and the surrounding area. You can see varied collections exhibiting Golconda’s history, learn about the Trail of Tears, and spy the high water mark from the 1937 flood.

One other notable stop for us was The Chocolate Factory, a gourmet chocolate shop that opened in 1977 and is located across from Dixon Springs State Park. We made sure to stop in and pick up some homemade fudge as we headed westward once again.

Heron Pond Natural Area

To cap off our day of wandering, we headed to Heron Pond Natural Area to see some natural cypress swamp. A lot of people probably don’t realize that southern Illinois has such a gem – it was definitely my first time hiking through a habitat like that.

Heron Pond is located less than 15 minutes south of Vienna. The parking lot was rather remote, and then it was a good half mile at least before reaching the boardwalk that enters the swamp. We followed a dirt path (the Todd Fink Heron Pond Trail) that bridged a creek and then followed it. Turtles sunning themselves on the opposite bank plunged into the water as we walked by.

If Ferne Clyffe felt surreal, this place was even more so. The ground and cypress roots were completely covered in water, which was in turn carpeted with duckweed. Centuries-old cypress trees rose out of the water and towered upward, competing for sky and sunlight exposure. It was the kind of place someone could get lost in time just experiencing the silence.

This year, we hope to complete another similar day trip, picking out places we haven’t been and enjoying the arrival of spring. I encourage you to get out, wherever you are, and do the same.

Know Before You Go

Ferne Clyffe State Park

90 Goreville Rd, Goreville, IL 62939

Dixon Springs State Park

982 IL-146, Golconda, IL 62938

Pope County Historical Museum

112 N. Columbus, Golconda, IL 62938

The Chocolate Factory

990 IL-146, Golconda, IL 62938

Heron Pond Natural Area

Heron Pond Ln, Belknap, IL 62908

 

 

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Hike #2: Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site

(This is the second post of my Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months series.)

February’s hike took me thirty minutes north of Springfield, Illinois, to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site. This little gem lies two miles immediately south of Petersburg, a community of around 2,300, that hugs the west side of the winding Sangamon River.

Before I go any further, I must add an unfortunate disclaimer that this post is rather rather lacking in photos. My camera died en route to this Springfield adventure, so I’m stuck with a few older photos showcasing a different New Salem trail in its full-fledged-summer-foliage glory.

The main attraction of New Salem is the historic village, a replica of the community that Abraham Lincoln spent time in during some of his formative years in the Springfield area. During warmer months, the village fills up with reenactors and educational events for families and children. The site is especially popular for school field trips – I should know, I’ve been there on one. On this particular day, though, my sisters and I were just looking for a good hike to stretch our legs.

We parked in the large lot up the hill from the main park entrance, in a spot furthest away from the visitor center. With my sister’s canine companion in tow, we started down a couple mile loop through the woods. It starts off downhill, crosses a creek, and begins a loop that varies greatly in elevation. It was a brisk day, but not too cold for a February late morning/early afternoon. The sunlight poured down on us.

After cresting a steep hill, my sister Becky showed us the Bale cemetery, a small family plot still intact from around the 1800s. The park has nicely preserved the space, fencing it off, keeping the monuments in good repair, and placing a sign that shares some of the history of the family at  rest there. We stopped a moment to read the headstones and admire the view – the cemetery sits atop a hill overlooking woods and the Sangamon River.

A short distance down the trail, we also walked by the remnants of a chimney and foundation of a small building, possibly an old home. It was hard to tell when exactly the building was originally built, but it had certainly languished over the years until all the materials except stone were gone. At any rate, it wasn’t identified by any marker or sign, so we explored it a bit and then moved on.

The trail came close to the park entrance and then began to loop back uphill. It was definitely a more brisk hike than the Shaw Nature Preserve. Although it had less variation in scenery, the cool sites we came across, like the cemetery and old foundation, made it an interesting hike nonetheless. It’s always nice to go for a walk in the woods, and a warmer than average February day is especially ideal, with the lack of bugs that might otherwise populate the trail.

Unfortunately, my younger sister and I had to take off after completing the hike, so there wasn’t time to explore another trail that day. However, there are several other paths to explore – one leads from near the visitor center down to a covered bridge that crosses Rt. 97/123. Another starts on the other side of the highway (closest to the river) and follows an abandoned road all the way to the river. On a visit last year, we saw a few snakes moving through the vegetation at the river’s edge. A network of other trails crisscrosses all throughout the park, making it an interesting place for repeat visits.

Come to learn about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, and stay for a hike or two – and while you’re at it, maybe even a bit of theater.

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 15588 History Ln, Petersburg, IL 62675

Hours: Hours/days of operation change seasonally – check out the park’s website for more information.

Admission: Free. There is a suggested donation of a few dollars to tour the historic village.

Facilities: The visitor center has restrooms, as well as the campground adjoining the park.

Trails: Several miles of trails crisscross the park – some up by the village, at least one across the road close to the Sangamon River, and others accessible nearby.

General Info: New Salem has a variety of offerings – the historic village, hiking trails, a campground, and a popular outdoor theater. It’s a beautiful place to visit, especially when all these activities are in full swing.

 

Approaching the Confluence: An Afternoon Near Alton

Itching for Adventure

For some time now, I’ve been getting the itch to do some more exploring outside of St. Louis. While the city and suburbs are interesting in their own right, something about my flatlands upbringing has forever engrained in me the desire to seek out open spaces and sweeping views. And my adventure last weekend quenchedeven if only brieflythat deep thirst.

Confluence of Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

On that Friday afternoon, I had mentioned to a coworker that I wanted to go eagle watching sometime. I asked if she knew of any local hotspots. In response, she told me all about a beautiful area just north of St. Louis where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers meet. My mind began racing with possibilities. By that evening, I had laid the tracks for a Saturday jaunt up U.S. Route 67 into the Alton, Illinois area, for a day of fun and exploration. And what a day it turned out to be!

Seeking Out the Confluence

The first objective of the day was to navigate our way to a small park on the Missouri side known asget ready, this is a mouthfulEdward “Ted” and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park. It’s located at the tip of a talon-shaped piece of land bordered by the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

From U.S. Route 67 just before the bridge into Alton, we hung a right, drove past one of the busiest looking gas stations in America, and continued past a visitor’s center and marshlands filled with migratory birds. Before the road took a sharp left, we turned right onto a bumpy, gravelly road that winds aimlessly for four miles before arriving at an equally gravelly parking lot. For all those concerned, there are restroom facilities available at this point. I’m sure some people would be thankful for them after the bumpy ride.

Confluence of Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

The weather was just favorable enough for the short walk through the treeline to reach the water. At this point, the wind seemed to converge from all directions, uninhibited by the open, frigid waters ferrying chunks of ice southward.

A dozen or so other brave souls were also out at the point. There were a few educational signs, an extremely tall pole commemorating the infamous flood of ’93, and a cement walkway that went further out to the edge of the water.

Sign from the Flood of '93

I ventured out to the very last rock connected to land and stared ahead. It was indeed a neat sight to see the slow-moving, albeit powerful currents of the two rivers colliding and merging into one.

Before we turned to head back to the cars, someone pointed out a lone eagle, soaring above the precise point of the confluence.

The Confluence of Two Great Rivers

Bar Food Extraordinaire at Fast Eddie’s Bon Air

After visiting the confluence, my stomach was growling for lunch. To remedy that, we headed into Alton to experience a local legend of a restaurant. Fast Eddie’s has been in existence since the 1920s, and since then it has expanded to seat nearly 400 people. (Be prepared for packed parking and to flash your ID at the door; patrons must be 21 to enter.)

Preparing Burgers at Fast Eddie's

I’m glad we were accompanied by people who had been there before. After you enter, you then need to snake your way behind a bar to join the end of the food line. Fast Eddie’s has a simple and inexpensive menu, and because of the simplicity, the line moves blessedly fast. You can grab a half-pound burger hot off the grill for $1.99. (Another tip: Come with cash, as that’s the only accepted payment method for food. ATMs are available, but you’ll likely get charged a fee for using them.)

The other half of the experience was finding somewhere to sit. The place was packed to the hilt with all kinds of people, which made for interesting people watching, but it complicated our efforts to find a table with four available chairs. We checked both the indoor and enclosed outdoor seating areas. We did end up finding a table and enjoyed tearing into our food and sharing in conversation.

Winding Down at Grafton Wineries

As the sun was setting, we followed Illinois Route 100, also called the Great River Road, north from Alton toward the smaller town of Grafton. The road tightly hugs the curves of the Mississippi to the left and gives way to the region’s rising bluffs on the right. The combination of scenery and sunset was spectacularly beautiful.

Sunset from Aerie's Winery

We reached our destination,  Aerie’s Winery, with enough light left to enjoy the view. The winery overlooks both Grafton and another confluence—of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Reaching it involved a steep ascent up several hills, but the view at the top was entirely worth it. It was the perfect place to relax, unwind, and enjoy some locally bottled wine.

Another Sunset View at Aerie's Winery

We also stopped by the Grafton Winery, which sits right off Main Street. The owner herself took care of our wine tasting and poured a sample of an item not even listed on the menu. She and her staff earned a lot of points in my book for their attentive service.

All in all, our experience in Grafton was the cherry on top of an exhilarating dayand that has only whetted my appetite further for exploring the area surrounding the Great River Road.

Know Before You Go

The following information was up-to-date as of the publication date of this blog post.

Fast Eddie’s Bon Air

Phone: 618-462-5532

Address: 1530 East 4th Street, Alton, IL 62002

Website: http://www.fasteddiesbonair.com/

 

Aerie’s Winery

Phone: 618-786-8439

Address: 800 Timber Ridge, Grafton, IL 62037

Website: http://www.aeriesview.com/winery/#aeries-winery

 

Grafton Winery and Brewhaus

Phone: 618-786-3001

Address: 300 West Main, Grafton, IL 62037

Website: http://thegraftonwinery.com/Winery-In-St.Louis/

Falling for Flour House Bakery & Coffee

Over Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to travel home (northern Illinois) to visit family and friends for an extended weekend. One friend in particular, Sarah, and I hadn’t seen each other in over a year. It was amazing that not only where we going to be in the same area at the same time, but we both had time in our schedules to hang out and catch up.

Now, one thing I’ve noticed is that when you’re planning to see old friends, the challenge always seems to be, ‘Where do we meet up?’

For us, Flour House Bakery & Coffee was the perfect answer. The year-old addition to Princeton’s downtown art district has attracted a lot of attention from the local community. I had also been there over the summer, and the atmosphere (and need I mention the coffee?) was just right—artsy, vintage, and fresh. My second visit did not disappoint, either.

Exterior of the Flour House Coffee & Bakery

The vibe of the Flour House starts from the exterior facade. The signage almost looks like dough-shaped letters strung together, just in a much more polished way. It sits atop a generously sized black-and-white awning that flaps in the breeze, almost beckoning passersby to come inside. Sarah and I were glad to escape from the late November chill that hung in the air.

Inside, we were greeted by the sight of whitewashed walls—built in bookshelves, actually—lined with an assortment of books, lamps, and other curated items. The place was bustling with people placing and collecting orders, and filled with the din of conversations rising up to the original tin ceiling.

The scent of cinnamon and coffee grounds mingled with that of the baked goods displayed behind the counter. For a small batch bakery, the Flour House offered a variety of options.

Fresh Baked Goods in the Flour House

As appetizing as everything looked (many of the names were also mouthwatering—hello Heath Bar Cheesecake!), I went for the tried and true bagel. These were also freshly baked, with four flavors to choose from. I ordered a plain one, with cinnamon spread on the side.

Bagel and Hot Chocolate from the Flour House

While I also ordered coffee, Sarah tried out some hot chocolate. And, as you can see from the above picture, it was topped with a rich foam. What a decadent treat!

We sat at one of the several small tables available and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the cozy bakery. It ended up being the perfect way to while away the morning after Thanksgiving. Instead of getting caught in throngs of frazzled deal hunters, we enjoyed the slowed pace of our hometown life.

This place is definitely on my list for a return visit. What is a hidden gem from your area?

Interior of Flour House Bakery & Coffee

Know Before You Go

Hours: Thursday – Monday: 7 am to 4 pm

Address: 950 North Main Street, Princeton, IL 61356

Website: http://www.princetonflourhouse.com/

They also post their daily menu on Facebook.

Night Lights

Christmastime is upon us.

One thing that means: lights. Lights, lights and more lights.

Christmas Lights In Downtown Princeton photo(48)

Princeton’s downtown is festively decorated this year, with rope lights outlining the humble skyline and adorning dormant trees. I drive through this scene almost nightly when going to and from work. I really wanted to get out and soak up the magic, and luckily for me, I have a friend for late night adventures like this.

Sarah and I explored the downtown area (legally) one night after I got off work, meeting there and walking along the shops with cameras in hand. Every time we meet up turns into a photo adventure in one way or another.

I have to hand it to the small business owners. They went all out in decorating mode with beautifully lit front window displays. The colored lights from trees reflected in our Christmas hungry eyes.

As a young child, my family used to go on “pajama runs” to see displays all over the county. As a young adult, this experience gazing at lit decorations in Princeton’s shopping district made the child in me very happy.

Christmas lights. There’s something about the twinkling, the colors, the big glass bulbs and small delicate strings, the lights that chase each other, the lights shining from living room windows facing the street.

It’s family, it’s magical, it’s Christmas encapsulated.