Last weekend, Paul and I and hiking buddy R decided to make a short day trip out to Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby, IL. The main purpose of the trip (aside from burning off some of the Christmas cookies) was to scout the park to see if it’d be a good place to start introducing my nieces, currently ages 3 and 5, to hiking.

Since we were driving right past Chicago on a Sunday morning, we thought it’d be foolish to not stop in Chinatown and get some high-quality dim sum:


When we first arrived, we found that the flooding in Missouri had not been isolated; the Illinois river had jumped its banks and covered most of the park.


Judging by the online map, my initial thought was that the nice little loop to the west of the main lodge would be a good starter trip for the kids. It was indeed a scenic trip, past several small but beautiful canyons, and ending in the spectacular St. Louis Canyon, all bedecked with ice:


But there were about a thousand stairs to get there, far too many for little legs. Nobody wants to lug a wailing toddler up the equivalent of 20 flights of stairs. The middle section from Lovers’ Leap to Wildcat Canyon was pleasant enough, following along the Illinois river and past another beautiful waterfall, but the trek back up to the bluff trail involved another monster staircase, and by the time we got to the top we were all sure we’d made short work of all the shumai and taro puffs we’d devoured that morning.

At this point we only had a few hours of daylight left, so we hiked back to the parking lot and drove out to the easternmost set of trails: Ottawa Canyon, Kaskaskia Canyon, and Illinois Canyon. We were not disappointed:


Now this was more like it. Far away from the bustle of the main lodge, with the cold and distance keeping most of the other hikers at bay, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Here we got to take our time fording the little creeks and admiring the myriad ice structures:


The creek ice amazed us with its odd geometry. Spikes, needles, planes, odd rhomboid holes the size of a silver dollar.


But the neatest structures weren’t the chandeliers of icicles or the beautiful fractal shelf ice, it was these wonderfully weird ice spheres:


We saw them in several places in the park: perfectly smooth, usually perfectly clear, formed by water dripping down from the heights above. They looked like carpets of huge frog eggs.


The waterfall in Ottawa Canyon is enormous, and we only had to compete with one other person for its full attention, so we spent a lot of time there. I’m grateful to have friends and a husband who think dorking around taking pictures of ice in a canyon in 30F weather constitutes fun.


The best part about this section is that there are no stairs at all, and the hike back to Ottawa Canyon is maybe only half to three-quarters of a mile, and there’s interesting stuff to look at and climb on the whole way.


These sandstone cliffs look oddly like the sea caves we saw at Pictured Rocks this summer. I wonder if this whole area was submerged by the river at one point.


After leaving Ottawa Canyon, we had just enough time left to check out Kaskaskia Canyon, and it was equally good. A short hike brought us to this gorgeous place:


Again, no stairs, no obstacles, just a shallow stream and plenty of logs to jump over. The nieces are gonna love it here.


Darkness was encroaching fast, so we didn’t make it to Illinois Canyon. Ah well, all the more reason for us to come back.

This was a really fantastic trip. We started from Kalamazoo at 7am, dallied in Chicago for a delicious breakfast, spent a full five hours hiking around, ate dinner in Joliet and still made it home by 11pm. If you’re in the mood for a great outdoors roadtrip this winter, wait for a break in the weather and give Starved Rock a try. I can’t wait to bring the nieces back here in the springtime and see the whole place turning green.