Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Illinois, Part 2: Starved Rock and Galena

There’s no doubt that Chicago is the main attraction in Illinois. Its cultural and architectural contributions are on a world-class level, and its big shoulders stand in sharp contrast to the sparsity and anonymity of the rest of the state. Fortunately, during my twelve years as an Illinoisan, I have found a few other places in Illinois that are great spots to visit in their own right. 

Starved Rock

Illinois is remarkably flat. Its idle topography leads to weak calves, and facilitates a lot of bike paths. However, there's one area of the state that stands out in comparison, both literally and figuratively. Starved Rock is an Illinois State Park, and its remarkable hills have provided Illinois residents with a change in altitude since it was established in 1912. 

Mrs. Tires and I first visited Starved Rock during a weekend getaway in 2006, and we followed that up with a one-day visit on Memorial Day weekend in 2015. Both visits started with a trip to the visitor center parking lot, which doubles as the launching point for the park's most popular trails. Most of the hikes in this vicinity are fairly easy. There's some uphill climbing involved, but that's typically facilitated by well-maintained stairs. Some of the trails lead to top-of-the-world-type views, such as those found on the Lover’s Leap Trail and the Starved Rock Trail. 

Other trails in the vicinity take hikers along the banks of the Illinois River, where birds, frogs and the occasional bald eagle show up to say hello. These trails often lead to various canyons, some of which feature their own waterfalls. The falls aren't particularly impressive, but the patterns displayed in the canyon formations are aesthetically pleasing, and the canyon visits are gratifying. 

Our favorite trail in Starved Rock is the Illinois Canyon Trail, which sits on the outskirts of the park. The trail brings visitors down a huge canyon, and the formations that flank the trail make for a unique hiking experience. There are several river crossings to navigate along the way, which add an element of adventure to the hike. There’s also a secret at the end.

When we first set out on this hike, we were struck by how secluded it felt. The canyon walls on either side and the thick collection of tall trees along the trail made an enclosure that was a bit creepy at first, but quickly became peaceful and relaxing. The tree covering also protected us from the heat. 

As we ventured further in, we noticed just how huge the canyon walls really were. Here's a shot of me taking them in during our first visit. 

And here's me taking in the same view when we hiked the trail again in 2015. 

As we continued on, we came across the first of three river crossings. Finding our way across took a bit of skill and some strategic planning. We made frequent use of the logs, barrels and rocks in the river to get to the other side. We got wet a few times while performing these maneuvers, but the process added an extra layer of fun to the hike. 

Trees and shrubs appeared in various forms as the trail continued. 

The trail ended at a pool that offered some finality and made for a nice photo opportunity despite the murky water. 

While this was technically the end of the trail, our journey didn't stop there. We got a tip from a local that there was a secret swimming hole on the other side of the canyon.

Here's how to get to the swimming hole, dear reader, in case you ever take this hike. Face the murky water, walk to the canyon wall on the left, and then turn around so the water is behind you. You'll notice a worn down trail that goes uphill along the canyon wall. You see the sign that says "Do Not Enter?" That's where you enter. 

From there, a five minute hike brings you past a series of interlocking pools that feed into the water at the bottom of the canyon. One of these pools is the swimming hole. 

We were skeptical when we set out to find the secret pool. However, our concerns were assuaged when we got there and saw a couple of families swimming and lounging. We joined them and enjoyed the cool water and the seclusion. 

Some of the kids there were climbing up the cliff behind the pool and jumping off and into the water. Who were we to buck the local customs? Mrs. Tires got gutsy and went first, pulling off a majestic leap and splashing into the water.

I followed suit and took the plunge.

We stayed there for a couple of hours before making the trek back. The hike and the swimming hole ended up being the highlights of our first visit. Mrs. Tires was a bit too pregnant to make it to the swimming hole during our second trip, but we thoroughly enjoyed the trail nonetheless. 

One more adventure in the vicinity of Starved Rock awaited us during our inaugural visit. We brought our bicycles with us so we could bike down the Illinois and Michigan Canal, a nature trail and bike path with an entrance just outside Starved Rock. The path was well-manicured, wide, and easy to navigate, and we were the only ones on the trail for most of the day. It was a welcome change from the crowded, narrow bike paths in Chicago we were used to. I almost ran over a snake that was lounging in the path (I HATE snakes), and we were forced into a conversation with an angry homeless man at one of the stop-offs along the trail, but other than those unfortunate occurrences, we had a wonderful ride. 

In Illinois, we’re a bit...ehem...starved for nature destinations. Thankfully Starved Rock is there to satisfy that hunger.


Galena is the definition of Midwestern quaint. Its main street makes one feel they’ve been transported back to a simpler time, and the surrounding area offers such fanciful activities as horseback riding and cross-country skiing. Mrs. Tires and I spent a weekend in Galena in 2011, and we found it to be a wonderful getaway spot that allowed us to unwind, get some fresh air and explore. 

We left Chicago after work on a Friday and got to the Eagle Ridge Resort in Galena about three and a half hours later. The resort was rustic and expansive, sitting on several acres of open land. It made for a wonderful home away from home.

We arrived in time to catch some of the “entertainment” in the on-site bar Friday night. I put entertainment in quotes because the “live band” the events calendar advertised was made up of a small asian man behind a keyboard singing cover songs…poorly. We shared a couple of drinks and laughed about the situation before calling it a night. 

Our agenda for our only full day in Galena involved taking advantage of the outdoor winter activities the resort offered. Sledding, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and ice skating were part of their winter hotel package, and we were interested in all of the above. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of a rare mild winter, so the pond wasn't frozen and there was no snow. That foiled our winter wonderland-inspired plans. The resort also offered a network of hiking trails, so we set out to have an outdoor adventure that way instead.

The trails were easy to navigate, but winter had stripped the grounds of much of its natural beauty, and without snow to compensate, the surroundings looked sparse and a bit depressing. Additionally, winter seemed to be taking hold in earnest that weekend, so it was also very cold. We wandered the trails for a bit, but ended up cutting our hike short.

With our outdoor adventure plans dashed, we went for plan C, a venture into the town of Galena to stir up whatever fun we could. 

Plan C ended up being a great one, as the town was charming and it offered many interesting stops on the appropriately-named Main Street. We started on one end of the street and wandered around, checking out whatever took our fancy. Our first stop was in a small sushi bar, where we split some delicious rolls and got a kick out of their demonic men's bathroom sign.

From there we spent some time in a funky kitchen decor shop, a dive bar, a winery, a book store, a coffee shop, an art gallery, and a few more stores and establishments. We were thoroughly entertained by the items we found along the way, and it was quite freeing to just wander the town without a plan or destination in mind. 

The Galena Brewing Company was one of our favorite stops along the way. They had some excellent dark beers - my favorite. We hung out at the brewery for a while and bought a couple of growlers to bring home.

It was a good thing we liked the brewery so much, as it was also our destination for the evening. I had checked out the musician performing that night when I was planning the trip and knew he was pretty good. We returned to the brewery in time for dinner and the show, and it did not disappoint. The food was tasty and the musician was fantastic. His song selections were spot on, and he was a great performer. I wish I could remember his name. We rocked out hard during his first set, and we scored seats on the brewery's comfy leather couch for set number two.  

The musician inspired us that night, so when he left the stage, we headed to a nearby karaoke bar. The list of singers at the bar was pretty sparse, so we were up as soon as the one person ahead of us sang her tune. Mrs. Tires rocked Plush by Stone Temple Pilots, and I followed that up with Blind Melon’s No Rain. Our singing brought the house down, with many people cheering and whooping it up after our performances. We could have sung all night, but instead we followed the old performance adage and left them wanting more. After accepting a couple of high fives from the bar patrons, we bouncing out and let that be the cap to our evening. 

We checked out of the resort the next morning, but we had one more stop on the docket before we left Galena - the alpaca farm that’s part of the Galena Log Cabin Getaway. The generous owners of this establishment invite people to visit their alpacas at any time of day. We gladly took advantage of the offer that Sunday. 

Alpacas are strange looking creatures that are quite friendly. We hung out with them for a while, and were amused by their odd appearance and strange sounds. They ate grass from our hands, and we were mildly successful in conversing with them by mimicking their calls.

They seemed to take a liking to me, probably because we have the same hair style. 

After a half an hour or so, we said goodbye to the alpacas, and to Galena. It was a delightful visit, and we will definitely go back.

As much as I love Chicago, I do feel the need to get away from time to time. Between Starved Rock and Galena, Illinois offers some great options to do just that.

Must See in Illinois:
  • The Illinois Canyon Trail (Starved Rock)
  • Main Street (Galena)

Check It Out:
  • Eagle Ridge Resort (Galena)
  • The Alpaca Farm at Galena Log Cabin Getaway (Galena)
  • Lovers Leap and the Starved Rock Trail (Starved Rock)

The "Next Time" List: 
  • Metropolis

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