Scientists determined last year that Illinois is the second flattest state in the United States. Florida is the flattest. But before you go throwing them a pity party, let’s not forget that Florida has the ocean and lots of coastline to go with it. It has the Everglades and the Keys. It has alligators and manatees. So, flat? Yes. Devoid of interesting and pretty nature-y things? Hardly.
In Illinois, on the other hand, we’ll accept your pity readily. Not only are we so very flat, but we also tolerate superlatively meager natural wonders. Of the state’s nearly 58,000 square miles, only 430 or so are set aside for public use (and state parks, forests, and conservation areas). That’s less than one percent.
So what can we count among Illinois’ natural treasures? There are a few things. For one, we can claim a tiny stretch of Lake Michigan as our own. But if you are looking to escape to the wilderness, then the populated shoreline hardly counts.
A 5- or 6-hour drive with a steady view of corn and soy would bring us to the state’s southern tip, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge. There we’d find some lovely rocky bluffs and rolling hills and the only significant splotches of green on the map. But it’s not quite enough to draw people from the Chicago metropolitan area, where over 75% of Illinoisans live.
For those of us who grew up in or around Chicago–that is to say, most Illinoisans—Starved Rock State Park is going to be the place that springs to mind when asked about Illinois’ great outdoors. Less than 2 hours from the city, it’s an easy choice when in need of some fresh air and topographic variety. According to the park’s lodge, the place is Illinois’ number-one attraction. (Though they don’t say according to whom.)
This past weekend was my first visit in the winter. In truth, it was my first visit at all since childhood. And for a moment, I will stop turning up my nose at my plain state (pun completely intended and I’m not sorry) and admit that I had a nice time.
Lover’s Leap Overlook
The park is a series of sandstone bluffs and glacial canyons that hug a few miles of the Illinois River.
Looking down on the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff Overlook
Waterfalls can form in all of the 18 canyons in the spring, and a series of well-marked trails allow for easy access for hikers of any skill level.
In winter many of the waterfalls freeze, and hikers can slip and slide right up to their bases, and in some cases, walk behind them. Ice climbers set up at a couple of the taller falls, as well.
Eagles migrate through the area in winter, as well, so there’s a good chance of spotting them from the top of Starved Rock, a tall bluff on the river.
So yeah, it’s a pretty nice place in our very flat state. I admit it.
If you go, walking poles or Yaktrax will provide balance and traction on snow-packed trails. Dress warmly and sneak your sack lunch into the lodge. (They don’t allow outside food because they want to you buy from their overpriced and underdelicious restaurant.) Be sure to check out French Canyon, a short hike from the visitor center. For a shorter trip to LaSalle Canyon, park at Parkman’s Plain, an unsigned lot across from the Old Style sign on Route 71, a few miles east of the main entrance.
[In today’s post, Go Go Go’s New York correspondent Leslie Griffin goes solo and likes it.]
I’ve always enjoyed a little solo getaway, and sometimes circumstances require it as when your significant other is out of vacation days, and you have some left. This was the situation I found myself in recently, so after doing some research, I decided to go to Amelia Island in Florida for a long weekend.
As the trip neared, the forecast looked rather dismal. It had been raining pretty much nonstop for weeks, so I was prepared to find things to do inside if need be (tough on an island that’s known for outdoor pursuits). As luck would have it, however, the weather took a dramatic turn for the better on the very day I arrived, and remained gorgeous for the three days I was there: sunny, upper 70s, and not humid or buggy—a rarity in Florida.
I landed in Jacksonville on the first Saturday in October, picked up my rental car, and drove the 30 minutes to the island. Though it is an island, the bridge to get there is very short, so it almost feels connected to the mainland. And at first, the scenery is not what you might consider islandy. In fact, it looks like Anytown, USA with strip malls, fast food places, and gas stations. But then you arrive in Fernandina Beach, the main (only?) town on the island, and everything changes. Suddenly, you have entered a beautiful historic area with lovely Victorian houses and a quaint downtown.
Lesesne House, c. 1860, downtown Fernandina Beach
This is definitely the area you want to stay in if you visit the island, because it’s within walking distance of dozens of restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s also extremely easy to navigate because all the streets are numbered. Coming from me, this is saying something because as anyone who knows me knows, nothing is easy for me to navigate since I have the world’s worst sense of direction.
Downtown Fernandina Beach
It was too early to check into the Hampton Inn on S. 2nd Street, so I walked to Timoti’s Seafood Shak for lunch. I had read great things about this place before the trip, and was not disappointed. In fact, it was so good that I ate lunch there two days in a row. All of the seafood is fresh, local, and delicious, and I can heartily recommend the shrimp wrap and the fish sandwich (made with flounder that day).
After checking in at the hotel, I immediately set off for the southern end of the island about 12 miles away to go to Amelia Island State Park, which is one of many beaches on the island. Although this beach is primarily known for horseback riding, I didn’t see any horses. Mostly there were people fishing from the beach. The downside to this is that you’re allowed to drive onto the sand, so there were a lot of trucks everywhere. Not such a pristine atmosphere. It wasn’t until I walked quite a ways down the beach and reached a “no vehicles beyond this point” sign that it started to feel more secluded and peaceful. This section was filled with brown pelicans, black skimmers, gulls, and various other shorebirds.
Black skimmers at Amelia Island State Park
Done with the beach, I headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at Le Clos, a charming French restaurant across the street from the Hampton Inn. I had made a reservation about a week in advance, which I certainly advise. It’s quite popular and for good reason: This is about as close to a 5-star meal as you will get on the island. I had panko-crusted grouper for an entree and creme brulee for dessert, both of which were phenomenal.
On Sunday, I had a kayaking trip booked with Up the Creek Xpeditions, which was a few miles off the island on Lofton Creek. When I showed up at the boat dock, I met Pete, my guide, and learned that it would just be the two of us on the tour since the others who had reserved for that day had canceled. I’ve kayaked before, but not extensively, so he gave me a short tutorial, and off we went. Lofton Creek is what’s known as a blackwater creek, meaning the water appears to be black and is highly reflective. It’s also extremely calm, which makes paddling about as easy as it can be.
Kayaking on Lofton Creek (Pete takes photos of the people he guides and e-mails the photos to you!)
Unfortunately, the water level was higher than normal that day, which seemed to deter animals from being out and about. We saw some turtles, a couple of kingfishers swooping across the water, and a giant hornet nest, but that was about it. It was still a lovely trip, though.
Pete provided a wealth of information on the flora and fauna as well as the history of the area. Did you know that the Native Americans used pine needle tea to help rid European sailors of scurvy? Or that on a visit to the area, Henry Ford noticed that the inside of Spanish moss looks like horsehair, so he began using it to stuff the seats of his cars? Neither did I, until Pete told me.
We finished the paddling trip in a little more than two hours, at which point I was ready to continue exploring. I drove to the northern end of Amelia Island to another state park: Fort Clinch. As the name suggests, the main point of interest in this park is the Civil War-era fort. Tourist season on the island is largely over by October, so there were only a handful of people roaming around the fort. Almost all of it is open, and you can freely wander in and out of various bastions, barracks, and other rooms.
From the top of any of the bastions, there are unobstructed views of the beach and the ocean.
View from the top of a bastion
In addition to the fort, this park also has a beach, and this one doesn’t allow vehicles on it. I walked along there for a while hunting specifically for shark teeth, which are supposed to be easier to find on the northern end of the island. I only found a couple, but the search is always fun. There weren’t as many shorebirds on this beach, but there were quite a few ospreys.
Osprey with a snack in its talons
Monday was my last day on the island, and I was determined to see more wildlife, so I headed to the Egans Creek Greenway, which is a series of interconnected trails that runs along a creek. There are numerous access points, but I opted to start at Atlantic Avenue on the northern end and work my way down. From this direction, the first section of trails up to Jasmine Street goes through a large wetland area with open marsh that is ideal for spotting wading birds.
Egans Creek Greenway
I saw egrets, great blue herons, white ibis, roseate spoonbills, hawks, and ospreys.
Great white egret with white ibises
After Jasmine Street, the wetland disappears and the trail hugs the creek. Trees line the bank, making it harder to see beyond that. Though the wading birds weren’t as prevalent here, I did see a couple of alligators, rabbits, dozens of turtles, a kingfisher, and a gorgeous pileated woodpecker.
I saw very few people on either section of the greenway, and the ones I did see were clearly locals walking their dogs and the like. I was the only person with a camera and binoculars in tow.
For lunch that day, I ate at the Salty Pelican in downtown Fernandina Beach, which had surprisingly great shrimp tacos. Despite being full, my final stop before heading to the airport was a roadside stand selling boiled peanuts. If you’re not familiar with this particular regional snack, it’s common in Florida and Georgia. A lot of people hate them (too mushy, too salty, or both), but I have very fond memories of eating them during car trips when I lived in Florida as a kid. So, I was pretty excited to relive that experience. For four bucks, I got a giant bag of hot, salty peanuts dripping with salt water, which I then devoured in a parking lot. I forgot how messy they are, but they still tasted great. A lovely parting memory before returning to New York.