As far as state parks go, Starved Rock is tall. Something to be said in a flat, corn-centric state like Illinois. But from its massive Cottonwoods and Oaks that first greet you, to its grand views of the Illinois River, its serpentine boardwalks to the bluffs, its waterfalls, and even its soaring eagles, everything points to the sky.
And as every outdoors-person knows, sky elevates you. I’ve travelled to Starved Rock State Park near Utica a good half dozen times and I must say this is no generic State Park. It never takes a season off. Winter often tops Summer.
Even before you get here though, the first thing you are confronted with is the name. Save a little time to read the boards at the Park, but yes, legend says people did starve on that rock. Around 1790, the Pottawatomie tribe took revenge on another tribe, leaving them to their prolonged death. Nothing like a little retribution or brutality to start your hike, eh?
Here, you are following in the footsteps of Native Americans, Joliet, Marquette, Civilian Conservation Corpsmen, boy scouts, geologists, botanists, fur traders and rivermen. Adventure steps over history at every bend. With names like Eagle Cliff and Wild Cat Canyon, it’s wild enough. But it’s accessible enough, too.
On the 13 miles of trails, I’ve:
fished for Saugers.
cooled off next to waterfalls.
warmed up next to monumental stone fireplaces.
smelled the piney dust of depression-era cabins.
eaten ice cream where a thousand boy scouts took camp for decades.
seen white-tail deer, raccoons, pelicans, wood ducks, and pileated woodpeckers.
relished the smiling faces of grandmother hikers.
And even with all that, my favorite day was yet to come.
In January of 2018, I hiked over the snowy boardwalks on a sharp, frosty morning. Icefalls hung tightly to the canyons. I shared the trails with ice climbers and bundled school kids. But above all, I saw the eagles – 20 at least. All either stately posing in the river trees or swooping near Lock 7 Dam in front of the Visitor Center.
As one mature white-headed bird chased a sooty immature with a freshly caught fish in its talons, they both cut the air like a F-16 directly over my head – close, unaware, untethered.
The sound alone pierced and startled at the same time.
You could only look up and be amazed.
Starved Rock State Park, Northern Illinois’ #1 tourist attraction, is open every day of the year. To get there from Naperville, go West on Interstate 80 to the Utica 178 exit. Head south through town and over the Illinois River Bridge. The tall Cottonwoods will welcome you.