Illinois State Beach

Tuesday was one of those magical days where it seemed our whole family had the day together uninterrupted. These days don’t happen often, but when they do we try and take advantage of them. The heat and humidity seemed to be easing up a bit on us but it was still a hot and beautiful summer day. The perfect type of day to try a new beach. I have seen pictures of the Illinois State Beach online a few times and instantly became intrigued with all the smooth rocks that inhabited the beach.

The Illinois State Beach is a bit of a drive from Rockford, but nothing that we haven’t traveled on our adventures before. It is in Zion, Illinois which I heard advertised often on the radio in Chicago but never had a reason to go there. It’s far north from Chicago, close to the Illinois-Wisconsin state border.

ISB1

We got there at a great time in the early afternoon and found a small patch of beach that we were lucky enough to have all to ourselves for a while. When you walk from the parking lot towards the beach trail, you don’t feel like you are near a giant body of water. The area surrounding the beach is full of beautiful wildflowers and more trails that lead around different hiking paths in the park. We were warned by other park visitors about the rampant mosquitoes on the other trails, so we decided to play it safe and just enjoy the beach for the day.

It never ceases to take my breath away every time I see Lake Michigan. The sheer size of the lake just about knocks you down and demands you to relax. And that is what we were able to do during our time here. We decided to walk down to an area of the beach that was separated by the cement break walls from the main stretch of beach, mostly because we brought Kennedy with. We discovered during our short beach trail walk that dogs are not allowed onto the beach, the trails yes, but the beach no. Kennedy is a fan of swimming and used to spend hours at the Montrose Dog Beach during our summers in Chicago and I knew he would be heart broken if we didn’t let him put his dogs back in the lake.

ISB2

This beach is much different than the the stretch of beaches we have grown used to living in Chicago. It’s amazing how the same lake can have so many different personalities depending on where you view it from. The waves were large and beautiful here. The beach was full of beautifully broken and sun-bleached trees with wild roots reaching out from under the trunks. ISB3

After taking the dog for a stroll up our newly found stretch of land, it was time for rock collecting. The stones were so beautiful and smooth, each one unique. There wasn’t a lot of beach in this spot that was exclusively sand, so most of the time we were walking barefoot on the rocks. Luckily the edges have been smoothed down over time, so our feet didn’t suffer too much.

ISB9
Start to our rock pile.

During our time collecting rocks, a few other groups of people joined us on our little patch of beach. The waves were crashing onto the beach and the sun was hanging bright in the sky, it seemed prefect to try my hand at rock stacking, which is much trickier than I had anticipated.

ISB4

Kennedy had a difficult time battling the waves. He decided to keep a safe distance away from the shore and watch as his sister played in the waves and created nests out of the sand.ISB5After spending some time building, digging, and creating with the rocks, sand, and sticks we decided it was time to take a break and have some lunch. To make up for the cost of gas for our trips, we always pack a lunch and plenty of snacks . Four year olds always seem hungry and me being 5 months pregnant means plenty of snack breaks! After our lunch, we decided to check out the main beach even though we have Kennedy with us. Finn was done swimming and excited about our latest idea: creating our own rock collection. The main beach had much more sand than the part we were at and also seemed to go on for miles. We walked north up the shoreline and started our hunt for a few unique rocks to have at home for building and other projects.

ISB6

On our walk we found more sun-bleached trees and a few other interesting things. Some sand had been dyed by the rusty metal that lie in piles next to the trees.

ISB7

On our way back towards our car we decided to explore a little bit away from the water and found some sparkley rocks that Finn said were made from glitter.

ISB8

After a relaxing stay at the beach and some successful rock collecting, it was time to head back to the car and make the journey back to our town. This beach was worth the trip and will be one for us to visit in the future. The waters of Lake Michigan have never looked so clear, colorful, and inviting. The next time we make the trip to the Illinois State Beach will be in a cooler season and to explore some of the many trails.

Matthiessen State Park

If you live in the Midwest, I bet your are in the middle of experiencing our first heat wave in four years. It’s muggy and hot here, making it almost unbearable to go outside for any activity. Luckily, we narrowly missed the heat by just one day and were able to experience one of our best hikes to date.

Matthiessen State Park is near the Illinois River in a small town called North Utica, IL and just a few miles away from the more famous Starved Rock State Park. I have been to Starved Rock before, and even though the park is very beautiful, there are so many people traveling along the paths that it makes it a bit difficult to stop and enjoy your surroundings.

Matthiessen is off of I39 and roughly 74 miles south of Rockford and 96 miles from Chicago (thanks Google Maps!), and will take you through the cute little downtown area of Utica. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Google Maps, but sometimes it can lead you a bit astray. Turns out the bridge to get to the main parking area was out. So we decided to try and go around to the other side, but no luck. Luckily there was a nice local gentleman that pointed us in the right direction. Using the map but without the GPS we decided to take the small unpaved road that took us through a golf course and some lovely country club style homes. It might have taken us an extra 20-30 minutes, but hey, it’s all part of the journey.

lake
Lake and bridge overlooking the waterfall. I’m afraid of heights, so Reese is laughing at me panicking while he holds Finn over to look and I try and take a picture.

There is a wooden staircase to the right of the bridge that takes you down to the path to the waterfall and gorge. We decided not to walk down there right away and wanted to hike around the paths first, but by doing this we also skipped the park map that told us where the trails were, but again, part of the journey. When you go straight on the bridge, it takes you down a paved path lined with beautiful tall trees. It felt a little surreal, maybe because it is a paved path in a forest in the middle of nowhere.

pavedpath

While walking down the paved path, we only encountered three other groups of hikers, which seemed to be the theme of the day. Not a whole lot of foot traffic, not sure if it was because of the bridge being out or because the weather but the park seemed empty at times. Which is pretty strange when you are walking in the woods and you don’t hear many sounds and see a lot of restricted hunting signs.

After a while, we finally came to our first park map and we picked our course through the forest. We decided to take the long way which would give us the full view of the park and also bring us to two gorges that we could explore. Right near the map, the trail is no longer paved and there is a pretty creek that leads through a little stone arch and a small waterfall into a larger creek.

smallcreek
Small creek.

The path is a little on the difficult side, on the right side there is a drop off that leads down to the gorge area. Along the way there are multiple signs that urge hikers not to try and hike down, its steep and muddy and I’m sure full of lovely poisonous plants and large spiders. During some parts of our trip, you can hear the sounds of people yelling from the waterfalls and pool areas below. Another thing we noticed while we walked is that there was a lot of garbage thrown into the woods. Garbage and clothes. Somewhere, there are a few naked people running around or people missing various shoe and or sock items. If you decide to explore this park, I would highly recommend sandals with straps or even, hate to say it, Crocs. Your shoes will not make the journey, they WILL get wet and muddy. Especially if you want to go down to the waterfalls. There are no real paths there and you have to hike through the creek.

treespath
Path. To the right is the lovely drop off.
treeboy
To add to the sort of eerie vibe of the day, there is a boy in the tree.
creekexplore
The explorer in me wanted to keep following the creek, but the hunting signs told me probably not.

At the end of the trail, it begins to curve around and head back towards the lake. On the map, the part is labeled with a big rock called “Strawberry Rock”. We took a few pictures here but we were having issues with the lighting. Very grey plus shady trees equals not the best picture taking. The path begins to go back uphill, which is slippery with mud and then meets a wooden staircase. Around here we ran into a few people without shoes wearing swimsuits or missing various items of clothing. No one actually naked though, which was nice. We also started to understand where all the mystery clothing items must have come from.

It took us sometime to get from Strawberry Rock back to the bridge where there is a staircase that takes you down into the gorge. There are a lot of stairs. Being 5 months pregnant tends to slow you down a little and I can tell you that I was more than happy to find the park map and nice little bench to rest on. While resting we also got to talk with an owl hooting from nearby trees. An awesome experience for both us and Finn, it’s not everyday you get to hear an owl!gorgpathWe found the staircase that lead us down to the “path” of the gorge. When we got around here we started to see more people, including a high school football team taking their senior pictures at the waterfall. As you can see, there is literally NO path to walk through that isn’t muddy or in water.

creekwalk

I cannot get over how much of an awesome experience this was. It might seem a little treacherous with a little one and pregnant woman but it’s important for children to get this experience. It helps them understand how they relate to the world around them and how to use their gross and fine motor skills. The creek is rocky and slippery so watch your footing!

tree1
I love this tree. The roots are so amazing.

stonepath

There is another set of rock steps that bring you to another staircase. The water here was much deeper than the other parts of the creek so if your interested in a swim, here is you spot! There is

IMG_7574
Stone jumping.

After a few more feet wading in the creek water, we finally made it to our destination: the waterfall from the beginning of our walk near the lake. Luckily for us, there was a staircase that goes right back up to the parking lot and bathrooms where we began. By the way, these bathrooms were scary! But, when you gotta go, you gotta go.

waterfall
Along the way, our camera got a little wet so we put it away before the waterfall and used our phones to snap a few pictures in front of the waterfall. Check out my Instagram to see more! *note, check out our hiking Hello Kitty bag!

Pros:

  • Challenging paths to explore
  • Amazing views
  • Multiple connecting paths
  • Walking through a creek
  • Great opportunities to cool off!
  • Incredibly photogenic area with A LOT to see.

Cons

  • Litter- there weren’t any garbage cans at any point during this trip except right were we parked. It didn’t ruin the experience, just noticeable.
  • Not easily accessible. There are muddy and difficult paths to walk on plus multiple stairs leading to trails throughout the park. So if you have a hard time getting around be careful.

Bonus picture!

giantmilipede
I love these guys! They feel like phone cords and have the sweetest faces.

Hiking: Colored Sands Forest Preserve

If you read my last post about nature feeling off balance and the need for a storm, things haven’t changed here. Since Saturday we have had the warnings of potential severe storms but they either go around us or dry up before they make it. Today’s weather was much the same as the other days this week. 82 degrees but 97 degrees with the lovely humidity. I know for some that weather is like nothing, but for here it isn’t fun.

Today is Wednesday. Wednesdays we wear pink. Just kidding. This is the day of the week that our family gets out and goes hiking, no matter what the weather is. I am currently four and a half months pregnant with our second child and I still love to get out and explore. Part of my parenting and life philosophy is to be outdoors as much as possible and to try and connect with my surroundings. It might sounds cheesy, but there have been studies that link the effectiveness of being outdoors in the fight against depression.

I’m getting away from myself here. So despite the weather, we set out to find a new park to explore. When we travel up to Madison, WI, I like to take the back ways. I90 between Rockford and Madison gets pretty crazy and people drive like they are in an installment of the Fast and Furious franchise. The backroads to me are much more relaxing and more scenic, plus if it only adds another 20 minutes onto a trip, why not?

On the way we always pass a forest preserve and I’ve always wanted to check it out. Today we decided to take our small journey to the Colored Sand Forest Preserve in Rockton, Illinois. When we pulled up, there wasn’t anyone in the parking lot. Not always a bad thing, means that you have the park and the paths to yourself! Now we didn’t know anything about this park when we arrived, just that its not too far from where we live.

Colored Sands Forest Preserve does bird banding! Which, after reading about it from the signs in the park, means that they trap the small birds that live in the area, place tracking bands on them, and track their migration patterns and learn more about native species. Sand Bluff Bird Observatory is there and open on the weekends so you can learn all about what they do in the area. On the path, there were signs warning visitors about the nets that were up and what to do when you find them (turn around because they are doing work).

IMG_7444
Outside the trail. Bird observatory.

The path begins as a beautiful prairie walk with beautiful tall wildflowers and prairie grasses following the trail. The trail was quiet with the exception of many different bird species inhabiting the forest around the prairie. We didn’t see the river, although there is one nearby, but the mosquitos were horrible. Normally I don’t get bothered too much by them, don’t know if it was my fancy pregnant blood or what but they were eating us alive! We continued to walk along the path, hoping to get some relief from the mosquitos and sun, but could only make it to the half mile marker and needed to turn back around. If you like an easier path, this one may be fore you, but I would suggest in the early spring or fall when the risk of mosquitos is lower. The river has a slower pulse to it and tends to pool in places, leading to a lot of little blood suckers! There is a canoe docking area, a little mucky but it’s there.

IMG_7440
Colored Sands Forest Preserve
IMG_7442
Wildflowers: Cone-flower (fore ground) and Bachelor’s Buttons.
IMG_7443
Wildflowers: Black-eyed Susan and Bachelor’s Buttons.

Pros:

  • Wildflowers and prairie restoration.
  • Abundance of birds, perfect for bird lovers or watchers!
  • Abundance of butterflies and interesting insects.
  • Clean bathrooms! (yes!)

Cons

  • Abundance of hungry bugs!
  • Not a lot of variety in terrain.
IMG_7445
Here is Reese. Posing with the lovely bathrooms.

Hiking in Mount Morris

 

 

On our latest hiking trip brought us to White Pines Forest State Park in Mount Morris, IL which is near Byron, IL. (If you are in the area and know where the Nuclear Power Plants are then you have a pretty good idea of where this is!) The park is very beautiful and covered with tall pines, wild flowers and a creek that winds its way through the park.

When you first drive into the park, the road forks into two different directions. One leads you to the cabin and restaurant area and the other leads to the parking and hiking area. I haven’t eaten at the restaurant, when we go hiking we pack snacks and a lunch (depending on how long we will be out) but I read really great reviews if you are into that sort of thing.

IMG_7371
Looking over the rail to the creek.

One of the neatest things about this park is the fords. The creek is a main focal point of this park and instead of making bridges or damming the creek, they created fords! The day we went, there was a storm the night before so the fords were closed, but thats okay because we were in an exploring mood and took the foot bridges. Don’t attempt to cross over the fords with you feet, they are very slippery and i wouldn’t imagine it to be a fun fall.

IMG_7372
One last bridge to the hiking trail. Born explorer.

The first hiking path that we came across after the two foot bridges was the Sleepy Hollow path. It was orange, marked hard, so we decided to try it! Below are some photos of our journey. To date, this is my favorite hiking path. Difficult inclines, stairs, tree roots, rocks, and crossing over the creek three times. Its beautiful, peaceful, and a must do for any hiker! It’s also worth noting that we didn’t have any problems with mosquitos while walking through this park. There were times where we were not moving and just taking in the beauty of our surroundings. We made it out bite free.

IMG_7375
Hike up to the trail.
IMG_7378
Tree roots and skinny walking path.
IMG_7393
One of the three stone bridges to cross over the creek.

Throughout the walk, you will see wonderful limestone and rock carved walls with moss and other foliage growing out from it.

IMG_7382
Steep and winding staircase down to the trail.

Pros

  • Challenging
  • Scenic
  • Wildlife
  • Creek
  • Multiple terrains

Cons

  • Narrow trails, difficult for others to pass
  • Can be hard for some hikers due to uneven trails