Looking to set off on a family hike? Starved Rock State Park in Utica, situated on the southern bank of the Illinois River, is the perfect spot for both experienced and first-time hikers, including those with babies and small kids.
We set off on a hiking trip with our 9-month-old baby and our son, 9. Our baby daughter was more than content in her Graco backpack carrier-her happy babbles confirmed that she liked the view. Our son was old enough to carry his own water and backpack, and picked out his own hiking stick before setting off.
We planned the start of our hike to coincide with baby's most awake time of the day, just after she had napped. We also made sure to pack extra diapers.
The park boasts more than 13 miles of hiking trails, through canyons, along river bluffs and past cascading waterfalls. Best of all, you can tailor your hiking jaunt based on your skill level, from beginner to advanced, by following the well-marked trails.
You'll find free detailed trail maps at the starting point, the Visitor Center. As you plan which trails you'd like to enjoy, check out the round-trip mileage and determine which one fits best with the endurance levels of each member of the family. The map legend indicates whether or not the trail is a Bluff Trail, a River Trail or an Interior Canyon Trail. It also marks major climbs, which you'll want to avoid if you're with young tots.
We hiked the French Canyon and Wildcat Canyon trails our first day; the second day we went a bit farther with a hike to the St. Louis canyon, where we admired a lovely waterfall. On every trail during our hike, we passed by scenic streams, lush vegetation and sandstone overhangs.
Colored posts along the trails, corresponding to colors on the maps, will keep you oriented, as will the yellow dots on trees or posts that indicate that you are moving away from the Visitor Center; white dots mean you are returning. Of course, make sure you stay on the marked trails and watch out for poison ivy.
Although you can see waterfalls in 14 of the 18 canyons, the most scenic waterfalls are found along the St. Louis, French, Wildcat, Tonty, Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyon trails. The River Bluff Trail is a must-see: you'll walk high above the Illinois River to two observation decks with spectacular views of the Illinois River.
Make it a long weekend by checking into the nearby Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Resort, a fun, northwoods-style resort. We booked a villa (more like a townhome) and both kids enjoyed the resort's water park, with its zero-depth pool and fountains for the baby and water slides, wave pool and lazy river for our 9-year-old, who also had a ton of fun at the indoor amusement park. Since our villa at Grizzly Jack's had its own expansive kitchen, we prepared most of our meals at our home away from home, stopping only once on the morning of day two for a delicious breakfast of homemade scones, buttermilk pancakes and savory omelets at the Nodding Onion in downtown Utica.
For more outdoor adventuresome families, Starved Rock State Park offers more than 130 Class A Premium campsites, complete with electricity, shower and restroom facilities, as well as basic log cabin rentals.
The park and trails are open year round. Springtime ushers in colorful wildflowers and rains that replenish the waterfalls, while the fall palette is especially memorable. The wintertime creates amazing icefalls and you're more likely to spot an eagle soaring through the sky.
Amy Bizzarri is a mom of two living in Logan Square. She also blogs at tiramisumom.com.
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