Parfrey’s Glen (Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, WI)

Parfrey’s Glen, Devil’s Lake State Park, July 2022

Given the significant focus on Utah and the American West, narrow canyons and slots feature heavily on Live and Let Hike. But these beautiful features can be found in surprising places, such as the limestone gorges of Starved Rock State Park in northern Illinois and southwest Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest. Another such surprise is Parfrey’s Glen in central Wisconsin—a dark and mysterious gorge under a canopy of deciduous trees, culminating in a nice narrows section and a modest waterfall. This 1.8-mile out-and-back is a nice complement to the nearby Devil’s Lake Loop and a relatively easier hike.

The hike

Situated within Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, a subset of the broader Devil’s Lake State Park, the Parfrey’s Glen Trail begins and ends at a parking area about seven miles east of the popular north shore of the lake. The parking lot, situated just off DL Road, is moderately-sized, fitting around 20 vehicles.

The trail begins just beyond, starting as a paved track that quickly splits, with a detour to the restroom on the right and the main route bearing left, along the edge of the woods. Stay straight as the Ice Age National Scenic Trail cuts left into the dense thicket, remaining on the wide path, passing eventually over Parfrey’s Glen Creek. The route gets more interesting as it bears north and turns to gravel, following the perennial stream on the left.

The easygoing path continues past a plaque on the left, commemorating the establishment of Parfrey’s Glen as Wisconsin’s first state natural area. The stream valley narrows as the trail continues northward, thinning to a dirt track alongside the creek. At ½ mile, the route splits; stay right, following the wider and more apparent trail, then cross two bridges over thin tributaries.

Ascending path near the official trail’s end

At 6/10 mile, hikers will have to rock-hop over the main creek, coming back to the western bank. The Parfrey’s Glen Trail then ascends a stony staircase, skirting 10-foot cliffs on the left. Soon the trail descends again to the creek, and the official maintained path ends, with slightly more rugged scrambling and rock-hopping ahead.

End of official trail and entry to narrows
Entering the gorge at Parfrey’s Glen

Now in the creek itself, follow the drainage upstream through an initial set of narrows. (Note: It is usually possible to avoid getting your feet wet, but it requires some maneuvering.) Stay in the glen as the canyon rounds a left-hand corner and the conglomerate sandstone walls rise to more than 40 feet, an impressive and beautiful sight, especially for Wisconsin.

Narrowest part of the canyon

Continue to a boulder choke, where—with a careful eye—one can spot and climb the remains of an old stone staircase, which offers passage up and over the jam. Views back down the mossy canyon are some of the best of the hike.

Through the passage
Small waterfall at Parfrey’s Glen
Waterfall view

From here it is a short walk to the terminus of the walk: a small, glistening waterfall and a modest pool, a nice and worthy culmination of an easygoing hike. Enjoy the scenery in this splendid glen before heading back the way you came, descending the boulder choke and exiting the gorge back onto the wide, paved track. End back at the parking area, having completed a satisfying 1.8-mile hike.

View back down-canyon
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Devil’s Lake Loop (Devil’s Lake State Park, WI)

West Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, July 2022

It’s not too often that visitors are able to walk in a mountain range with rocky bluffs dating to 1.6 billion years ago, in addition to a rare freshwater endorheic lake—a body of water situated in a natural depression with no external drainage. And yet one can find such sights in perhaps the most unlikely of places—south-central Wisconsin—at Devil’s Lake State Park. Popular mostly as a summer beach destination, Devil’s Lake also has an extensive trail network, with the best hike being a 5.25-mile circumnavigation of the lake basin, including a short spur to Devil’s Doorway, the most recognizable rock formation in the state. This circuit hike—rated moderate to strenuous—can satisfy much of a day for visitors to the area and is unlikely to disappoint.

Map of Devil’s Lake Loop, Devil’s Lake State Park

The hike

Devil’s Lake State Park is located about an hour from Madison, Wisconsin and an even shorter distance from Wisconsin Dells and the town of Baraboo. There are two primary entrances—North Lake and South Lake—with either offering access to the Devil’s Lake Loop hike described. For ease of navigation, this description begins at the more popular North Shore, an area containing a lengthy lakeside beach, many concession stands, several campgrounds, and a modest Visitor Center. Drive past the Visitor Center, paying the fee for entrance, and make your way toward the parking area at the northeast corner of Devil’s Lake. On a busy day, it’s likely you will be compelled to cross the railroad tracks and turn right at the Additional Parking Area. This is all the better, as this is an even more convenient start/end point for the loop hike.

North Shore to South Shore via West Bluff Trail (3.0 mi.)

Once parked, make your way back north, beginning the loop in a counterclockwise direction. Reach a four-way road junction and bear left, crossing the active railroad tracks and staying to the left on a paved sidewalk. Pass parking on the left, then angle southwest on the wide strollway as it heads to the Park Headquarters, changing rooms, and North Shore Beach. You’ll have to pass hordes of noisy swimmers, sunbathers, and picknickers before you get some natural peace again, at the western edge of the beach, around 1/3 mile from the start.

Follow the paved track to its conclusion, at the base of a sloping rock pile of quartzite, the predominant rock type in the area. Here the onward route veers right and turns to crushed gravel, the start of the red-blazed West Bluff Trail. This marks the start of the first of two significant ascents on the hike—though it begins mildly at first as the trail keeps the quartzite slope and a small drainage on the left.

At ½ mile, the route rises to catch a bend in Park Road, the main entryway for the North Shore area. Here there is a map and signage for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a partly-completed, 1,200-mile route through Wisconsin that follows the formerly glaciated hillocks and valleys of the state from the Minnesota border to Sturgeon Bay on Lake Michigan. Devil’s Lake is one of the highlights of the Ice Age Trail, and hikers on the Devil’s Lake Loop will follow a portion of it for the next three miles.

Follow the path to the base of a sharp left-hand bend and start of a stony staircase, inaugurating the steepest portion of the West Bluff Trail. Hikers will have to ascend 200+ steps in the next ¼ mile, rising seemingly endlessly to the top of the quartzite bluffs overlooking Devil’s Lake. At 8/10 mile, there is a bench with one of the better vistas, followed by a short up-and-down section with two additional staircases. By now one can see across the lake to the railroad and East Bluff on the opposite bank: this depression formed during the uplift of the Baraboo Range, a modest syncline that stretches east-west for around 25 miles, with the sink filling with fresh water that has no natural outlet.

Views down to North Shore Beach
Devil’s Lake from West Bluff Trail

The next stretch involves a milder but persistent ascent, starting to leave the dull noise of the crowded beach behind. At 1.25 miles, with a short radio tower on the left, there is an official viewpoint on the right. Here one can look through the viewfinder at the lake and mountains below and walk out to the edge of the craggy bluffs, nearly 500 feet high. This is one of the most interesting vistas in the entire park—and perhaps one of the best in the entire state of Wisconsin.

Looking south across Devil’s Lake
Northward view

From here, continue south on the West Bluff Trail, following a weathered asphalt path that drops mildly to another spur with great views at 1.5 miles. This vista sits atop Cleopatra’s Needle, a named feature of the bluffs that is visible from South Shore Beach below.

View from Cleopatra’s Needle

Thereafter, the trail moves away from the cliffside and descends steadily, winding to an unknown spur at 1.6 miles (stay right). After swinging westward, the trail rounds a left-hand bend and makes its final descent to a road junction, where an unpaved, dead-end track merges with the popular South Lake Road.

Head straight, following the left shoulder of South Lake Road eastward. The road quickly passes a swampy inlet of Devil’s Lake on the left, followed by a road spur to the South Lake Boat Landing and Pet Swim Area. Continue along the road, eventually coming to a more established sidewalk that directly hugs the walled shoreline.

Trail alongside Devil’s Lake

This roadside walk doesn’t feel like a “hike” per se, but it is pleasant enough as visitors pass anglers and beachgoers with sweeping views of the lake and the bluffs to the north. At about 2.6 miles, stay left as the route turns into a boardwalk, leaving the road behind and flanking the edge of South Shore Beach. This shore, while still popular in the summer, is much less crowded than the North Shore side.

South Shore to North Shore via Balanced Rock, Devil’s Doorway, and East Bluff Trail (2.25 mi.)

Make your way past the concession stands, restrooms, and picnic tables at South Shore, eventually coming to the end of the paved track and start of a wide, dirt path. This is the Balanced Rock Trail, which quickly traverses the railway tracks again and initiates a steep and steady climb up the East Bluff cliffside.

Follow the narrow staircase through the boulder field, noticing the shift in the color of the quartzite from gray to a deep and attractive red. The exposed switchbacks can be slow-going if the trail is crowded—but be patient and take your time, using careful footing to work your way up the boulder slope. After a brief level section, the path rounds a right-hand bend with excellent views of the lake, then hugs a high cliff on the right.

Peering down at Devil’s Lake

Edging back eastward, the trail reaches a junction at 3.4 miles. Head right on a short and rocky spur to the trail’s namesake Balanced Rock, an impressive, tooth-like formation precariously perched on a bluff overlooking the South Shore area.

Balanced Rock in Devil’s Lake State Park

Make your way back to the main trail and continue right, traversing more stairs through shadier terrain. At 3.5 miles, there is an open cliffside view on the right, followed quickly by a junction where the trail levels off. This trail fork is your cue to head right on the 0.5-mile spur to/from Devil’s Doorway, a worthwhile detour.

Heading east on the partly paved track, it is an easygoing walk on the East Bluff Trail for 300 yards, with limited views through the trees down to the valley and South Bluff. At 3.7 miles, bear left on the marked spur to Devil’s Doorway, which drops precipitously down a shelf (which may require the use of hands) and then descends steeply to a natural ledge at the precipice of the cliffs. Look to your right, where an impressive collection of stony blocks has formed a natural archway, high above the lake below: this is Devil’s Doorway, one of the most iconic natural sights in the state of Wisconsin. (Note: The sun is best here in the mornings; by evening the setting sun casts a shadow over the rock face and it is tough to photograph.)

Devil’s Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway Trail continues past the arch for another 75 yards, ascending a staircase to return to the East Bluff Trail. Bear left, passing the initial entry to the Doorway area and retrace your steps back to the junction at the end of the Balanced Rock Trail. This time, bear right on the path nearest to the cliffside heading north: this is the continuation of the East Bluff Trail.

Devil’s Doorway (with a different camera)

At first the trail keeps its distance from the cliffside and lake, weaving through dense woods and edging northeast. The path comes to a junction again at about 4.4 miles, with an unnamed connector coming in from the right. Stay left and head north, passing occasional rock outcrops and treading progressively downhill. The path comes close to the cliff’s edge again at a point called Pride Rock; vistas become more common as the East Bluff Trail descends further to Bison Rock and rounds a right-hand bend with a small but surprisingly deep cave on the right.

Devil’s Lake view north
Looking south from East Bluff Trail

After briefly inspecting the darkness of the cave, continue downhill on the East Bluff Trail, staying right at a prominent spur trail at 5.1 miles. Minutes later, bear left at the wide junction with the East Bluffs Woods Trail, continuing northward. From here it is a short and easy walk to the Additional Parking lot, capping off the 5.25-mile hike.

All told, despite the crowds and road noise, the moderate to strenuous Devil’s Lake Loop is one of the most scenic adventures in Wisconsin, a worthy day trip from Madison or the Wisconsin Dells area. Combine with a visit to nearby parks for a nice weekend outing or week-long stay.

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Silver Creek Pathway (Pere Marquette State Forest, MI)

Silver Creek Pathway, Pere Marquette State Forest, June 2022

The 54-mile Pine River, a tributary of the Big Manistee River, undulates gently through the modest hillocks of northwest Michigan, making for a popular floating destination—but also a few decent hikes. The Silver Creek Pathway—a nearly four-mile loop that is a short drive from Cadillac, Michigan—is one of the better short walks, featuring high bluffs, nice flora diversity, and attractive rivulets. The pretty circuit connects two campgrounds in Pere Marquette State Forest, with much of the time spent paralleling the scenic river.

Map of Silver Creek Pathway, Pere Marquette State Forest; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Easiest access to the Silver Creek Pathway is from the Silver Creek Campground, situated on a gravel track just off North State Road in Lake County. (Note: The nearest town in this heavily forested area is Luther, Michigan.) Make your way to the back of the campground, just as the road curves around a loop. Here there is a small parking area (near Site #10) with room for two vehicles; there is also a modest restroom, as well as a trail sign and small, tattered map.

Start of the trail at Silver Creek Campground

The marked and well-trodden path bears north from the campground, almost immediately coming into view of the quickly-flowing Pine River off to the left. Given the trail traces both sides of the river and follows it north-south for nearly the entirety of the loop, it is a bit surprising that the hike is called the Silver Creek Pathway. But hikers soon cross the namesake stream—Silver Creek, a tributary of the Pine—on a short bridge, with dense thicket surrounding the drainage.

First glimpse at Pine River

Following blue blazes, the path bobs up and down, traversing a second bridge, this time over a smaller tributary, at about 1/10 mile. Then the Silver Creek Pathway makes a steady ascent, rising amid ferns and beech trees to the top of some eroded bluffs about 50 feet above Pine River. At one point, hikers can peer down, through a break in the trees, at the wild bends of the river.

View down to bend in Pine River

Soon the river disappears from view again, and the trail levels off at around 4/10 mile, the peaceful forest marred only by the occasional sound of passing cars on North State Road to the east. At 6/10 mile, the trail reaches a second overlook from atop a bluff above Pine River. Now well above the riverway, the onward route intersects with a wide double-track that acts as an ORV trail. Stay left, following the doubletrack north for a brief period, but pay close attention to the blue blazes, which eventually signal a continuation of the singletrack trail off to the left.

The trail then merges with the doubletrack twice, the second at a modest clearing with more, slightly obscured, views down the bluffs toward Pine River. Continue north on the ORV road for a brief period before the pathway again exits left. At 1.2 miles, the trail comes to a circle at the end of another dirt road, with a spur path leading left to another viewpoint. Thereafter, the main trail bears right and treads downhill, reaching a small meadow area on the right. Traversing the lowlands, the narrow path soon comes riverside at about 1.5 miles.

High bluff view of Pine River

Here the route-finding gets a little difficult, with social trails crisscrossing the landscape. But generally, hikers should stay on the most well-established path—heading left, then right. Soon the trail emerges from the dense canopy and into a parking area for the Lincoln Bridge Canoe Landing. The river is accessible off to the left, but the onward route stays right, following the road around a corner and to the crossing of the 80-foot-long Lincoln Bridge. By now hikers have travelled around 1.6 miles, a little less than halfway.

Cross the bridge and come to the left bank of Pine River. On this side, the trail stays level with the river much of the time, offering regular access. But first, the onward trek requires following the muddy access road southward for a brief period before the singletrack departs again to the left, up about a 3-foot bank. Once back on the blue-blazed trail, the route levels off and traverses a floodplain stocked with beautiful, verdant ferns.

Crossing a field of ferns

At 1.8 miles, the trail returns very briefly to the road but then cuts left again, reaching an upland well above the main waterway. Stay left again as the route intersects with a minor ORV road. Thereafter the Silver Creek Pathway settles into a steady downhill, crossing a trickling tributary at 2.25 miles. By 2.4 miles, the path is riverside again; from this point on, the path keeps the river close on the left.

Cutting along the Pine River, the singletrack trail comes to a shoreline opposite a 40-foot sandy bluff on the other bank. Staying largely streamside for the next 1/3 mile, the trail passes a lovely stand of pine trees that includes a nice dispersed camping site. This is a nice spot to stop for a snack or break before heading on.

Near the dispersed camping area along Pine River

At 3.1 miles, the Silver Creek Pathway continues over a short bridge. Within 2/10 mile, the path then splits, with a spur heading left. The main track takes a hard right, following a hairpin bend in the river. After about a tenth of a mile, the level, easygoing jaunt is suddenly interrupted by a steep but brief uphill slope. Soon the trail settles again into a flat tread, reaching an open field and track coming in from the right.

Silver Creek Pathway along the river

Stay straight here, continuing to keep the river on the left and coming to a bridge over another tributary at 3.7 miles. Hikers are now in the home stretch, passing a wily juniper on the left and crossing another short bridge.

Silver Creek Bridge at the end of the trail

The hike terminates another 1/10 mile later, as hikers reach the Silver Creek Bridge, constructed in 1988. Now hikers are back in the campground, although not quite where they started, but it’s a short walk (left) to return to the trailhead. This concludes the 3.9-mile loop hike—not a stunner, but a varied and enjoyable walk in one of the most scenic watersheds of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

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Empire Bluff Trail (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI)

Empire Bluff Trail, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, June 2022

What happens when a combination of glacial recession, wind, and erosion produces a perched dune atop a glacial moraine atop geological debris from the most recent Ice Age? The result, in Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is the Empire Bluffs, a 400-foot headland overlooking Lake Michigan and home to one of the park’s most interesting hikes. The short, family-friendly involves ¾ mile of walking through a pretty beech/maple forest, punctuated by an unobstructed overlook above the third-largest of the Great Lakes.

Map of Empire Bluff Trail, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The hike

Start and end the 1.6-mile out-and-back hike at the Empire Bluff Trailhead, situated along Wilco Road, just a mile south of central Empire, a small town that hosts the main visitor center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The signed parking lot has a moderate number of spaces, as well as a small pit toilet. The one and only hike from the trailhead begins by treading westward on a neatly-maintained path, initially keeping an open clearing to the right. Soon the gradually-ascending Empire Bluff Trail enters thick deciduous woodlands sporting mostly maples, pines, and beech trees.

Farm implement along the Empire Bluff Trail

After a few minutes, hikers will pass a rusted farming implement off to the right: this was once part of a mowing machine, now long-abandoned after becoming obsolete. Although the surface here is largely sand, it boasts a lush woodland landscape, with a relatively precipitous drop-off off to the north. Soon the incline eases, and the trail even descends for a brief period, treading through a pair of minor clearings. The second, at around exactly ½ mile, features a bench with a northward view, through the clear cut, to Empire, South Bar Lake, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and, of course, the beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan. This is known as South Bar Lake Overlook. The embayment lake visible below was the result of a rising sandbar, followed by declining lake levels, leaving the smaller lake stranded from its much larger cousin.

View of Sleeping Bear Dunes from South Bar Lake Overlook

After admiring the window view, continue as the trail treads westward, clearing a minor gully before climbing a steep but brief staircase. After a couple more ups and downs, the Empire Bluff Trail at last emerges at its stunning climax: a wide-open vista of Lake Michigan, way down at the base of the 400-foot Empire Bluffs. The terrific vantage point offers views as part north as the Sleeping Bear Dunes and South Manitou Island and westward across the big open blue toward the state of Wisconsin (not quite visible).

Boardwalk at the end of the Empire Bluff Trail

But this isn’t quite the end – there is still some more trail as the path routes abruptly southward, following a sand-caked boardwalk, culminating at an even better viewpoint complete with a couple benches, a wooden railing, and a short, final loop-around.

Empire Bluff O

That is it for the Empire Bluff Trail; onward passage amid the steep and dangerous bluffs is prohibited. But it’s a pleasant and relatively mild return along the same trail back to the start. All told, the round-trip hike comes in at about 1.6 miles; the relatively easy tread and limited elevation gain makes this a nice, family-friendly walk in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area.

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Dune Climb (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI)

Dune Climb, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, June 2022

Spanning 65 miles of the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is easily the most interesting National Park Service unit on Michigan’s lower peninsula. Once buried under the Continental Ice Sheet during the most recent Ice Age, the retreating glaciers left behind a landscape of glacial kettles, moraines, towering bluffs, and dozens of smaller lakes—followed soon by thick, windswept sand dunes. It is those dunes, of course, that are the biggest draw. And these are not your average mild sand drifts you might find at your local beach: the Sleeping Bear Dunes are massive, multi-tiered ridges, rising as high as 450 feet above the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s no wonder then that one of the most renowned challenges in the area is the so-called “Dune Climb”—a stiff ascent up and over the highest dunes. (Note: To be fair, the elevation gain from the parking area is perhaps 100 feet; continuing on the Dunes Trail down to the lake and back is a far more strenuous walk.) The most popular activity at the Dunes is to simply wander: trekking in and out of shady ravines and up along high ridgelines with excellent views westward to Lake Michigan and east to Glen Lake.

Below is a small collection of photographs from a late June visit to the Dunes.

Looking down the Dune Climb to the parking area and Glen Lake
J-Rod at the dunes
Glen Lake from Sleeping Bear Dunes
Looking south across the dunes
More dunes between us and Lake Michigan
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Bailly/Chellberg Trail (Indiana Dunes National Park, IN)

Bailly/Chellberg Trail, Indiana Dunes National Park, June 2022

A prominent French Canadian fur trader, Joseph Bailly settled in the Indiana Dunes area in the early 19th century, establishing a trading post in 1822 near present-day Porter, Indiana. Decades later, Swedish immigrants Anders and Johanna Kjellberg purchased 80 acres of land on the other side of a small forest, establishing a small family farm and tapping the sugar maples to make maple syrup. Today, both the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farms still stand, incorporated into Indiana Dunes National Park and easily combined on a short, easy loop hike. In addition to the historic sites, the Bailly/Chellberg Trail traverses a fine section of deciduous forest and includes a spur to the impressive Bailly Cemetery. This easy walk covers about 1.75 miles and is a family-friendly hike in the Porter area.

Map of Bailly/Chellberg Trail Loop, Indiana Dunes National Park

The hike

There are several options for connecting to the Bailly/Chellberg Trail loop, but the starting point that makes the most sense is the trailhead off Mineral Springs Road, just north of U.S. Route 20 and south of Oak Hill Road and the Park Headquarters area. (Note: The trailhead is marked “Little Calumet River Trail” on Google Maps.) There are several picnic verandas here, as well as a volunteer information station, which has limited hours.

The trail begins at the east end of the parking lot, marked by a large information board/map. (Note: The trail maps for Indiana Dunes are quite good; they are also available on the NPS app.) Immediately the partly-mulched path enters a dense forest of new growth and splits in two. Head left first, starting the loop and pursuing it in a clockwise direction.

Heading toward Bailly Homestead

Here the wide track treads southwest, above the banks of an unnamed creek bed on the right. Soon the trail drops to cross the (often dry) drainage, then climbs briefly back to return to the flat basin. Head west through a sea of maples, oaks, and other deciduous varieties and emerge at around 3/10 mile at an open field. Look to the left for a historic plaque marking this area as a National Historic Landmark. Ahead, to the south, is the Bailly Homestead, a series of renovated structures dedicated to telling the story of Joseph Bailly, a fur trader who had unusually good relations with the Native Americans in the area. The main house on the property is an example of vernacular architecture: a building constructed without professional guidance and occurring outside any particular architectural tradition, usually made from local materials.

Bailly Homestead
Main home at the Bailly Homestead

Visitors can sometimes tour the property and house, although, as of summer 2022, the Bailly homestead was closed for renovations. To continue the loop, backtrack across the open field, heading for the northwest corner of the property. Here you will find a singletrack and sign for “historic cemetery.” Proceed this way, returning to the thick woods.

Thick woods en route to the cemetery

Pass a trail fork at ½ mile, continuing right and climbing a mild incline, followed by a row of four impressive, spindly oak trees. Come to a second fork at 7/10 mile, bear left, then stay right at a third junction minutes later. From here the Bailly/Chellberg Trail descends to clear the same drainage from before, crossing a bridge over a surprisingly deep-cut gully.

Impressive oaks

Here hikers can bear right to continue the loop, but it is worth a ½-mile detour to visit the nearby Bailly Cemetery. To take this spur, heading left at the junction just after the bridge, staying straight as the trail intersects with the Porter Brickyard Bike Trail and crosses Oak Hill Road. Once across, the hum of Highway 12 grows stronger, but the walk is peaceful nonetheless as it snakes through the dense woods. At 1.1 miles, after a short uphill, the spur ends at Bailly Cemetery, a brick-encased plot situated on a bluff that once overlooked Lake Michigan. The entire Bailly family is buried here.

Approaching Bailly Cemetery
Graves at Bailly Cemetery

Visitors can encircle the cemetery or simply turn around, returning across Oak Hill Road. Once back at the bridge, stay straight, keeping the drainage cut on your right. Soon there is a wooden staircase down, descending into the woody couloir. In this pretty section, the route traverses three bridges, followed by another wooden staircase—this time going up. Pass a huge birch tree on the right, cross another bridge, and then climb up to another open field.

Descent into drainage

Here there is an unmarked junction. Bear right, entering the Chellberg Farm and approaching the various historic structures from the north. The Swedish Kjellberg—or Chellberg—family travelled to the United States in 1863 and eventually purchased this land and operated a working farm. The property was passed down two generations before being sold to the National Park Service in 1972. Today, visitors can tour the farm, which has a handful of live animals.

Chellberg Farm
Main home at Chellberg Farm

Follow the path between the farm and the woods as it bears southward, approaching the very interesting maple house on the right, a small structure where the Chellbergs stored equipment for tapping the sugar maples of the area, producing delicious maple syrup.

From here, it is a short walk along the wide path back to the initial junction, where hikers can bear left and step out onto the parking lot again. All told, this 1.75-mile stem-and-loop hike should take hikers between 1-2 hours to complete.

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Dune Succession Trail (Indiana Dunes National Park, IN)

Dune Succession Trail, Indiana Dunes National Park, June 2022

Arguably the most impressive sight in Indiana Dunes National Park, the moderately tall sand dunes at West Beach can be explored on this short, 0.9-mile loop. The Dune Succession Trail—one of three loops in the West Beach area—traverses coniferous and deciduous forests, cottonwood stands, and high dunes, in addition to the sandy lakeshore and long wooden staircases. This stair-master hike offers a nice workout and far-reaching views across Lake Michigan to the skyscrapers of Chicago and beyond.

Map of Dune Succession Trail, Indiana Dunes National Park

The hike

West Beach is a short drive from Gary, Indiana and located in a fee area inside Indiana Dunes National Park with three connecting trail loops. The Dune Succession Trail, beginning and ending at the large parking lot at West Beach, is the shortest but most scenic of the trio. From the parking area, walk north, following the wide, paved road toward the West Beach bath house, which can be absolutely jammed on a busy weekend. Walk through the bath house and descend from the wooden deck to the beach itself, a pleasant lakeside destination with distant views of Chicago.

West Beach at Indiana Dunes

Walk along the beach, heading east, for about 1/10 mile, then look for a sign off to the right marked “Interpretive Trail Starts Here.” This is your cue to exit the beach and start the more rugged section of the hike. Climb the sandy slope, entering the transition zone where the wispy sands collide with a low marsh.

After cresting an initial lip, the trail drops to a small flat dotted with cottonwoods, followed by another climb into a forest of pines and oaks. By now you have already covered more than half the hike’s distance, but the second half is considerably tougher. After traversing a boardwalk section below Diana’s Dune, the onward route requires ascending 132 stairs, rising to heights with excellent views back to Lake Michigan and Chicago.

Boardwalk below Diana’s Dune
Atop the first set of stairs at Dune Succession Trail

The ascent ends at about 6/10 mile, after which the Dune Succession Trail continues downhill, suddenly plunging back into a thick deciduous forest. Look for sassafras, black oak, hickory, and other tree varieties. The descent does not last long, however, with the route settling into another stair climb—this time up around 120 more steps. Emerging above the canopy of trees, there is a viewing platform on the right. The highest point on the hike, hikers are now near the summit of Diana’s Dune.

Forested area
Dunes from the overlook
Chicago views

What goes up must come down, and so hikers from here must proceed down at least 160 stairs, returning to the open sun, in sight of the parking lot. At the base of the stairs, turn right, following the short sandy path back to the start. Congratulate yourself for having conquered Diana’s Dune, one of the more challenging climbs in the park.

Descent toward the parking lot

Allot 30 minutes to an hour for this round-trip hike, depending on pace. If you have to pick only one or two hikes in Indiana Dunes, this one should likely be on the list.

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Dune Ridge Trail (Indiana Dunes National Park, IN)

Dune Ridge Trail, Indiana Dunes National Park, June 2022

Wedged between a railroad, two steel mills, a power plant, and several junkyards, Indiana Dunes National Park looks and feels world’s apart from other iconic settings that also bear the national park name: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, etc. The draw here is modest: windswept sand dunes, mucky wetlands, and distant views to Chicago from the shores of Lake Michigan. But the park—formerly a National Lakeshore—nonetheless has a well-established network of hiking trails, some of which are moderately interesting. One of these pleasant (though mostly ho-hum) walks is the Dune Ridge Trail, a 0.7-mile stem-and-loop hike that climbs a now tree-covered sandscape with some lookout views across Great Marsh, the largest interdunal wetland in the Lake Michigan watershed. This is a skippable hike—there are better walks in Indiana Dunes (although not by much)—but worthwhile if one wants a little serenity after a day at the crowded beach.

Map of Dune Ridge Trail, Indiana Dunes National Park

The hike

Access is by way of the East State Park Boundary Road, which acts as the divider between Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park jurisdictions. Driving north from Highway 12 (West Dunes Highway), visitors pass through dense forest cover and cross-cut the Great Marsh before rising slightly to a turnoff for the Dune Ridge Trailhead on the right. (Note: The trailhead doubles as a parking lot for nearby Kemil Beach). Park near the southeast corner of the lot, if possible, as this is where the Dune Ridge Trail begins.

Passing an information board and a large pine tree on the left, proceed up the very sandy trail. The ground surface here is comprised almost entirely of sand—although it is hard to believe given the vegetation covering the dunes is ubiquitous and thriving. After ascending through a sun-soaked prairie, the track dives into a shady oak woodland, reaching a junction about 125 yards from the trailhead. With benches off to the left, bear right at the fork, starting the loop in a counterclockwise direction.

Dune Ridge Trail
Ferns galore

From here the path runs through a narrow clear-cut (likely a former road) and inches back toward the sun, still gaining relatively little elevation. Eventually hikers settle into a mild uphill as the path rises to an initial hillock with obscured views. Crest the ridge at 2/10 mile, then proceed downhill, with some obstructed looks at the prairie/marsh off to the right. A minute later, the Dune Ridge Trail passes a gaggle of extravagant ferns on the right, followed by a sudden and steep uphill. After rounding a couple bends, the narrow path ascends the higher ridgeline, reaching its crest at around 4/10 mile. Here there is a bench and views down to the Great Marsh wetlands to the south. Even though one can hear the crashing waves of Lake Michigan, views north to the lake are obstructed by the dense thicket and dune line beyond.

Views of Great Marsh from Dune Ridge Trail

After this point, the trail proceeds upward a little more, then rounds a left-hand bend and begins to descend back westward, with a lush understory on the right. Proceed down to a junction—the same clear-cut from before—and bear left, following it back to the amphitheater benches. From here, bear left, proceeding back up and out into the open, and descend to the trailhead.

Trail returning to the parking lot

All told, this is a short hike that will likely take 20-30 minutes to complete.

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Ottawa, Kaskaskia, & Illinois Canyons (Starved Rock State Park, IL)

Kaskaskia Canyon Falls, Starved Rock State Park, June 2022

Note: This is the fourth of four posts covering hikes in northern IllinoisStarved Rock State Park, which boasts 18 sandstone canyons, dozens of waterfalls, and an impressive network of trails along the southern shores of the Illinois River. This post covers a 2.8-mile hike that explores three canyons—Ottawa, Kaskaskia, and Illinois—as out-and-back jaunts, as well as the impressive alcove known as Council Overhang.

Those accustomed to hiking in the majestic mountains and stunning canyons of the American West may not be so keen on a trip to the seemingly flat, featureless Midwest. Yet amid the endless plains of the U.S. heartland, there are some rare surprises—occasional concentrations of natural beauty that might just rival the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, or the Sierra Nevada. Starved Rock State Park in northern Illinois is one of those surprises—a riverside complex of towering bluffs, narrow canyons, tall waterfalls, and cool alcoves that is a local favorite for Chicagoland residents but virtually unknown to the rest of the country. Here, in a park merely two hours from the Windy City, a network of terrific hiking trails crisscrosses the southern flank of the Illinois River, diving in and out of 18 glacier-carved canyons, each featuring high sandstone walls and, after recent rains or snowmelt, surprisingly impressive waterfalls. The trail network, which stretches from Saint Louis Canyon to the west to Illinois Canyon to the east, can be broken down into four sections:

  • A) A roughly 1.5-mile section connecting St. Louis Canyon with the Visitor Center area at Starved Rock;
  • B) An approximately 4.5-mile loop that covers terrain immediately east of the Visitor Center, including French Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, LaSalle Canyon, and several overlooks along the Illinois River;
  • C) An admittedly less scenic, 2-mile one-way stretch that connects sections B and D, by way of Owl and Hennepin Canyons;
  • and D) a set of three canyons—Ottawa, Kaskaskia, and Illinois—that can be combined in a roughly 3-mile hike.

In a flurry of activity on a Saturday in June, yours truly combined all four sections (much to the surprise of the rangers at the Visitor Center!) as an out-and-back hike that traversed more than 14 miles. But most visitors will want to bite off only one or two in a day. In this post, I describe section D, a 2.8-mile out-and-back hike that combines Ottawa, Kaskaskia, and Illinois Canyons, each featuring high sandstone walls, gleaming pools, and refreshing waterfalls. Along the way, hikers can also visit Council Overhang, a recess in the sandstone that forms a broad amphitheater of stone. These gems are situated in the eastern reaches of Starved Rock State Park, with more limited crowds and seasonal falls that typically last longer into the summer.

Map of Ottawa, Kaskaskia, & Illinois Canyons, Starved Rock State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

In contrast with most other hikes in the park, Ottawa, Kaskaskia, and Illinois Canyons are situated well away from the crowded Starved Rock Visitor Center area. Instead, most will begin this section from one of two modest parking lots off Route 71 in the eastern half of the park—Ottawa Canyon Trailhead or Illinois Canyon Trailhead. (Note: The below hike begins and ends at the latter—although the Ottawa Canyon Trailhead is larger and thus probably a better bet on busy weekends.)

The towering sandstone walls and lovely freefalling cascades are not at all immediately obvious as the hike begins at the Illinois Canyon Trailhead. Heading west from the trailhead, the Bluff Trail heads into dense woods, not quite leaving earshot of the road off to the right. The Illinois River is hidden away, across the road, but the route follows a broad and flat floodplain, routing toward Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons. At Ottawa Canyon Trailhead, cross the long parking area and continue on the path westward.

The main track begins to curve southward at around 1/3 mile, then—as is common in the park—seems to split into a flurry of alternatives, some immediately crossing the stream fed by the two canyons, while others snake along its eastern bank. The most-used track heads across the creek and then reaches an unmarked but well-trodden junction. Here the Bluff Trail covering Section C—LaSalle Canyon to Council Overhang—comes in from the west.

Approaching Council Overhang

Bear left instead, quickly coming to a new junction, with an obvious path leading right and up to a stunning feature of the landscape: an eroded alcove known as Council Overhang, thought to have been used as a meeting place for native tribes living in the area. At 40 feet high and some 30 feet deep, the broad incision is an impressive sight to behold—especially for Illinois—and is captured best on camera with a fisheye lens.

Council Overhang
Looking back at the alcove

Leave the echoing alcove by continuing around the bowl and then bearing south, reconnecting with the main access route to Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons. Bear right at the next fork, heading up Ottawa Canyon first. This beautiful, stream-fed drainage features ruffled sandstone walls, reaching upwards of 50 feet tall, and—after some muddy traverses of the slow-flowing creek—culminates at a 45-foot waterfall.

Approaching Ottawa Canyon waterfall

Ottawa Canyon Falls is notable for its freefalling drop, which allows hikers to edge around the grotto to its back side, a terrific, up-close—and sometimes wet!—view of one of the park’s most interesting cataracts. The rippling pool below, when illuminated by sunlight, often causes a projection on the walls above that appears like bright, moving waves.

Ottawa Canyon Falls
High walls of Ottawa Canyon

Once ready, return the way you came until the confluence with Kaskaskia Canyon, Ottawa’s sister drainage. Bear right here, heading south again and tracing a longer stream section. The walls in Kaskaskia are not as high, but the passage is narrower and darker, ending again at a dark blue pool and waterfall. Kaskaskia Canyon Falls, although shorter than many others (15 feet) in the park, is one of the most photogenic waterfalls at Starved Rock. Here the water splatters a pair of tenuously-placed logs while dropping in front of a dark cavern, filled by the seasonal bath.

Kaskaskia Canyon Falls
Kaskaskia Canyon Falls

From Kaskaskia Canyon Falls, make your way back to the junction of the two canyons, then continue straight—with the easiest route staying on the west side of the creek before crossing it well clear of Council Overhang. (Note: One can bypass the alcove by staying straight when the path to the overhang heads left.) After the stream, return 2/10 mile to the Ottawa Canyon Trailhead, followed by another ¼ mile to the Illinois Canyon Trailhead.

Kaskaskia Canyon

You can end your hike here or continue on to Illinois Canyon, the last and easternmost sandstone canyon in the park. Though lacking the grand waterfalls of Ottawa and Kaskaskia, this gorge is very pretty and considerably longer, requiring hikers to bear south for more than 2/10 mile before the walls narrow. The main track crosses the creek feeding the canyon several times: amid the rocks and fallen logs, hikers will have to decide the best route to take to cross. (Note: After recent rains/snowmelt when the water is high, good luck avoiding wet feet!)

On a nice spring or summer day, expect to see anglers, trying their luck in the gently-flowing waters, especially in the serene alcoves formed at water’s edge. The trail ends at a large pool and a very small (1- to 2-foot) cascade, with onward passage prohibited. The terminus of Illinois Canyon is not as spectacular as Ottawa or Kaskaskia, but the pretty pond and narrow passage make for a nice end point nonetheless.

Pool and cascade at end of trail in Illinois Canyon
Alcove in Illinois Canypn

All told, it is about ½ mile from the trailhead to the end of the hike in Illinois Canyon, and hikers must return the way they came. This one-mile walk, combined with the two other canyons, makes for a pleasant, 1.5- to 2.5-hour jaunt in a scenic section of Starved Rock State Park.

Note: Also be sure to check out the other sections, including A) St. Louis Canyon and Aurora Canyon (2.8 miles); B) French, Wildcat, & LaSalle Canyons Loop (4.4 miles); and C) LaSalle Canyon to Council Overhang via Owl & Hennepin Canyons (2.1 miles).

Posted in Easy Hikes, Illinois, Starved Rock State Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

LaSalle Canyon to Council Overhang via Owl & Hennepin Canyons (Starved Rock State Park, IL)

Owl Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, June 2022

Note: This is the third of four posts covering hikes in northern IllinoisStarved Rock State Park, which boasts 18 sandstone canyons, dozens of waterfalls, and an impressive network of trails along the southern shores of the Illinois River. This post covers a 2.1-mile one-way section that effectively connects two popular waterfall areas, skirting several sandstone canyons with limited views of the Illinois River.

Those accustomed to hiking in the majestic mountains and stunning canyons of the American West may not be so keen on a trip to the seemingly flat, featureless Midwest. Yet amid the endless plains of the U.S. heartland, there are some rare surprises—occasional concentrations of natural beauty that might just rival the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, or the Sierra Nevada. Starved Rock State Park in northern Illinois is one of those surprises—a riverside complex of towering bluffs, narrow canyons, tall waterfalls, and cool alcoves that is a local favorite for Chicagoland residents but virtually unknown to the rest of the country. Here, in a park merely two hours from the Windy City, a network of terrific hiking trails crisscrosses the southern flank of the Illinois River, diving in and out of 18 glacier-carved canyons, each featuring high sandstone walls and, after recent rains or snowmelt, surprisingly impressive waterfalls. The trail network, which stretches from Saint Louis Canyon to the west to Illinois Canyon to the east, can be broken down into four sections:

  • A) A roughly 1.5-mile section connecting St. Louis Canyon with the Visitor Center area at Starved Rock;
  • B) An approximately 4.5-mile loop that covers terrain immediately east of the Visitor Center, including French Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, LaSalle Canyon, and several overlooks along the Illinois River;
  • C) An admittedly less scenic, 2-mile one-way stretch that connects sections B and D, by way of Owl and Hennepin Canyons;
  • and D) a set of three canyons—Ottawa, Kaskaskia, and Illinois—that can be combined in a roughly 3-mile hike.

In a flurry of activity on a Saturday in June, yours truly combined all four sections (much to the surprise of the rangers at the Visitor Center!) as an out-and-back hike that traversed more than 14 miles. But most visitors will want to bite off only one or two in a day. In this post, I describe section C, a 2.1-mile connector section that most hikers will likely skip—it perhaps only makes sense if one is determined (like me) to hike from the Visitor Center to the far eastern reaches of the park at Illinois Canyon. The largely utilitarian trail nonetheless does have some decent viewpoints of the Illinois River and skirts a handful of canyons that—especially in winter when vegetation is less obstructive—are interesting to explore.

Map of LaSalle Canyon to Ottawa & Kaskaskia Canyons via Owl & Hennepin Canyons, Starved Rock State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

This segment begins at the far eastern reaches of Section B, at the junction of the River Trail and the spur leading to LaSalle Canyon, which boasts high sandstone walls and a beautiful 25-waterfall. From here the River Trail heads east, taking 2.1 miles to connect with Section D, near the Council Overhang and Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons.

From LaSalle, bear north then east, following the dirt route as it parallels the wide Illinois River on the left. This level floodplain is perhaps a pleasant contrast with the often rocky and hilly terrain of much of the surrounding area. After crossing a wooden bridge over a small drainage at the base of the sandstone bluffs, hikers will reach a short spur heading left at about ½ mile; this short detour leads out to a modest overlook of the Illinois, while the main track actually cuts south, making its way into Owl Canyon.

Obscured view into Owl Canyon

The relaxing stroll ends here. Rather than gradually winding through Owl Canyon, the trail climbs sharply up a hillside to the west. The wooden staircase ascends perhaps 75 feet in elevation before easing, with some intermittent views down into Owl Canyon, often obscured by the dense tree cover. From here the River Trail intersects with a connector route that bears right to Parkman’s Plain, a relatively little-used parking area and trailhead. Stay left, crossing the drainage that carved Owl Canyon below, then come around to the east side of the gorge. Soon the trail resumes its eastward journey, staying relatively high above the Illinois and cutting in and out of a trio of minor tributaries. The last of these is called Hidden Canyon—so-named perhaps because it is difficult to identify and distinguish from the others.

At a point about 1.2 miles from the start of Section C, there is a spur trail heading left, but the views of the Illinois River are relatively modest. Here the main track turns southward again, this time seeking passage around Hennepin Canyon, an impressive and deep gorge with orangish-white walls and a near-perennial water flow. Like Owl, however, unvarnished views into the canyon are rather elusive, especially amid the lush summer foliage.

Bridge over Hennepin Canyon

With the park road lurking just within view off to the south, the trail rounds Hennepin Canyon, crossing a wooden bridge just above a precipitous drop and waterfall. Past Hennepin, the route bounds northeast, crossing a short side drainage with a declivity off to the left. From here it is steps to the spur to Hennepin Canyon Overlook, which offers additional views of the river.

Sandstone bluff leading down toward Council Overhang and the junction

Just past the spur is another junction, this time with an offshoot heading right to another parking area along the main road through Starved Rock State Park. Stay left, with the path continuing to hug the hillside through the final stretch. At about 1.9 miles, the River Trail descends a lengthy staircase and crosses the park road, followed by additional stairs and an ever-growing cliff face on the right. As the height of the wall increases, the trail reaches a popular three-way junction: head right to reach Council Overhang, Ottawa Canyon, and Kaskaskia Canyon; bear left to continue to the nearest parking area, with Illinois Canyon just beyond. This marks the end of the 2.1-mile one-way connector, or Section C. The final segment—Section D (Ottawa, Kaskaskia, and Illinois Canyons)—awaits.

Note: Also be sure to check out the other sections, including A) St. Louis Canyon and Aurora Canyon (2.8 miles); B) French, Wildcat, & LaSalle Canyons Loop (4.4 miles); and D) Ottawa, Kaskaskia, & Illinois Canyons (2.8 miles).

Posted in Illinois, Moderate Hikes, Starved Rock State Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments