Love On The Rocks...

In one of the very first online conversations I ever had with Justin, we talked for (unbelievably) nearly six hours about a wide variety of getting-to-know-you subjects like family and hobbies. In the course of that conversation, we happened to talk a bit about Starved Rock State Park, which I had just seen on television that night, and I mentally filed it away as something we could do together if things worked out between us. Needless to say, things have worked out gloriously between the two of us, so when the weather began to turn this spring, I started looking for a viable day for a hiking day trip.

Spring is supposed to be the best time to visit Starved Rock, as the melt water from winter's snow feeds the myriad waterfalls that lend beauty to the area, so I was motivated to go sooner as opposed to later. However, fate intervened, and between Justin's weekend work schedule and the miserable weather we had all spring, the limited number of days when we were both available to go were all rained out. Summer came, and waterfall season came to an end, but we still tried several times to schedule a day trip out to Utica, but once again, we were hampered by excessive heat and illness. It was starting to feel like the whole trip had a curse upon it.

Ultimately, it wasn't until today, nearly a year after we first started talking about going, that we were finally able to make it to Starved Rock. Even then, a mysterious lingering illness that's been afflicting Justin ever since we came back from St. Louis threatened to intervene, as he was running a fever just last night. This morning, however, he proclaimed himself well enough to go hiking, so we jumped in the car and made the hour and half long trip southwest.

The view from Starved Rock looking south over the Illinois River. We caught the very beginning of the changing leaves, due to the chilly weather of late.

Still being somewhat delicate of health, we worked with a volunteer in the visitor center to craft a flexible hiking plan for the day. We would start with a quick trip up the eponymous rock, so named because a group of Illini Native Americans fled there to evade a group of marauding Ottowa and Potawatomi warriors. The invaders then laid seige, and the Illini starved to death there. Then, after taking in the view from Starved Rock, the volunteer laid out a trek for us that would take us through three of the canyons that characterize the park's geography, French Canyon, Pontiac Canyon, and Wildcat Canyon, then looping back around through three scenic river overlooks and back to the visitor center. He predicted that the hike would take us two hours.

My bonehead move for the day involved forgetting my handy mini-tripod for taking self-portraits. As a result, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers all day, and the elderly lady we asked to take a photo of us on Starved Rock insisted we adopt this corny pose. (Secretly, I kind of like this picture...)

Our original plan was to complete our two hour hike, then pause for lunch near the visitor center and evaluate whether we were feeling up for another round of hiking in the afternoon. However, the two hour hike ended up taking us nearly three hours, since we took a wrong turn, missed Pontiac Canyon entirely, and hiked somewhat out of our way. Plus, all the stairs that took us up to the tops of cliffs and down to the bottom of canyons ended up taking their toll on us, so we decided that three hours was enough for one day for us. It'll give us something to do if we ever manage to find our way back to Starved Rock State Park, though now that we've successfully made it once, perhaps our curse is broken.

The only photo I could get of Starved Rock that minimized the visual impact of all the vandalism.

I was somewhat underwhelmed by Starved Rock itself, as it wasn't particularly impressive looking. It was mostly covered in trees, except for a few patches of exposed sandstone where previous hikers had taken the time to carve their names into the rock. Their acts of vandalism kind of killed some of the natural beauty, but at least there was a panoramic view of the Illinois River valley from the top. Unfortunately, the vista is marred somewhat by the presence of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam, a massive man-made structure that stretches across the river just upstream of Starved Rock itself. Because of its presence, I had to be strategic in my photography for the day to try to capture more scenic images.

Justin snapping some photos of his own in French Canyon.

When the guide at the visitor center informed us that the park was dry and there would be no waterfalls, I have to admit, I was pretty bummed. Hopefully we'll get to come back and see them someday, but wherever God closes a door, He opens a window, so they say. Since the creeks and waterways were dried up, we were able to climb much further into the system of canyons than is normally possible when water is coursing through them, and this gave us a feeling of exploring "secret" parts of the park. It was slightly more treacherous than sticking to the regular path, but well worth the effort.

Justin and I in the "hidden" part of French Canyon. You can see behind us where the waterfall would normally be.

Of the two canyons that we hiked today, French Canyon was my favorite. It was a little bit more difficult to access, and due to some poor signage we very nearly missed it, but I was glad we found it. The stairs heading down to it were very steep, and I was happy for the extra ankle support provided by my hiking boots while we were trekking back through the canyon. (Justin was surprised I even had a proper pair of boots, but they were a holdover from the involuntary three week camping trip in South Dakota I was forced to take as a college junior when I won a scholarship through the American Studies department. I hadn't worn them in the five years since then.)

I'm obsessed with this picture of Justin in Wildcat Canyon. How lucky am I to have a boyfriend that is so ridiculously good-looking?

After French Canyon, we were supposed to hike over to Pontiac Canyon and then continue on to Wildcat Canyon, but instead of consulting our map, we relied on our memory of what the volunteer guide had told us and took a wrong turn, heading straight for Wildcat Canyon, the third stop on our suggested trip. The walk there was quiet and largely devoid of other hikers (which should have been a hint, perhaps, that we were not going the right way), but at least it was on mostly level terrain, so it gave our knees a bit of a break. Our destination wasn't quite as impressive as French Canyon had been, partially because it was swarming with more fellow tourists snapping photos. The only people there who weren't busy capturing the moment on their camera phones was a group of Amish or Mennonite hikers, who stood out in their traditional apparel and use of a Germanic dialect.

The banks of the Illinois River.

Our trip through Wildcat Canyon went fairly quickly, and from there the path took us along the sandy riverfront, where a profusion of royal blue dragonflies were buzzing about. The fact that they only seemed to exist within about 20 feet of the water's edge provided an interesting reminder of the importance of micro-climates in sustaining biodiversity in our environment.

Probably the best photo of the both of us from the whole day, taken at Eagle Cliff Overlook. We were told that this vantage point offered the best view of the day, but I think I disagree with that sentiment.

The path took us past a trio of scenic overlooks, for which we had to scale and descend a large volume of stairs. I'm not sure about the wisdom of putting this portion of the trip at the end of our hike, as my knees were complaining mightily and Justin's energy was flagging as well. Before all was said and done, we had agreed that there would be no afternoon hike for the day, and we'd be better off taking things easy and returning home as soon as we made it back to the visitor center.

Justin and I, keeping our feet planted on terra firma at Lover's Leap.

Still, even if we didn't do see as much as we had hoped, I'd say we had a pretty idyllic visit to Starved Rock. The weather could not have been more perfect, so perhaps it was worth the nearly year long wait for just the right conditions to go. Even if hiking isn't normally my thing, and I generally prefer the beauty of man-made art and architecture to the beauty found in nature, I have to admit that Starved Rock State Park is gorgeous. It's hard to believe it's in Illinois, a state that more often associated with endless corn and soybean fields. I think that's part of what makes it an ideal in-state day trip.

Someday, I'd like to go back to see the waterfalls, or perhaps the vivid colors of the fall foliage, but for now, I'm just happy that we finally made it there. It was fun doing something a little bit different with Justin for the day, and seeing how happy he was to finally get me to do something outdoorsy would have made the entire trip worthwhile on its own, even if the scenery hadn't been as splendid as it was. All in all, it was a day well-spent with the man I love.

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