We wanted a walk in the woods. The first day of autumn had arrived last year, which had me itching to lace up my shoes and go rubbernecking for fall colors not too far from home. But where? And when?
The where proves easy: Starved Rock State Park, just 90 minutes southwest of Chicago. But predicting when the fall colors would be at their best has always been one of Mother Nature’s favorite guessing games. Some leaves start turning there at the end of September, I’d been told, and sometimes the colors last into November.
When my husband and I couldn’t coordinate our schedules for a couple of days off until after the usual peak in mid-October, I felt sure we’d miss the height of the fall colors. I booked rooms anyway and hoped for the best.
A scenic drive
The park is a straight shot along I-80, exiting at Illinois Route 178 and heading south through the small town of Utica. But I wanted a more scenic approach. We exited at Ottawa and drove south to Illinois Route 71.
The locals nicknamed Route 71 “Canyon Drive,” a winding highway traveling west through some of the finest fall scenery in this part of Illinois. Soon after we passed the perimeter of the state park, we pulled into a parking lot and hopped out for a hike. The sun filtered through bright leaves, lighting up a well-trod path. In minutes, we reached one of the park’s most famous rock formations, Council Overhang.
Our jaws dropped.
Rising alongside a canyon, this sandstone dome forms a natural band shell beckoning anyone passing to enter. Inside, the voices of hikers instinctively dropped to reverent whispers as if inside a church. The walls, dimpled and carved by erosion, rise to a dizzying height. We made our way to the back of the overhang, turned and looked out onto the canyon through the entryway. Its great stone arch frames a forest of golden leaves like a stained-glass window.
Mission accomplished. I could turn around and go home right now, satisfied that I’d had my fill of fall colors for the season.
But I didn’t.
Canyons and bluffs
Council Overhang sits along one of 18 canyons in Starved Rock State Park, 14 of them with waterfalls, sometimes just a trickle when the weather is dry, but a torrent after heavy rains. The visitor center has maps for self-guided hikes of 12.3 miles of trails ranging from under half a mile to almost five and from easy to strenuous. Naturalists lead guided hikes at 11 a.m. on weekends.
Erosion carved the canyons through St. Peter sandstone, a deceptively soft and porous rock. Signs warning hikers to stay on marked trails should be taken seriously. Some who’ve ventured off have been injured or died when the rock crumbled beneath them. This is especially true on trails leading to the summits of bluffs overlooking the Illinois River.
One such perch is Starved Rock. Visitors who stick to its sturdy set of stairs are rewarded on autumn days with a panoramic view of seasonal hues. Ash and cottonwoods, white and black oaks, maples, cedars, bur oaks and hickories turn from deep green to yellows and golds, oranges and bright reds.
Native American legend has it Starved Rock got its name after Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe was stabbed by the chief of the Illini at a tribal council. A battle ensued and the Illini took refuge at the top of the rock. Surrounded in a siege, they perished from hunger.
Two legends compete for the naming of the park’s other famous bluff, Lover’s Leap. One story tells of an Indian maiden and brave who fell in love, but were forbidden by their chief to marry. They leapt to their deaths. The other says an Indian maiden committed suicide by jumping after waiting for her warrior lover to return only to learn he had fallen in love with another.
The story of the founding of the state park isn’t quite so dramatic. Daniel Hitt purchased the land in the 1890s and built a hotel and dance pavilion for vacationers. The State of Illinois bought the property in 1911 as the first recreational park in the state park system. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up three camps and built the trail system and Starved Rock Lodge.
Now a National Historic Landmark, the log lodge expanded over the years with the addition of an indoor pool, saunas and a hotel wing. Its Great Hall, with double limestone fireplace and log furniture, remains a popular gathering spot.
Peak season in popular park
With 2.1 million visitors a year, Starved Rock ranks among Illinois’ most popular parks, and its busiest month is October when fall colors often peak. Snagging a room in the lodge at this time of year can be a challenge, so visitors look for other options, such as The Willows Hotel in nearby Utica.
Fall Colors Weekend, on Oct. 17-18, draws crowds, as does Utica’s Burgoo Festival, on Oct. 11. The hearty pioneer stew simmers outdoors over wood fires while a craft show, flea market, music and family activities entertain those waiting for a taste.
The Starved Rock Trolley makes the rounds of the park on history tours from March through December, and in October it offers fall color tours. From May through October it combines a tour of the state park with a ride on a mule-pulled packet boat on the historic Illinois & Michigan Canal in nearby LaSalle.
The park’s visitor center stays open year-round, except major holidays, and has interactive exhibits, videos and a 400-gallon aquarium containing fish native to the Illinois River. It makes a good place to start a visit to the park. Staff at the information desk gives advice on hiking and trail conditions, fall colors and wildlife: deer and fox, possum and beavers, but no bears.
We picked up a trail map and began checking off our hikes — the bluffs, the canyons, the overlooks — until our legs gave out. Stiff and sore the morning of our last day, I was ready to drive home, but when I peered out the window of our lodge room, the sun was bright, the sky a deep blue and the trees shimmered in gold. Just one more short hike, we decided.
St. Louis Canyon extends less than half a mile from the parking lot off the park’s west entrance. Leaves littered wooden bridges over the stream flowing through the canyon, kids were climbing over fallen logs and at the back of the canyon a family posed for photos next to a waterfall trickling down layers of stone. We took a seat on a rock to drink in the moment, treasuring an autumn experience that will not come around for another year.