Illinois boasts a diverse system of state parks and recreation areas, showcasing natural features from towering cliffs to lush valleys, plant life from deep-forest pines to arid cactus, and wildlife of every shape and size. Here are 10 highlights from my quest over the last few years to "hike the state."
1. Sand Ridge State Forest, Forest City, Ill.
Highlighting the vast biodiversity and climates of Illinois, Sand Ridge, near the Mississippi River, features cactus and a stunning array of butterflies in the summer.
2. Castle Rock State Park, Oregon, Ill.
One can spend quite some time at this north central Illinois natural playground. The north system of trails can be more challenging, but offers breathtaking views along ridges through the forest. Try the south trails for a more meandering, open landscape covered in lush grasses.
3. Lowden-Miller State Forest, Oregon, Ill.
Get gleefully lost among the trees on this eight-mile loop trail, snaking through towering hardwood and pine trees, and giving way to aquatic views along the Rock River. You'll definitely want to bring a compassor make sure that your phone has a reliable compass app.
4. Apple River Canyon State Park, Apple River, Ill.
History and nature collide at this park in the northwest corner of the state, a location originally noted as a booming mining town along the banks of the Apple River. The ridge trail down to the lake is particularly challenging ... and rewarding.
5. Wolf Creek State Park, Windsor, Ill.
A gorgeous, slow, sandy walk around the shores of Lake Shelbyville, Illinois' largest body of water contained entirely within its borders.
6. Fox Ridge State Park, Charleston, Ill.
Explore all the splendor that central Illinois has to offer along the escalating switchbacks and rolling hill vistas of this system of trails. A peaceful escape.
7. Trail of Tears State Forest, Jonesboro, Ill.
Located at the south tip of the state, Trail of Tears is not for the faint of foot. This intricate system of country trails follows sharp ridges through the forest, overlooking verdant valleys and an almost mythical variety of wildlife; deer abound.
8. Volo Bog State Natural Area, Ingleside, Ill.
This marshy gem supports an unexpected array of bird and bug life. Quietly scope out the waterfowl, sunning on the bog and wind through the muddy grasses. You'll defintitely want to invest in waterproof hiking shoes for this one.
9. Mississippi Palisades State Park, Savanna, Ill.
This is a challenge for the experienced, alert hiker. The Sunset trail is aptly named, as one false step, and it could be sunset for you. Worth it for the cliffside views of the Mississippi River.
10. Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, Yorkville, Ill.
After miles of shade under the canopy of the forest, spill into the sunlight in a grassy field teeming with botanical diversity and hulking metal electrical towers that scrape the sky. The architectural beauty of these structures provides a stark contrast to the unmanicured, unbound greenness underfoot.
For more information on these parks and many more, see www.dnr.illinois.gov/Parks .