National Trails Day, a day to celebrate dirt (or in this case, sand) underfoot. I drove down to central Illinois for some hiking and camping at Sand Ridge State Forest on Saturday, interest piqued by the unusual things I’d heard about the area and the opportunity to do some backcountry camping (not easy to come by in the Midwest). At 7,200 acres, this is the largest of Illinois’ state forests and boasts a desert-like environment overlaid with a oak and hickory forest. Desert? Yes, in the middle of endless agricultural land lies a spot where you can find prickly pear cactus. Cactus in Illinois!
After meeting up with the rangers to secure a backcountry camping spot, I started exploring the trails, parking the car and doing some out and backs to see as much as possible. One of the highlights of the day was the fact that an enormous butterfly hatch ( of all kinds) had recently occurred, so there were literally thousands of butterflies all over the place. Many of them were settled on horse poop on the trail (my guess was to get the moisture out; remember, desert), and, as I approached, all would take flight from underfoot. I really hope that it’s captured on video, but even if it is, it won’t truly recreate the experience. I keep mentioning the desert. The trails are primarily sand. The sand is deep and torn up quite a bit by the horse riders, so the going was tough, though not to the point of discomfort; that came later.
After some pleasant strolling along different trails, I shouldered my 45 pound backpack (only 4.5 pounds of which was water, have no idea how it got so heavy!), I headed in towards my campsite, once again trying to vary the trails taken rather than heading directly there. Not that I didn’t get lost, I did. Besides the marked trails, there are also fire roads and snowmobile trails criss-crossing the forest, making things confusing at times.Along the way I checked out the game fields, where, to my surprise, deer were placidly grazing. 3:00 in the afternoon – I guess hunting pressure isn’t heavy right now.
I’ll say at this point that I was SO GLAD I had brought along my new Manfrotto Off-Road trekking poles, truly life savers. They made it possible to make headway in the heavier sections of sand and allowed me to brush aside thorny bushes and spider webs as needed. I didn’t use the option this time, but one of the poles has an integrated camera mount, allowing it to be used as a monopod when taking photos in the backcountry. Incredibly light, easy to bring along, I don’t think I’ll leave these at home in the future. Definitely coming along to Hell Hike and Raft 2015!
I mentioned camping. Did I camp? No, though I had every intention of doing so (hence the 45 pound backpack). Once I found my way to the Green Trail on which my campsite was located, things got interesting. Horses are not allowed on the trail, so it is clearly less utilized, resulting in it being both amazingly gorgeous and slightly overgrown (remember the thorny bushes?). At this point the mosquitoes were having a field day with me, since I had forgotten to bring either a long sleeve shirt or insect repellent (quite the oversight!). After pushing through some heavier bushes, I took a glance down to discover that my uncovered legs were covered in ticks (thankfully I had not opted to hike in the nude). Major ick.
Hiking Sand Ridge State Forest Video
I found my campsite, dropped the backpack in relief, and got dinner going (new camp cooking equipment bought, used, and enjoyed – post forthcoming). as I sat there, enjoying the dinner and the view, I realized I wasn’t enjoying the thought of setting up the tent and spending the night there. The endless mosquitoes and reappearing ticks (I found more even a few hours later, yuck) had put a damper on my enthusiasm. After eating (loved the Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles, yum!), I packed up and wearily hit the trail. If there is a better sight when sore and tired than your car waiting in the parking lot…
Somewhat disappointed and feeling wimpy, I headed home. On the positive side, I got to listen to the Blackhawks game (they lost) and then see the family a lot earlier than expected. Three hours or so driving there, three and a half hours hiking, threeish hours home. Totally worth it. If you have the chance to head down there, I highly recommend it – I’m planning on bringing the kids down, but maybe in the Fall or early Spring so there are less bugs.