Trails for cross-country skiing enthusiasts are available at Matthiessen State Park (at the Dells area) and, on a more limited basis, at Starved Rock State Park. Matthiessen not only offers six miles of trails, but also ski rentals (weather allowing) on weekends from December through March.
The Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail, too, is ideal for skiing in wintertime when the ground cover allows, with more than 60 miles of trails. Illini State Park in Marseilles also boasts two miles of skiing trails, with Buffalo Park State Park just west of Ottawa, Echo Bluff Park and Recreation Area near Spring Valley, and Goose Lake Prairie State Park near Morris featuring ski trails as well.
Echo Bluff Park and Recreation Area located between Spring Valley and DePue in Western Starved Rock Country is hailed as the “Illinois Valley’s premier ice skating rink.” In addition to skating, the rink is also available for hockey games and more, and skates are available to rent. The park is traditionally only open on weekends unless arrangements have been made beforehand.
While you can see them all around Starved Rock Country after a good snowfall, the Illinois & Michigan State Canal Trail provides a great grail for snowmobilers. Sixty-one miles of groomed trails along the historic canal’s towpath and through the heart of Starved Rock Country are open after a four-inch snow base has been set.
Access points can be found in or near the cities of Ottawa, Marseilles, Utica and La Salle, as well as at designated locations within Buffalo Rock (Ottawa), Gebhard Woods (Morris) and Channahon state parks.
There are more than a dozen waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park, many of which transform into beautiful, natural ice sculptures as winter tightens its grip on Starved Rock Country. According to the Starved Rock staff, some of the more notable (and stunning) ice waterfalls can be found in St. Louis, French, Wildcat, Tonty, Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons. Some of the ice formations — after signing in at the park office — are also available for climbing when there is enough ice.
Nearby Matthiessen State Park also typically features a pair of frozen waterfalls in the heart of winter.
There are many private ponds and small lakes in Starved Rock Country that are available for ice fishing. (Get permission first!)
Fred Krause, of Marseilles, a local fishing guide, said there also are a few Department of Natural Resources lakes or small waterways for ice fishing including the I & M Canal between La Salle and Utica, the Hennepin Canal in Bureau County, and Gebhard Woods State Park in Morris in Grundy County.
For a good guide, he said, pick up a Sportsman’s Northern Illinois Fishing Map Guide (SCmaps.com or sportsmansconnection.com).
He passes on these tips:
- Two inches of ice supports a 200-pound man, and 10 inches supports a small auto or truck.
- It is sometimes late winter before there is safe ice.
- Test the ice with an ice spud, a sharpened steel chisel device on a long, heavy metal pole. If it penetrates and you see water, the ice is not thick enough.
- Watch for underwater springs that show up as lightened areas with bubbles.
- On safe ice, drill several holes about 20 feet apart. The deepest part of the lake is best.
- Primary targets will be bluegills, bass and maybe crappie and catfish.
- Best baits: wax worms or mousies.
Eagles can be seen year-round now at or near Starved Rock State Park, but their numbers increase in the mid-to-late winter months. Jan. 27 and 28 will be the park’s “Eagle Watch Weekend” with hands-on, family-friendly events planned.
And for the hikers
There are countless miles of breathtaking trails through Starved Rock Country. Winter can be an especially beautiful time for those willing to brave the elements.
In fact, hikers are invited to Starved Rock State Park’s three-hour, 4.5-mile guided winter hikes every weekend December through March. Reservations are required by calling 815-220-7386. The park’s “Winter Wilderness Weekend” will be Jan. 20-21.
And for serious hikers, the Lodge offers a Megahike Jan. 20 and 21. The hike spans 13.4 miles. Reservations are required by calling 815-220-7386.
Other notable hiking trails include:
- Allen Park, Ottawa — Room to walk and play along the Illinois River near downtown Ottawa with toboggan run and sledding hills.
- Buffalo Rock State Park, near Ottawa — Offering a wooded trail along the Illinois River as well as a hike around Effigy Tumuli, massive land sculptures engineered to resemble and honor native creatures.
- Carlson Nature Preserve, Lowell — A secluded spot for rugged hiking along the west banks of the Vermilion River.
- Echo Bluff Park and Recreation Area, Spring Valley — A 60-acre park open only on weekends (or by appointment) featuring trails and tons of other activities.
- Gebhard Woods State Park, Morris — Not only has its own trails to explore, but also connects with the I&M Canal State Trail.
- Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Morris — Seven miles of trails through various environments.
- Illini State Park, Marseilles — Large riverside areas for hiking, sledding or ice skating.
- I&M State Canal Trail — More than 60 miles of trails along the canal, crossing paths with four state parks.
- Lake Kakusha, Mendota — Shelters and trails surround this man-made lake.
- Matthiessen State Park, Utica — More than five miles of trails with a pair of waterfalls/icefalls in a mile-long canyon.
- Miller-Anderson Woods, DePue — A beautiful preserve featuring moderately difficult, ribbon-marked trails.
- Sandy Ford Conservation Area, Leonore — 200 acres along the Vermilion River with rugged trails throughout.
- Snyder’s Grove, Mendota — Wood-covered trails cover this 104-acre preserve.
- Spring Lake Nature Park, Streator — Dozens of trails wind through this nature preserve, all surrounding the titular spring.
- Warnecke Woods, Princeton — Paths fill a 30-acre floodplain forest.