50 Hikes 50 States Project–Illinois

I was born in Illinois. I left six weeks later. But I couldn’t wait to get back to hike the Prairie State on my half birthday many decades later.

Yes, my half birthday.

It’s something I celebrate to overcome how terrible my real birth date is.

So thus, I found myself at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in late June ready to hike the second hike of my 50 Hikes 50 States Project. Nevada’s red rocks were first, only to be heavily contrasted to acres and acres of tall grasses about an hour southwest of Chicago near Joliet, IL.

Picking Illinois

photo credit: Asher Millikan

When picking my hike for Illinois, I knew I’d be flying into Chicago’s Midway on Southwest Airlines. My criteria for this 50 Hikes 50 States Project lists driving no more than three hours from the airport. Thus, I narrowed my choices to Starved Rock, Matthiessen State Park and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Reviews of Starved Rock and comments from friends crossed this overly popular, short hike off the list. Too many people, not enough distance.

Matthiessen sounded inviting, but it appeared to me to be just a hike through the woods to a view of water. Of course I love these kinds of hikes, but I also know that I’ll be doing many of these wooded hikes throughout my 50 states, so I wanted something a bit different.

Welcome to the Prairie State

Illinois is nicknamed the Prairie State. Thus, the perfect selection for this second hike popped up. Off to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie we drove on a simple route down Interstates 57 to 80 for just over an hour. Passing Romeoville on the way to Joliet, we snickered some Shakespeare and reviewed what we knew about the state of Illinois, home to Abe Lincoln.

National Tallgrass versus Wildlife Refuge

Stopping in at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Visitor’s Center helped center our thoughts about why we where there and what we’d want to do. In Denver, I live next to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, and I found many similarities in the two locations’ histories; once homestead land, then Army bases, then remediation, then open space. Both also raise bison, but the biggest difference between these two giant prairies is their managers–the US Forest Services manages the Tallgrass and the US Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Wildlife Refuge. This difference in managers shined brightly; Tallgrass focuses on plants and vegetation while Wildlife Refuge focuses on bison and wildlife management.

Tallgrass Equals Wildflowers

At Tallgrass, I was in love from the minute I stepped on the grounds. I forever am hunting down native plants and grasses to landscape my yard, so I was in heaven learning about the history of the prairie’s grasses and their identifications. Within this open space of prairies, groves, savannas, meadows, wetlands, woodlands, streams and upland forests, the USFS has restored about 40 acres of prairie, and has cultivated seed plants for over 350 species of plants including Pale-Spiked Lobelia, Sullivan’s Milkweed and Michigan’s Lily. I couldn’t wait to get out on the trail to see this 12-year old prairie and compare it to the bison habitat, which they called “restored farm land.”

On this particular hike, my husband and my teen came with me. His enthusiasm for something new always delights me; my teen’s non-nonchalance needed a bit of prodding. Bison! Butterflies! Buffalo grass! Sadly, these weren’t enough to entice her, but letting her be the official photographer of the trip did.

The Tale of Two Prairies

The trailhead starts in an upland wood.

We headed to the Iron Bridge Trailhead. The trail begins in a wooded upland of hardwoods were we stumbled upon some leftover foundations from the historic bunkers of the area. The trees quickly gave way to their prairie. A hard-packed trail of crushed shell divided the open space into two sides. On the right grew the restored prairie, on the left struggled the restored farm land. I was amazed.

Rich, thick, restored prairie

Our first stop on the right lead us to wonderful interpretation and identification of the tall grasses. Historically, tall grass prairie over 8 feet tall blanketed the midwest; now only one-hundredth of one percent of the original prairie remains. John Deere, inventer of the steel plow, helped facilitate its transition.

Big Bluestem, Canadian Wild Rye, and Tufted Hair Grass loomed out of the ground, their rich seed popds just waiting to pop in the beating Illinois sun. Tall Coreopsis, Wild Quinine, and Purple Prairie Clover burst their bright purples and yellows against the displays of the Rough Blazing Star and Spiderworts. Pollinators buzzed throughout the field, loaded with pollen.

I couldn’t get over the density and variety within a square foot. Thick, lush, rich–like a good head of hair–and just bursting with health and happiness.

Then I looked to the left.

Not so rich restored farm land

The “restored farm land.” This larger tract of open space homes the bison herd of the Tallgrass Prairie. It looks very similar to the prairie land that we have in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. Yes, it’s healthy too. But it’s short. And not as lush. Nor rich. Nor buzzing. But it did have beautiful fields where the Meadowlarks, Dickcissels, Loggerhead Shrikes and Killdeer sang the melodies we enjoyed while hiking along. Click here to hear the songs from the prairie!

The Iron Bridge Trail takes you through prairie and to bison. Photo credit: Asher Millikan

Fortunately, large mulberry tries shaded the trail (see a 6-second video!) every few hundred yards. In fruit, we feasted along with the birds. But the sun beat down, mercilessly.

Bison Overlooked

At the T in the trail, we walked over the bridge to look at the newer restoration area. Not as lush as the first, it’s on its way to density as well. The Iron Bridge Trail continues down to the south to the flower beds. But with the heat beat, we backtracked back to the T and took a right on the Bison Overlook Trail and continued to the Overlook as the trail paralleled the road.

Sadly, the Overlook overlooked providing us with bison that day. Otherwise, we would have seen the gorgeous herd that grazes the prairie–once over 200,000,000 in size–but today we couldn’t find them. We’ll have to say hi to their southern cousins the next time we’re at the Wildlife Refuge. Thus, we turned around whence we came, arriving back to the car after about a 3-mile, very hot, hike in the prairie.

See Where They Harvest Native Seed!

I enjoyed the seed harvesting section down the road.

At the car, I cajoled my hiking mates that we needed to stop at the seeding rows to take a look at where the USFW is harvesting the next crop of seeds. Thus, we drove out of the park, south on Hwy 53 and then a right on River Road. About a mile down to Boathouse Road, we took a right and parked in the trailhead parking. On the west side of the trailhead parking, we found rows and rows of experimental and productive beds of native plants. I loved having so many rich flowers at my fingertips and ready for their debut pictures!

Gemini Giant Ahead

The Gemini Giant snagged us! Photo credit: Asher Millikan

With sweating bodies and hungry tummies, lunch on historic Highway 66 beckoned us. We found the perfect spot–a recently restored diner called the Launching Pad just a few miles away in Wilmington. A giant green giant, the Gemini Giant, welcomed us to this kitschy space-race place where I loved my tuna melt with coleslaw. A stop in its makeshift museum in the rear brought back fun memories of Kennedy-esque times. The food and the memories are worth the stop.

On to our Next Hike

With our second hike finished on our 50 Hikes 50 States Project, we stayed at a friend’s house in Chicago for the night.

The next morning, we headed to a place many Chicagoans and Indianans have fond memories of, Indiana Sand Dunes State Park, for our next hike on this American adventure. Come along!

Things to Know About This Hike (click for interactive map)