Afternoon at Starved Rock

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To say that this winter in Illinois has been strange would be a grave understatement. It started mild, but on November 25 (just after Thanksgiving) we had a sudden temperature drop and a blizzard. Then on December 1 we had a tornado outbreak. It has been mild ever since, but threats of snow storms either than never happened or still to come.

Despite the weirdness of the weather, I took advantage of this time of the year’s family gathering tendencies and the mildness and took to hiking at Starved Rock. It is 98 miles from Chicago, 62 miles from Bloomington-Normal, and 64 miles from Peoria, right along the southern bank of the Illinois River. It is a wonderful day trip if you live or are visiting those cities, or a splendid weekend getaway for any family or couple. I have always enjoyed that place, and I am surprised with myself that it took me this long to devote an article to it.

Front door to the Starved Rock Lodge
It is decorated for the holidays

History of the Park

Legend tells that the park got its name from a battle in the 1760’s between two Native American tribes : the Illinois and the Ottawa. A brave from the Illinois tribe stabbed Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe. The Illinois fled and hid behind a rock, but then starved to death.

The area surrounding this rock was purchased from the Federal government by Daniel Hunt in 1895. Over time the ownership passed to the State of Illinois who made it into a recreational state park. Then the current trails, campsites, and Lodge were built.

In 1965, the park was name a National Historic Landmark.

To See and Do

Both guided and self-guided hikes are available, and there is much to see. There are two main inter-looping trails: bluff and riverside, and trails in-between to connect them, for a total of 13 miles of hike-able trail. There, you can see the sandstone as it is ornamented by waterfalls by summer or icefalls by winter. The trails visit a number of canyons where the waterfalls flow into.

There are also a number of historical sights near the park to visit; such as the Hegeler-Carus Mansion, Reddick Mansion, the Spirit of Peoria paddleboat (which visits the park during the summer), and much more. There is also an indoor water park at nearby Grand Bear Resort.

Our Day

We took the trails first to Starved Rock (the obvious namesake of the park), and overlooked Plum Island, a preserved island in the middle of the river where bald eagles will make their roost, and which is closed to public visitors.

View of Plum Island from just next to Starved Rock

Then we trekked over to Lover’s Leap, named for two lovers from rival Native American tribes who leapt to their deaths instead of spending their lives apart. 

Left: view of Starved Rock from Lover’s Leap
Right: view of Lover’s Leap from Starved Rock

Then we hiked along the riverside. There we passed Starved Rock Lock and Dam, which allows for water travel between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes along the Illinois River, and we reached an overlook to have a panoramic view of the Illinois River.

From there, we went to Wildcat Canyon, one of the more popular canyons in the park, and for good reason. It is very pretty.

Left: Inside Wildcat Canyon
Right: Looking into Wildcat Canyon

We ended our day back at the Lodge to have dinner, and then we drove back home.


I love this park. It brings back memories of childhood, of scouting, and family trips. Each season brings a different beauty to the park: spring brings everything back to life and a higher rate of waterfalls, summer brings vibrancy, fall brings fall colours and the eagles, and the winter brings snow and ice falls. I plan on going back during the summer, and again next winter for a couple days in the Lodge.

By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois

As my wife was driving to Peoria today with me in the car, we both mentioned that we do not understand how people can say that everywhere else in the world is so beautiful, and Illinois is so boring and lacks beauty. Clearly, these people have never been here. Ironically, the people who say this are those who have been born and raised here in Illinois.

Bloomington-Normal to Peoria is a short drive, and a common commute distance. Yet the shades of green in just the short drive are phenomenal and very diverse. Not to mention the yellow prairie flowers that occasionally break through the green background.

Being a mostly rural state, there is a lot of agriculture that dominates the landscaping. So, yes, hours of hours of corn and beans as far as the eye can see definitely gets boring to look at. Yet, the ground is hilly, providing shadows and contrast. No, we are not as hilly as the mountain lands, but we are not as flat as say Nebraska and Kansas, etc. The land is criss-crossed with rivers and streams, not to mention bordered by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. There is also a fair number of lakes and ponds peppered throughout, also bordered to the northeast by Lake Michigan (not just Chicago and suburbs!). With water means trees and flora. With flora means deer, large birds, and other megafauna.

Outside of Chicago, there are a number of small towns. No, I do not mean Bloomington-Normal or Peoria. I do not even mean Pontiac! There are a lot of towns with no more than a couple thousand people. These are the towns where the bars are going to be the go to places. They may only have a bar to visit, other than a post office. The bars are going to have a “dive” feel to them, and are going to be patroned by farmers or other blue collar workers. If you ever want to know what is going on in small town America, these bars are the place to be.

The architecture here is 100% Americana. Small farm houses painted with muted colours, surrounded by picket fences. Water towers in the distance. Downtowns with rows of two story buildings, dating to the 1800s, early 1900s. Time moves slowly here. It would be similar to Missouri and Iowa, and other cornbelt states. 

This song as good shots of what I mean:

I never expect Central Illinois to be a touristy location, not by a long shot. But just because it is not the busy urban life, nor the majestic mountains, nor the beautiful sea, does not mean that it does not have beauty. For those who do not live in small town Illinois, or even small town America, go out and spend a day in a town no larger than 10,000 people. Enjoy the small shops, the diners and bars where every patron and staff member know each other. Enjoy the Americana for what it is, and not the idealised caricature of it at Disneyland or Broadway. For those who do live here, spend a day to enjoy the beauty that surrounds you. I am well aware of how boring it can get, but a lot of that boredom stems not actually seeing the surroundings because we are blinded by being surrounded by it.

Setting the Gold Standard

This post is made possible in part by my Patreon supporters, and for Rasmussen Travels for setting the trip up. Thank you.

I grew up in a small Central Illinois town called Pontiac. At the time, there was not much to do. Since I was in middle school, the town has been growing its tourist department, especially based on Route 66 travelling. There is actually a lot to do, and makes for a great weekend getaway from urban hustle and bustle. It is small, quaint, and quite pretty. Similar story to a smaller Ontario town. They have really done a lot, worked hard at it, and it shows.

What brought me to write an article about something there was the Museum of the Gilding Arts in downtown.

Logo of the Eagle Theatre

Back story time. Since I lost my job at State Farm, and I had not opened my travel agency yet, so I needed to kill a lot more free time than usual. I volunteered for a community theatre group in Pontiac called Vermillion Players. In October, the group did a play at the Eagle Theatre, and I was informed that the ornamentation around the stage was laid on1. with gold leaf. Also, the manager of the museum was also in the play, and set me up on a personal tour of the Gilding Arts museum, and with an interview with the president of the Society of Gilders, who opened the museum.

In 1988, professional gilders all over the world came together to share ideas to create the Society of Gilders. In the past gilding was a secretive trade: the gilding masters kept their secrets of the trade from everyone, including other gilding masters.2. The opening of the Society opened up those secrets among the differing gilding craftsmen.

Back in 2009, the Walldogs came into town and painted 18 murals in the downtown area. One of those Walldog members, named Joe, was also a member of the Society of Gilders. He liked the town of Pontiac, and knew that the society was looking for a location to open a museum. M. Swift & Sons in Hartford, CT were the last hand beaten gold manufacturer in America. Now, gold leaf is made by machine. They donated the old hand beaters and other contents from their factory to the Society for display. Among the choices they had available, they chose Pontiac. Now, that display is open permanently for free3.

I definitely recommend taking a weekend trip to Pontiac, and making this as one of your stops to see while here. You will be pleasantly surprised.


  1. I incorrectly said that the gold leaf was pressed on when the correct term is laid on.
  2. My interview with the president of Society of Gilders was over the phone, and I am working on a project about the guilds of the Middle Ages, so I mistook what she was saying and superimposed guilder when it was gilder that she was saying. I removed any reference to the guilds.
  3. This paragraph was quite unclear the first time. I hope I made it more clear and accurate.