Saturday, July 7, 2012

On the Trail: Big Woods Trail

On the Trail is an irregular series describing my various impressions of trails I have walked. Some will be short trails, some long, some magnificent, while others just a pleasant walk in the woods. Every one of them deserve some recognition. We start with a short walk through the western edge of the great eastern deciduous forest.

Big Woods Trail
Forest Glen Nature Preserve
Vermilion County, Illinois

I know I've talked about Forest Glen many times before, but I have to state again that it is a true treasure of Vermilion County. Nestled in the border zone between the great prairies of the Midwest and the deciduous forests of the East, it is a great place to commune with nature. There are many trails in the park, from the short paved Beech Grove Handicapped Trail to the 11 mile long River Ridge Backpack Trail. For Illinois, there is a surprising amount of ups and downs throughout the park.

The Big Woods Trail tends to the shorter, being less than a mile one way. However, in its short run in descends down to the streams at the bottom of ravines and ascends back up twice. It's a great workout, and the one trail in the park that best resembles ridge walking on the AT.

I would guess it is because of the large tulip, red oak, and beech trees that can be found along the trail. Most of the trees that grow here cannot be found farther west in Illinois, while they make up the bulk of the trees in the climax forests of the eastern United States. Thus you spend the majority of the trail walking below a high canopy, giving you a closer feel to the lower areas of the Smokies or the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. At several points along the trail the ground slopes down on both sides to streams below, really giving you a feel that you are walking atop a ridge. Even though you no more than 100 feet above the low points, and you never even get above 800 feet in elevation, it is the closest you can come to feeling like you are in mountains in central Illinois. Heck, in a couple places there are even rocks, a real rarity on a non stream-bed or moraine ridge trail in central Illinois.

The high canopy shields the trail from the harshness of the summer sun, and even on warm days the shade keeps you relatively cool. My most recent hike I didn't see many birds, but I could certainly hear them, from the little chickadees to the woodpeckers looking for food. It is highly unlikely you can walk this trail without seeing a deer or two, and often more. Otherwise, look for squirrels, chipmunks, and other mammals. There are a couple places where you get close to small streams (even crossing one over rocks at one point), so there are places where amphibians and reptiles roam as well.

There aren't too many dangers along the trail, as it is fairly easy trail (even an out of shape guy like me didn't have too many troubles). Watch your step going up and down, as there are some stairs that aren't too stable. Other than that, just the usual precautions such as watching for ticks and being careful when it is wet, muddy, or icy apply.

Unlike many trails in the park this one is one way, ending near the observation tower that stands overlooking the Vermilion River valley. It's a pretty impressive view atop the tower, although those with aversions to height or numerous steps might choose to skip it. A short, yet surprisingly steep, walk down the gravel path near the tower will take you to the Vermilion River. When you are ready to head back, you can walk back the way you came, or walk roads back to the parking lot. For my last hike I walked back part way along the road, then cut through on a small trail to the Backpack trail and walked it back to the Big Woods trail head. Another option would be walking roads back to the Beech Grove trail head, which has a connector trail between the paved trail and the Big Woods trail. Keep in mind that while the Big Woods trail is nice and shady, most of that road walk is in direct sunlight, which can be rather unpleasant during the summer. There is a seasonal water fountain at the Pine Knoll Picnic shelter, which will be along the road walk from the tower area.

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