Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hiking the Lists: Snake Road

Photo by Erin

Hike: #11
Title: Snake Road 
Location: LaRue-Pine Bluffs Natural Research Area, Shawnee National Forest
Hike List: Illinois
Difficulty: Mostly easy, although during spring and fall venomous snakes abound so be careful.
Duration of Hike: No more than a couple hours, depending on how many pictures you take.

Most of the geology of Illinois is dominated by glaciers. The expansive flatness of central Illinois is due to the work of ancient glaciers, as are the occasional ridges which are the remnants of terminal moraines from the glaciers. From Marengo Ridge and Volo Bog in the north, to the ridge that gave my hometown its name (Ridge Farm), the evidence is all around us.

That is everywhere but two places in the state, both of which exhibit the least "Illinois" terrain. The first is in extreme northwestern Illinois, which is part of the non-glaciated Driftless Zone.  The other is in far southern Illinois, home to Shawnee National Forest, the Cache River, and many sandstone wonders such as Giant City, the Little Grand Canyon, and Garden of the Gods. Here an ancient shallow sea was the primary factor in the area's geology.

Like the aforementioned places, LaRue-Pine Hills is yet another wonderful place full of sandstone rock formations. In this case, it isn't the weird shapes of Giant City or Garden of the Gods, but sheer cliffs standing high above the swamps, ponds, and wetlands that make up the bottoms near the Mississippi River. Because of the variation in elevation as well as wetness, there is a great diversity in wildlife to be found in the area. The entirety of Illinois' population of woodrats live here, as well as the only native stands of a few species of conifers. All in all, a wide variety of Illinois' native flora and fauna can be found here. Including snakes.

Two times each year (March 15-May 15 and September 1 - October 30), the USFS closes LaRue Road to vehicle traffic. The reason is as plain as the cliffs above the swamps at the site. Reptiles, especially snakes, cross the road every fall to go from their summer living grounds in the swamps and low forests to hibernate in the crevices and cracks of the bluffs. Come spring, they go the other direction. Closing the road during this critical times makes sure the animals have a better chance of getting where they go.

The road isn't closed to foot traffic, however, so people who are willing to hike a rolling 2.5 (one way) gravel road are often in for a ecological treat. Each spring and fall, they get to be part of the great snake migration. Now, this doesn't mean you'll see a stream of snakes, lizards, and frogs crossing the road during this time. However, you'll still see several in one hike, assuming its not too cold. When Erin and I hiked the trail, we both saw three snakes, and she saw another swimming in the water. All but one were certainly cottonmouths, and the other one was most likely one. It was amazing to get to view that many venomous snakes in their element, especially since none of them were all that aggressive. They all seemed more intent on getting some sunlight, and only once did any of them show even a small amount of indignation at our presence.

Photo by Erin

In addition, we saw many species of birds (and heard many more). About 150 species of birds live in the area of the hike. We also saw and heard dozens, if not hundreds, of frogs. The one animal we were surprised we didn't see, either swimming in the ponds or sunning themselves on logs were turtles. We saw plenty of turtles elsewhere during the weekend, but not here. Our mammal sightings were limited to squirrels, the omnipresent rodents of the forests of the east.

As for the hike itself, it isn't necessarily the most memorable. The entirety of it is gravel, as it is a road during the other eight months of the year. It's rolling, but nothing too taxing. My app on my phone said we had gained 100+ feet in elevation, but I'm pretty certain it was catching the bluffs next to us at times.

However, the trail is just the path to get you to the real show here. Whether its marveling at the pine-topped cliffs above, or looking at the dangerous, but beautiful, snakes below, it's a wonderful place to visit. If I made a list of places every person in Illinois should visit at least once, this would be a strong candidate.

Note: There are no bathrooms on either end of the trail. You might want to stop in Chester or Jonesboro (depending upon what direction you are coming from) first, or visit the campground and picnic area a few miles away on the other side of the bluffs.

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