Thursday, July 31, 2014

Nature in All its Forms at Allerton Park

On a recent weekend, I hiked at Allerton Park near Monticello, Illinois. Once the property of a wealthy family, Allerton Park was donated to the University of Illinois in 1946. The university runs the mansion as a retreat center, and the gardens, woods, and prairies around it as a park and nature preserve. Despite living about an hour or less from it at various times in my life, this was the first time I actually visited the place. It won't be the last time I visit.

Of course, the highlight for most visitors are the gardens and sculptures. From the collection of fu dogs on the north edge of the gardens, to the giant Sunsinger well to the south of the gardens, there are plenty of things to see. Here nature is corralled into geometric shapes and kept ordered, with sculpted bushes and shrubs, manicured flower beds and lawns, and well placed statuary and fences. Viewing these man-made wonders is truly interesting, as these things are not what you'd expect to see in Central Illinois.

Were Allerton Park nothing but its gardens and sculptures, it would be an cultural gem worth visiting, if only once. However, what truly makes the place special are the vast majority of the acreage of the grounds, which are kept in a truly natural state. If the grounds of the mansion are unique for the prairies of Illinois, the natural land around represent what the area looked like before so much of it was plowed under for corn and soybeans. Whereas the gardens represent nature in perfect order, the flooded bottoms along the Sangamon River represent nature in all its freedom, both messy and beautiful.

While the natural treasure of Allerton Park would be evident even when dry, it is certainly more visible when the river is up. True, the flooded grounds changed my hiking plans, as I wasn't able to complete a hike for my "Hiking the Lists" feature. The trail was too muddy in places to continue, especially considering I left my trekking poles in the car. Beyond that, however, significant parts of the trail were flooded over, and no way was I going to trek through that stagnant water as I groped for the trail, frequently having to navigate around trees that were either blown down or knocked down by the flood waters. Even after I conceded the trail and stuck mostly to the high grounds of the gardens, I encountered the floods again heading from the gardens to the Sunsinger. Here the trail comes fairly close the river again, and here the trail became muddy. I dealt with that the best I could, but had to give up when I saw a large tree fallen across the trail. There was nowhere to go around it, and it had so many branches that climbing over it was not an option. Besides, behind the fallen tree the trail was flooded over. With apologies to the mosquitoes that would have appreciated my heading on, I instead decided to bushwhack my way up the hillside, where I gathered from MapMyHike's map (and my knowledge gained as a hiker) that there was a road not too far up it. The hill was steep, and full of nasty stinging nettle, thorny bushes, and poison ivy. Somehow I navigated up the hill hitting only one thorny bush, and appear to have avoided poison ivy altogether. As expected, I came to the road not too far up the hill, and made it to the far south sculpture.

So yes, Allerton Park, I shall return. After all, I've got two hikes to complete still. But it's more than obligations to a irregularly posted feature on a barely read blog. There are plenty more miles of bottom land woods and prairies (and the ruins of a lost garden) to explore. It may have taken me almost 33 years to get there the first time, but it won't take another 33 for a second visit.

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