Friday, January 16, 2015

Essential Hikes of the Midwest: River Ridge Backpack Trail

Sunset along the River Ridge Backpack Trail
Compared to the legendary trails through the mountains, deserts, and forests to our east and west, the Midwest gets a short shrift in the minds of many hikers. Despite a reputation for being flat, the north central region of our country has a wide variety of hiking opportunities that are quite scenic, and can be as challenging as much of what you see on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails (even if the challenge isn't quite as long or as quite as life threatening). This feature will be open ended and erratic as given to the standard you've come to expect from our blog. In essence, it's purpose is to share the hikes we've walked that would be tops on our list when someone asks "I'm in the area for a day/weekend/week/month/year. What should I hike?"

Hike: River Ridge Backpack Trail
Location: Forest Glen County Preserve
State: Illinois
Distance: 11 miles
Type: Long Day / Overnight
Elevation: Flat to Small Roller Coaster (50-100 foot ascents/descents are common)
Footing: Good to Poor (depending upon conditions and time of year)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Fees: $10 per group up to ten, than $1/person after that to hike with or without camping. Entrance to the park is free.

Were you to only walk the first mile and the last mile of the River Ridge Backpack Trail, you would wonder what the fuss is about. After all, it's only a mostly flat walk around a large pond and a mostly flat walk on the edge of a prairie. How exactly is this a backpack trail, and why do so many people like to hike it?

The answer can be found on the other nine miles of the trail. Sure, the ups and downs aren't too large, the longest being no more than 100 feet from top to bottom. There's also significant portions that are flat (or mostly flat), including about 80% of the trail from the trailhead to the first camp ground.

However, what this trail lacks in big climbs, in makes up with a multitude of small climbs, more than a few of them pretty nasty. This trail is one of the few places in Illinois where the trail (and the trees) make you think of the Appalachian Trail, if only for a very short while.

The first leg of the trail (from the trailhead to the Group Campground, the first "backcountry"* camp site is about three miles. From here to final stretch, the Backpack trail is marked by red blazes, red marks on posts, and red plastic markers. Most of this portion is part of other, smaller trails in the park. After walking around Willow Pond and by its dam, you hit your first downhill. It's short, but the footing is a bit tricky and could be a challenge in wet or icy conditions. Shortly thereafter you leave the Old Barn Trail and cross over a branch of the creek to the Deer Meadow trail. Normally there is a bridge here, but a pretty bad rain storm messed up portions of this part of the preserve, including washing out the bridge that was there. The crossing isn't tough, particularly if you are OK with your feet getting wet.

After going up, down, up, down, and up one more time, you are now in the Sycamore Hollow campus. During warmer months there is water in front of the education building opposite of where you come out of the woods. This is the only water source along the trail, unless you are willing to take your chances with treating, filtering, or boiling stream water.

From there, you head out on the Willow Creek trail for a short distance, until you reach a fork for the Primitive Loop. This portion is very easy walking, although some parts can be pretty sticky when muddy. Shortly before you split off on the Primitive Loop is one of the seeps that can be found at Forest Glen. This area is an Illinois State Nature Preserve, so be careful in this area, as all the animals and plants are protected.

Eventually you come to a point where the primitive loop, well, loops back around. You, however, split off to the right and make a crossing of Willow Creek. Shortly after that is an old boardwalk. The boardwalk is flat, but the ground it takes you towards is not. Here is the first major climb since the Deer Meadow trail, and the first that feels a bit more challenging than a normal trail. The grade is relatively steep, and the water bars are old and unreliable. Once you finish this climb, you will come to a gravel road, where you will turn left.

Eventually you will come to some open areas with firepits and picnic tables. This is the group campground. Although this is primarily for use by groups, it also serves as the first of two campgrounds available for use by backpackers. The two times I've hiked the trail we had our campsite to ourselves, but there are times of the year when this place could be heavily used, particularly if there is a special event going on. The campsites are well maintained and certainly have the feel of being "back of beyond", even if you're only a few miles away from Interstate 74, US 150 and IL 1, and IN 63. The only sign otherwise are the barking dogs at nearby houses and the frequent horns of trains rattling through Danville to the northwest. Be on the lookout for mice, as we had one near our camp last November. There are some trees worthy of bear bagging if you want to try it for practice, although there are no bears to be found.

Upon leaving the campsite you begin the second leg, which is roughly five miles. This is the most challenging portion, and the one that is mostly its own trail. Almost immediately after the final campsite you do a down and up to cross a stream. The down is relatively quick, the up steep for a short distance, and gradual after that. Eventually you come to a nice and easy portion walking along the edge of an open area that is gradually progressing back to forest.

Just when you think things are going to go fast, the trail heads back into the woods and towards the ravine edge. It's here where you encounter a very wicked down hill. If you follow the red blaze and markers, you can very easily be led down a path fit primarily for mountain goats. At one point this trail may have been usable, but a storm washed out the hillside, requiring a still steep, but doable, detour. This is one of many downhills that could be quite challenging in icy or muddy conditions. Also, be wary of hiking downhill in the fall, particularly if the fallen leaves are wet. Before you know it, you could start sliding.

Once you reach the bottom, and navigate around a fallen tree and its footprint, now's the time for some fun following the stream path. While there is a trail, it can be hard to follow at times along here. If you lose the trail, just follow the main stream bed towards the Vermilion River. The point where you need to turn away from the stream and head back up hill will be pretty well marked.

The uphill here is steep but short, and once again you find yourself in a grassy, flat expanse. Before long you'll meet the Tall Trees trail. This will head back to the right, while you'll follow a different path. If you are short on water and don't have treatment options, a fairly short hike up to the end of the Tall Trees Trail and a short road walk will take you to a picnic shelter that will have water in the warmer months.

If you stay on the backpack trail, you will come to two "PUDs"**. These are steep both up and down, and are particularly challenging given how short the distance you are traveling over them. After the second steep downhill, you will go down some rickety old stairs and meet the Hawk Hill trail. To the left is the canoe landing on the Vermilion River. To the right is an annoyingly steep hill, the observation tower ***, and another way to access the aforementioned picnic shelter.

Past this intersection is another flat section, the longest since the clearing before the stream bed walk and the washout. Enjoy this section, because it will be the last piece of straight, flat walking until the East Camp. Eventually you'll pass the return section of the Hickory Ridge trail, which goes straight down a hill side and across a bridge. For a short while you'll be on the outbound portion of this loop, going up and away from a stream until you reach near the top of Hickory Ridge. The namesake trail will head right, while you'll want to go left. It is here where signs tell you that you are entering the River Ridge Backpack trail. Until you reach East Camp, there is no way in our out other than the trail itself.**** Its a foreboding sign which is not misleading.

Immediately after these signs you head downhill, at times down a steep grade. Eventually you will reach the edge of the river. It's here where a roller coaster really takes hold, as you go up and down, up and down, for the most part staying within view of the river. None of these up and downs are too challenging. Except for one.

Eventually you'll veer away from the river, going along a steep ravine with a small tributary. Before too long you come to a crossing, the toughest on the trail. The stream crossing itself isn't bad, as its a bridge. The problem is getting down to the bridge and getting back up. The trail down to the bridge is steep, but its nothing compared to going back up. It's here where the trail ceases to be a path, and becomes a set of notches on the side of the hill. Despite the spare look, and a potential for slippery footing, the notches are actually pretty stable. Still, it's the toughest portion of the trail, even if its fairly short.

Once that's done, it's back to the river's edge roller coaster. Up and down, up and down, up and down you go, until you finally reach another place where the trail moves away from the river. The bridge here is at level with the trail (you have to step up on it, but no ravines to be found), and shortly after this you reach an old road bed. The road bed is relatively steep, but the footing is good and the grade is reliable. Before long, you reach East Camp. In the fifteen years between my first and second hike of the trail, this camp site appears to be much better maintained. Because of the isolated portion you've traveled, and the seemingly isolated portion you've yet to hike, this camp site gives the impression of true backcountry camping, even if facts don't actually back that up.

From here you walk along the maintenance access road for a while, until a signpost with a map points you to the right. If you are tired of the incessant up and downs, or need to reach a road in an emergency, continue straight for about a half mile. This will bring you out to the road that goes by the entrance to Forest Glen. From the entrance, you can pick back up with the final mile of the trail if you so choose at the Big Woods trailhead.

If you are a purist, however, you'll continue on the trail. Eventually you'll go back downhill and walk along a streambed. When I walked along here the first time, there were plants with sharp leaves growing along here. Hiking through here in shorts why I tend to hike wearing long pants, as I don't want to relive that experience. Beyond here are more ups and downs, which if you aren't just starting out from East Camp fresh in the morning can be rather tedious. Along here is probably the steepest grade of the trail that isn't a notched hillside ladder. It's fairly short, but it's downhill. Those with bad knees or a high center of gravity may want to take this one scooting down in a seated position, as there's a stream crossing shortly after the bottom of this.

Eventually you'll come out to yet another stream, which you'll follow for a short while, cross, and meet up with the Big Woods trail. Take a left onto this trail and head up hill. This isn't the worst hill, but it's still a hill. Fortunately, when you reach the top of this one, you are done with any significant uphill or downhill changes. Cross the main park road and find a map on a signpost. This is where the trail continues into the woods on the other side of the road.

For a while you'll be hiking through the edge of the woods. This part of the trail is very flat, but it can have roots, so watch your footing. Eventually you'll meander along and reach the edge of the park. Here you'll cross through the tree line where the small tall-grass prairie can be found. For the remainder of the hike you'll walk along a mowed path between the tree line and the prairie. The path is a gentle up and down, closer to being flat than anything you've made it through. The footing is mostly good, but be careful for animal holes or other potential ankle turners. Eventually you'll reach the edge of the employee entrance road, where you'll make a turn to the right for a short distance. From here the trailhead should be visible. Once the mowed path heads to the road, the trail ends. Just walk back to the trailhead.

The River Ridge Backpack trail takes you through the four main natural zones of the park (Oak-Hickory, Beech-Maple, Riparian, and Tall-grass Prairie), as well as going by one of the parks famous seeps. Therefore, you should have an excellent chance to get acquainted with the flora and fauna of Forest Glen. This mostly means seeing a bunch of squirrels and deer, but there are many different types of other animals, including well over 200 different bird species, that you might encounter. Even if you don't spot too many animals, you get a good workout on a fantastic trail.

NOTE: While there is a $10 fee, this covers everyone in your group up to ten hikers. There is no extra fee for camping at the Group Camp or East Camp. In addition, Forest Glen asks that you register for the hike at least seven days in advance of when you plan to hike. The fees are used to maintain the trail and campsites, both of which can be popular at times. Hopefully these fees will allow them to fix some of the aged water bars, stairs, and bridges along the trail, particularly the washed out portions from this past year. Thanks to some donated maps from the Sierra Club, and the diligent work of an Eagle Scout, the trail is mostly well marked and many places have maps to show you where you are.

*Backcountry in the sense that you can camp there while hiking, and the amenities of the campsites are limited to privies, picnic tables, and firepits.
**Pointless Up and Downs
***If you've never been up there and don't have a problem with old swaying metal towers, I recommend climbing up that stupid hill and the tower. It gives a commanding view of the surrounding area.
**** In late fall, winter, and early spring, you can probably find your way across the top of a ridge to a later portion of the trail, skipping probably ~1.5-2 miles of the trail. During the green portion of the year you probably won't even notice how close the trail doubles back on itself.

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