I have heard about winter hiking in places like Turkey Run and Starved Rock before, and wondered at the photos of frozen waterfalls. Before now, the cold and snow have always kept me at bay. I get cold quickly and easily, but I have been aggressively reworking my winter hiking wardrobe and have been learning to enjoy winter.
With my new found warming superpowers, we scheduled a trip with the Hopeful Hikers for a weekend at the glorious Turkey Run. We were originally going to camp, but the nighttime temps we’re predicted to dip to -5 and we’ve never gotten our hammock setup below 20. Instead we got a room at the Turkey Run Inn, which turned out to be utterly delightful. The Inn was cozy and charming, the staff was terrific and the food was surprisingly good. We had an amazing time, and were super glad we didn’t miss out on an incredible experience.
We got up the next morning, enjoyed a delightful breakfast and made our way to the nature center for a presentation on local birds. They have a large floor to ceiling window with an impressive feeder setup. It was obviously working, because at any given time, there were 40 some birds in attendance. We learned to ID so many birds from just that hour, and can now recognize red headed & red bellied woodpeckers from any distance. I know a purple finch from a house finch and we got to see a downy woodpecker next to its identical (but larger) hairy woodpecker. I got such a high from the experience, and I didn’t even know what was yet in store for us.
We hit the trails and made our way over the suspension bridge and up toward the punchbowl. The views were stunning! I have always loved the park in the summer, but it is an entirely different world come winter. The biggest challenge was that the past year had been a wet one, and while the ground was frozen, there was plenty of water still running under the ice. It was difficult to tell how deep it was, and while some of us had gortex boots on, some of us didn’t.
We didn’t make it all the way to the punchbowl, but we did see our first frozen fall. Achievement unlocked!
The ultimate goal was the make our way over to trail #9. It was only a 4.61 mile trip, but the snow, ice and elevation made it trickier. I had never hiked it before, so it was a true adventure going in.
The weather was just perfect. It was cold enough that the ground was well frozen, it had snowed recently so there was a blanket of beautiful white everywhere, the sun was shining and there was no wind at all. I felt like we had won the winter hiking lottery.
We hiked up and over hills, through canyons and climbed many stairs. The snow and ice made it more challenging, but it felt great to stretch our legs and really cover some distance. Winter can put a damper on outdoor activities, even when you don’t mean to let it.
Of course, being a bunch of Master Naturalist graduates means that we stop to talk about bird sightings, animal tracks (of which there were many) and fungi. It is thrilling for me, and I love all the stuff I learn from my friends and the world around me.
This time we came upon a mystery. All these crazy tracks with clear wing imprints. What had happened here? Had someone gotten eaten? What made it all the more odd, was that these funny tracks were *everywhere*. Ultimately, we learned they were made by dark eyed juncos who were foraging along the ground, hopping from place to place until they flew to the next nearby location. Very cool!
We eventually made our way down into Boulder Canyon. It required careful foot placement and steely nerves. The rocks were slippery and there was often a layer of ice beneath the snow. We were clearly the only hikers who had made it over this way in a long time, as there was no discernible trail from other adventurers.
It was rather wonderful, though, and lent an air of being part of a band of true explorers. It was quiet and grand and we kicked some major ass. The next portion of the trail however led to some very narrow ledges high above the canyon, that were also often icy. My heart raced and my knees were wobbly – and as such, there are zero photos of that section. It’s too bad too, because it was stunning. We kept congratulating ourselves for accomplishing something major, and we all thought it was going to be easy peasy from there. Ha!
Now is a good time to remind you that about 40% of these trails are really stream beds. It is wonderful to hike through them in the summer time. It is less secure feeling in the winter time, because you never know when you might break through and how deep you may fall. It is increasingly disconcerting to hear the water babbling beneath you, and hear the ice crack with each footfall.
So, while we were feeling triumphant about conquering trail 9 – we approached Falls Canyon. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, but we were walking directly on a very active stream in the above photo. As we rounded the corner, there before us was a frozen waterfall as the trail itself. Going back simply wasn’t an option, as we wouldn’t have returned before dark. So we had to figure out the best way to keep going forward. Let me tell you, from above, the fall looked incredibly steep.
I decided that since I had gotten us into this mess, I would be the first one to go down. I sat on the ice and planted my foot out in front of me and aimed at a boulder to stop myself from tumbling the rest of the way into the canyon. It was a swift slide down, but incredibly fun. Fortunately for me, I was wearing waterproof snow pants and remained warm and dry. The fall may be frozen, but it was still plenty wet. However, three of our group were wearing jeans and got wet bums – which is not a good idea in these temps.
We high tailed it back the rest of the way to the lodge in about 40 minutes, in order to keep the warm blood pumping over wet legs. It was an amazing day! We got back to our rooms and warmed up and changed into dry clothes. The movie theater in town lets guests see movies for free, so we got to take in the last installment of The Hobbit. It felt a lot like our hike that day, minus the orcs.
We found and sampled watercress, which tastes spicy in the same way radishes do.
Found evidence of the pileated woodpecker, and even caught sight of one in the trees later on.
We even managed to find puffball mushrooms in the dead of winter!
The real treat of the day was heading into Box Canyon. Its just stunning.
The frozen fall was huge, and thick enough it took on that green-blue hue that seems so other worldly. It was a terrific reminder of all we had come to Turkey Run to experience.
I was really excited to share Clinton Lake with my fellow Master Naturalists. None of them had ever hiked it before, although many had wanted to for years. It really is a gem of a trail, offering challenging climbs on a 10 mile loop, that are difficult to find in the Midwest.
We’ve hiked the trail several times on our own, and with the Corn Desert group, but Master Naturalists love to stop and talk about all the wonderful discoveries along the way. This is how Arbor and I like to hike, so its just pure joy to have a group of friends that feel the same.
And we discovered many wonderful natural finds to include birds, animal tracks, fungi and plant life. There is just so much left to learn and I’m struggling to find the time to fit it all in.
This trip was this past December, so we were still in the thick of hunting season and needed to wear our blaze orange for visibility. I think it makes for some interesting photos.
We made our way through the hills and valleys to the halfway point, where we stopped for lunch. Its a great area with a picnic table and the launch point for kayaks and canoes, so the views are pretty nice. There is also a parking lot for the paddlers, and we had shuttled cars so that a couple of our beginner hikers could finish their hike here. It’s a terrific option that makes the trip more accessible to everyone.
It was a lot of fun to hike with these folks. Many we knew from our class, but hadn’t had the chance to really get to know them. One of the nice things about hiking in a group is that you get to pace yourself with one or two others and really talk. I find trekking to be a very social activity when I want it to be.
We made our way through forest and prairies, past ponds and floodplains. There are always amazing views and incredible things to see. I’m at a loss with these posts, because I want to share all of my photos, but there are way too many for a simple blog post.
Before we knew it, the loop was completed and we said our farewells. We look forward to hiking Clinton Lake again in April.