Quechee Gorge, VT

dsc04230That’s right, Vermont! Work sent me and a partner to New Hampshire for a couple weeks back in 2014. We had the weekend off so we did a whirlwind tour of all the northeastern state, and the Quechee Gorge was our stop in Vermont.

quecheeThe gorge is centrally located on the eastern border of Vermont.  Now Quechee Gorge is not a backwoods hike, but rather a pretty popular tourist and kayak destination just outside Quechee, VT and Quechee State Park. The location is built up with touristy “corner stores” selling plenty of snacks and souveniors, antique shops and hotels all along the main road that bisecs the gorge.

quechee-3In total we hiked about 3 miles in down and back fashion starting from the visitor area. There is one trail that travels along the flowing Ottauquechee River. We first hiked north from the road (red trail) on a nicely groomed path toward Dewey’s Pond. dsc04280North of an interesting dam (#1), the trail seperated the river and the pond, appearing to terminate at a parking area. This strip of land had a good variety of flowers helping to increase the pleasure of the stroll. The river was interesting in that at this point it was glass smooth, but it didn’t remain that way.

dsc04264As we returned south the river takes on a drastic change as it crosses the dam (#1) and enters the gorge. I wonder if the kayakers start their run around here? The waters here were rough with what looked to be a good amount of white water.

dsc04231There is a nice bridge (#2) that offers a great view that really lets you see just how deep the gorge is. Pretty impressive I will admit. From there we continued along the very well groomed trail to where the river empties out of the gorge, and the presumed finish to the kayak run (#3). Here the waters were super clear and calm before turning back into turbulent waters. There were quite a few people hanging out in the shallow rapids to include a handfull of kayaykers that may have been hanging out in the slow moving water after a run. dsc04253From there we returned back to the visitor area for a couple snacks and to browse the souveniers.

A very easy little walk for just about anyone. If for whatever reason you are in the northeastern US and looking for a simple distraction, or were on a multi-state tour like we were, Quechee Gorge is definitely worth squeezing in. It only take a couple hours of casual walking, and if it is a beautiful day like the one we got, you’ll wish it was longer.

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Eden Valley Nature Refuge

dsc02613Eden Valley Nature Refuge is a Clinton County park located in east central Iowa near the towns of Baldwin and Maquoketa, just southwest of Maquoketa Caves State Park.eden-valley

I stumbled upon this park while trying to find more locations within a short drive from Cedar Rapids that I could take the wife and kids. I wasn’t able to find a whole lot of information about the park before we arrived so I didn’t know what to expect. I believe I read somewhere along the trail that much of the system was built or remodeled by some local boy scouts, pretty impressive for sure. I was pleasantly surprised by the terrain the trails wove through. While not a whole lot of elevation gain, there were a good number limestone bluffs that offered some punchy climbs. Overall, a very enjoyable walk in the woods. Let’s get to our walk.Eden Valley Refuge.jpg

dsc02584In total we covered a little over 5 miles of trails and as you can see, the one map of the park I could find was a little… interpretive. There is a small parking area (#1: brown square just off the road that fits 3-4 cars) at the trailhead to the western section. We parked and walked south along the road to the nature center (#2) and the trailhead for Bear Creek Nature Trail (#3). The trail was a nice little wooded loop with some neat rock outcroppings along the creek. At one point it looks like they had signs describing the local foliage, but most were broken or unreadable that we found.

dsc02591From there we retraced our path back to the parking area and the western trailhead (#1). The trail started with a steady climb up a crushed limestone path that included the rock with a “face” before we veered north at the “T” intersection (#4). It was only a short walk before we came across the Bunkhouse (#5). The Bunkhouse is a cabin only accessible by foot that sleeps 12 and can be rented for $50 a day. Pretty neat and rare to have something like that in Iowa and could be a fun escape. img_1122img_1123Continuing west along this trail we were treated to a pleasing limestone bluff running above us on our north side. We eventually were able to check it out from up top via the Black Ridge Scenic Trail (#6) after we made it to a hub of sorts (#7), but we’ll get back to that in a second. Black Ridge was one of the fun highlights that I didn’t expect, but be prepared for a mild climb at the start. It is a down-and-back trail through the trees that terminated with a view overlooking the parking area and the campground from a pretty good height before returning back to the start of it.

Once we got back to point #7 you have access to the primitive camping area, a small bridge leading into more woods, or a path south into a small prairie. We took the trail into the woods with the intent of exiting a little further west into the prairie, but at the time it hadn’t seen any upkeep in a while and forced us to take the loop and return to where we started.

dsc02604The open spot on the map between #7 and #8 is the prairie where a mowed path ran through it to connect to the swing bridge at point #8. The swing bridge was pretty neat and one of the draws to the park. Once you cross, it leads into the Whispering Pine Trail (#9); a loop through some rolling mounds that had an interesting history of sinkholes throughout it. Some were more pronounced than others, but most were large depressions in the ground. Yet another unexpected find. Not to forget that there were some more limestone outcroppings here that made this trail even more interesting. Definitely one of the best trails in the park.img_1129

We made our way back across the bridge and continued along the trail until we eventually hit Walnut Trail (#10). Like most of the other trails, a nice little woods walk. Now comes the time to apologize, because from here I have to admit my memory is a little hazy. It was 2013 when we hiked this, long before I really began recording our journeys. All I had was a point-and-shoot Sony and a since defunct GPS app for tracking. Part of me thinks we were able to gain access to the tower at point #11 from the Walnut Trail, but it could be completely plausible that we had to hike all the way back to point #4 in order to gain access. So be cognizant of that potential dilemma when you venture there.

img_1134One of the bigger draws to the park was the wooden tower in the south central part of the park. It is surrounded by woods with a short loop running through them. The tower itself is a modest height that gave a pretty view of the immediate surroundings. It was definitely a very nice cap to our day.

When it comes to the recommendations section of the review, this trail should be good for anyone that can handle some modest elevation gains. There is a good amount of rolling hill terrain that could challenge those getting out for the first time, but if you allow yourself time to rest you’ll be able to push on through. If you are planning on doing the whole network of trails I would suggest bringing a backpack with some snacks and a bottle of water. As always, don’t forget a map (even an interpretive one…)!

Eden Valley Nature Refuge was a very enjoyable walk in the woods that honestly surprised me. I think this would be a great place to take kids on backpacking trips, especially as introductory ones since the hike into the camping area isn’t that long. The Bunkhouse offers a great retreat as well. Highly impressed with the work put into this small little county park.

Thanks for reading!

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Yellow River State Forest

dsc_7959yellow-river-state-forestYellow River State Forest is located in the northeast corner of Iowa near Harper’s Ferry and north of the McGreggor, Marquette, Pikes Peak State Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument area.

The forest has a great network of hiking and equestrian trails and is one of the few true backpacking areas in the state. In total the literature claims about 25 miles of trails. On my trip I focused on the exterior hiking-only loop (highlighted in gray), with a short excursion into the center on the all purpose trails to check out the old firetower in the southern area (#9). I chalked up 15.4 miles overall, but I left a good miles behind as I had to cut my hike short due to time… well mostly due to time.

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Let’s just start off by talking about the hike: My plan was to hit the park at sunrise and take advantage of a full day’s worth of hiking. I was planning 14ish miles for my route, taking me 4.5 hours. I was quite wrong with those numbers. First of all 14 miles wasn’t close. I am guessing that the route I wanted to take is closer to 17 or 18 miles. Second, and more importantly, the terrain was far rougher than I understood. The trails were great and well maitained, but the elevation changes were steep and often.

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I parked in the main lot by the information center (#1) near the western entrance (I believe that is what it was since it wasn’t open that morning). I took White Pine Trail toward one the four backpacking sites, Camp Glen Wendel (#2), which was a decent little site with a small pond. My first complication came around point #3 on the map where it shows walking through a patch of woods, after crossing the road, before crossing the river. I found the entrance, but no trail. After a good portion of time scrambling around the thicket I found the exit and realized that had I just passed the entrance and stayed on the road for another 20-30 yards, then jumped on the gravel road heading north for maybe 80-100 yards, I would end up in the same spot without the frustration. So that is my recommendation.

dsc_7979The next section was part of the equestrian trails on Painted Creek Trail that followed the creek back towards the center before the rough climb up Bluff Trail on the way to the overlook (#4). I took a good rest once I got to the top of the climb for a snack and to catch my breath. Aside from being able to overlook the creek and one of the campgrounds, you can see the old fire tower sticking up above the trees in the distance. After the break I meandered through the woods to Little Paint Campground (#5) which was a very pleasant area that is well maintained. After I left the campground it didn’t take long before I started questioning the map and distances. I found that you just follow the road across the main park road and keep going for probably a half mile until you get all the way through the Equestrian Campground (#6). Once back on the trail I found myself on a nice winding path that lead to a very steep climb which left me a little (or more) winded.

dsc_7969Once I got to the top of the hill I found myself walking next to a cornfield that lead into an open field before turning back into wooded trails and transitioning into a steep, rocky downhill that ended at the second, and very nice looking backpacking campsite with access to moving water; Heffern’s Hill Camp (#7).dsc_8003 It is a short walk down to the creek and the road, so one could drive up and park a couple hundred yards away rather than hike the whole distance if they wanted to. However, this is the furthest camp from the main parking lot if you want to get some miles in both ways. Tricky section number 3 comes up next (#8). There is a mix of trails that all meet at the bridge where the gravel and creek meet. Trying to explain this in my head was trying enough, and I was there making the decision! So I made this super detailed map showing how I crossed the bridge and took the trail towards the center… bridge-map

I stayed on Saddle Trail Loop veering to the right (north) on my way to the fire tower (#9). Even though I knew no one is supposed to climb the tower, I won’t deny that I hoped I could sneak up inside and get a view from the park as I’ve seen videos of people up there, but they must have been by permission of the park as it was surrounded by a high fence that was locked and topped with barbed wire. I wasn’t getting in. dsc_8008After walking around the tower for a bit and taking some pictures I had a choice to make.

The time was getting later than I had planned for, and the mileage was telling me there was no way my route was going to be 14 miles. So, continue on the planned route which meant following the Firetower Trail east back to the backpacking trails, or hit the Firetower Road and go north back to the start or south towards the backpacking trails… After some internal debate about time, terrain, and my conditioning I decided it would be the smart choice to cut the rest of the southeast out. At this point I was only tired, not in pain, so I elected that since it wasn’t that much further I would take the road south and meet up with the backpacking trail, Brown’s Hollow Trail (#10), back to the start.

After I traveled an extra 1/2 mile or so downhill then back uphill, I found the trail marker I missed… meaning my day was finally nearing the end. I was hurting by now. My feet were howling and my steps were beginning to feel labored. As I edited the video footage in preparation for posting this report it reminded me just how exhausted I was. It was still very early in the season, I had only hiked three times previously for a total of 16 miles on mostly flat trails, and I had just spent all of 2015 so completely focused on finally finishing my degree that I only totaled 20 miles for the year. I was woefully unprepared. Yellow River State Forest had won. I left at least 3 miles of trails out there, unexplored. The 2017 rematch will happen, and I look forward to all of the pain the Forest can throw at me!

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For those looking to venture into Yellow River State Forest I would definitely suggest you truthfully look at your conditioning level before attempting longer distances within the park as there is a good amount of climbing that will challenge and tax you. If you stay to the equestrian trails it should be easier as the horses need to be able to traverse the same ground. Also, take into account that the park is a well maintained network of trails where you can plan you own distances and bailouts if it gets too challenging. Regardless, I would suggest bringing plenty of water and at least some snacks. The longer you plan on going, the more I’d bring, heh. It would probably be a good idea to bring a backpack (nothing extreme is needed) with first aid and toiletry options, you could be on the trails for a bit without access to a restroom… The only thing I know I’ll bring next time is trekking poles to help with balance along some of the rockier sections. Oh and never forget your map!

Yellow River State Forest is a very beautiful park that holds some of Iowa’s more rugged terrain. Even though it beat me, from here on out I will always look fondly upon this place and look forward to returning. I encourage everyone to at least take a drive up there to enjoy the leaves as they turn in the fall at a minimum. Most of the overlooks can be driven to and the views provided are excellent! Remember to watch the video and subscribe to; the YouTube channel for trail videos, Instagram for updates on the trail to see what reports could be coming in the future, and like the Facebook page so you can get notifications as reports are posted!

Thanks for Reading!

Starved Rock State Park (in winter)


Starved Rock State Park  is a premiere park in central Illinois that is located just south of I-80.starved-google-map

Starved Rock is an outstanding park with plenty of history, awesome waterfalls, and an excellent Lodge with great food! Once I discovered this place, the wife and I used to make it an annual winter destination until the baby girl put a temporary pause to it. I have yet been able to hike the park when it isn’t frozen, but it is definitely on the short list. When it comes to Midwest winter hikes, this place is amazing! During the early spring the park has around a dozen flowing waterfalls along a 12ish mile river trail. During the winter the main draw is 7 frozen waterfalls. Not only that, but the park also boasts eagle watching, an excellent restaurant, and let’s not forget the fudge!. Let’s get to the hiking…

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While there is a network of trails connecting everything together, I like to section the park off into 3 areas during the winter. The first is St Louis on the western edge, then the core four falls of French, Wildcat, Tonty, and LaSalle in the center, with the eastern edge being the third section with Kasakakia and Ottawa. Our normal itinerary is to drive over from Iowa, hit the outlier falls, eat at the lodge, overnight in Oglesby, then return for the core four after breakfast, and head home.

DSC03528.jpgSt Louis Canyon is always the first stop for icefall hunting since there is a parking area just off the main road from Utica. The road actually leads all the way down to the trailhead, but it is steep and they close it off in winter. So you have to park at the top of the hill and walk down to the trailhead. Once you are on the trail it follows a creek through the canyon that leads to the fall. It is a tall waterfall that can create an impressive block of ice, as the lovely Cheryl demonstrates. The hike through the canyon is one of the better hikes in the park.

We retraced our path back to the car so we could drive to the far eastern side of the park and check out Ottawa Canyon, Kaskaskia Canyon, and the Council Overhang where reportedly the Illini indians conducted meetings. The trails aren’t very long for this section of the park, so it’s a quick little trip to see the two falls if you’re running low on time and light. Ottawa can grow to be a pretty thick icefall that attracts climbers. In the picture below you can see some red rope at the base of the fall from a pair of climbers up top preparing to climb it.DSC03575.jpg

 

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Kaskakia is by far the smallest of the frozen falls. There is a little alcove behind it that you can crawl around, but otherwise, bring a model with you for some posing like I did. 😉 After we competed out first day of hiking we had dinner at the lodge located on the grounds which was excellent!

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The next morning we began our primary focus, hitting up the core icefalls.

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It was time to get serious… The first stop was French Canyon, a good-sized fall that is super broad. The trailhead is located at the southeast corner of the parking lot for the lodge. The descent can be a little tricky if there is a heavy snowfall and it gets packed down on the stairs. Mostly it makes it hard to get footing, so be aware of that.

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Next up was Wildcat Canyon. Wildcat is by far the best icefall in the park. This thing is tall and can get super wide. The first time we were there the temps were warmer and we saw a father and son duo scouting the fall for a future climb. The next time we were there we saw climbers hitting up multiple falls, and you can see one getting ready to start a climb below. Wildcat is around 80 feet tall and really grows to an incredible size. There are three vantage points for the fall, two overlooks, and one from below. You should check it out from both the top and bottom to really get an understanding of just how impressive it is. Pay attention to the stairs on the way down… because you’ll have to climb them on the way out!

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Don’t worry about that for now though, you get to hike to a couple other falls before you have to come back. After leaving Wildcat there is river walk for a bit that can at times be a little chilly if the wind is coming off the frozen river. Outside of winter the creek that leads from the Tonty and LaSalle canyons is flowing, meaning you have to take the long way to Tonty since the bridge is out (and has been for years). However, since it is winter when you are looking at icefalls the creek should be frozen. This allows you to take a shortcut and walk on the creek until you can get on the Tonty trail. Tonty Canyon feels like it is in the back corner of the canyon. It can be a bit sporadic in its growth. There are times I’ve seen it full, with climbers, like the photo below, and other times where there isn’t much formed. Its kind of a little guessing game as to what you get to see when you round the corner.

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From there the trail leads to LaSalle, which almost never disappoints. I’m not sure why, but it almost always seems to form with a hole in the center. You can kind of make out the remnants of the hole in the photo below. LaSalle is interesting in that as part of the trail you have to walk behind it. So this allows for some nice shots where you can sometimes get the greenish-blue color from the light seeping through.DSC03686.jpg

This completed the tour of icefalls, so we headed on back down what’s probably the best canyon trail in the park, to the namesake.

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Starved Rock State Park is an excellent winter hike. As far as recommendations for gear and who can hike this; first I would say that as long as you can handle a good amount of stairs and maintain your balance on some uneven terrain, you should be able to see most of the falls since you can drive relatively close to them and park. St. Louis, Tonty and LaSalle Canyons would be more challenging since they all involve a longer walk to get to them. Now if you would like to hike from end to end, I would suggest you know your limits and monitor the temps appropriately.

Make sure you layer well so you can put on more layers during idle periods, and then peel them off as you heat up from hiking to prevent sweating that will freeze when you go idle again. On top of that, resist wearing materials made of cotton as the snow and water will be “attracted” to them, soak in and freeze. Instead try to wear clothing made of polyester and nylon materials. Most outdoor focused companies will generally make their clothing out of non-cotton material already. Waterproof boots are a must. A couple other nice items to bring are leg gaiters and shoe chains.

gaiterLeg gaiters are leggings normally made of nylon that cover the top of your boot and lower leg to help keep the environment out.

Shoe chains/ micro spikes/ Yaktrax and what ever else they are called are basically snow chains for your boots. They vary greatly by brand from simple coils, to chains, to sharp spikes with chains.

I would bring plenty of water and snacks to drink/eat often. It is very easy to dehydrate in the winter as your body will consume a little more with the increased effort of trudging through a snowy path, as well as trying to keep you warm. One recommendation, use a water bottle over a hydration bladder. The hoses on the bladder are more likely to freeze, preventing you from getting a drink. The importance of food is similar in that the extra effort will burn more calories, and the effort of eating and digestion will help to stoke your internal furnace keeping your body temp up. The worse thing you could do is dehydrate without eating and drop your core temp. You’ll have a miserable day of just wanting to get to the car or lodge for a warm bite. Of course as always, bring a map.

If you are looking to stay at the lodge or one of the cabins on site make sure to plan ahead as most of the accommodations are booked well over a year in advance. We always just stay in Oglesby which is a short distance down the road.

One thing about Starved Rock is that they know what they are, a tourist destination. They have many different activities available that change often, such as eagle watching tours, guided hikes, and more. I’d encourage anyone interested in the park to browse the main website and see if there is anything that interests you. I will fully recommend the lodge’s restaurant as we have never been disappointed with the food!

The best time of year for the ice falls is late January and early February, especially after there has been a lot of recent thawing and refreezing. Oh and the temps have been consistently below 20 to make sure everything is solid when you visit.

This is a must visit location that I know I’ll enjoy returning to annually once again. Remember to watch the video on my YouTube channel to help entice you to visit!