Our company long departed, we were aching for another outing in nature. My husband and I couldn’t decide between canoeing or hiking so I left it up to him. When he arrived home on Saturday, I had just received my new Osprey Daylite hiking pack in the mail and was really wanting to hit the trails, but I didn’t want to force him into anything.
Finally he asked, “So what do want to get into tomorrow?” The door opened and I walked in.
“I want to go hiking but we can canoe if you don’t feel up to it.” I replied. He agreed hiking was a fine thing to do with the weather expected to be so nice for August. Highs in the upper 70’s, sunny and low humidity. Then came the dreaded question – “Where?” We always have a hard time deciding where to hike or canoe. There are so many places to choose from here in our home state of Kentucky and a short drive can land us in a myriad of places in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois where I grew up.
I wanted something new, a trail my feet had never trodden on. I had just the place in mind too, Giant City State Park near Makanda, IL. We had hiked there before, but there are so many trails and we hadn’t hiked them all including what is considered their premier hiking trail, Giant City Nature Trail. The drive up would take just over an hour and a half but was sure to worth every minute of it.
Our plans now made, I began gathering up gear, trail maps and programming the GPS. I decided to shove some trail mix and Honey Nut Cheerios into my pack to snack on along the trail. We are always up early for an adventure like this but rarely feel like eating at that time of the day and almost always regret it. I made sure I zipped my pack and set it on the floor next to the small messenger bag we use for our dog’s supplies when we travel.
The next morning the alarm clock blasted it’s rude sound and I quickly turned it off. Before I could even get out of my bed my husband said “You’re going to be mad.” It seems my little Jack Russell mix had figured out how to unzip my pack and gotten inside. He chewed a hole in the bag with my fire starting kit, and cotton balls abounded everywhere. He had also eaten half the trail mix and all the Honey Nut Cheerios I had packed!!! As anyone with a dog knows, nuts of any kind, raisins and chocolate are bad for them. Dogs can have allergic reactions or have the nuts lodge in their intestines and perforate a bowel. Seems the dehydrated prunes had already worked their magic, as my husband described the little turd trail he had found in the hall also. Luckily it had been firm so clean up was easy or I’m sure my husband would have woken me up to assist, even if it had been with the sounds of him cussing, swearing, and dry heaving.
I did a little assessment of my pooch to make sure he was alert and didn’t show any adverse effects from his Midnight munchy fest. He seemed fine, so with no obvious signs I relegated myself over the next few days to checking his scat for any signs of bowel issues. At this point I was more concerned with my pup’s health and given the fact that he hadn’t actually torn up my brand new pack, I couldn’t be mad.
We loaded up the gear with the dog becoming ever increasingly excited and headed out just after 6am. I had already planned to stop and pick up a few picnic supplies on the way up to Makanda and now added pack snacks to the list of items to pick up.
There seem to be many different ways into Giant City State Park, but I wanted to stick to the route I was familiar with which was turning off US 51, going through the tiny town of Makanda and entering through the main entrance. Besides, the PDF print out I had found on the internet didn’t give the names of the roads within the park. Actually 99% of the roads on the map are with out names – awesome map. I only knew the trail we wanted to hike was on the way to the lodge and near picnic shelter #3 so I figured we’d follow the park signs to where we needed to be.
It was a little tricky navigating the park but following the signage we found where we were supposed to be and parked the car in the lot. Once we sprayed ourselves down with bug spray, I hefted my pack onto my back and we hit the trail. The trail is described as 1 mile in length and rugged terrain although the trail was made up of gravel. The start of the trail was a slight hill with a fork at the top and the first sign of the Sandstone bluffs we would hike around. To the left was another hill and somewhere beyond that some people making boisterous laughter so we decided to go right. Apparently they hadn’t read the signage at the trail head or my previous blog about trail etiquette. Fortunately they quieted down quickly and were soon off the trail all together. My calves began to cramp almost immediately going up the little hill, but I needed this. I needed to sweat, to huff, to puff, to cramp, to feel that itchiness on my skin that comes from sweating in the woods. I needed it for a couple of reasons; one being to get into better shape, and two being I needed the woods to sooth my soul, to stroke away the stress and the hustle and bustle of the busy world.
I was in automatic awe of the trail. The Sandstone bluff held many nooks, crannies, and crevices some with ferns, trees and other flora jutting out where they could. Moss clung to the rocks in many places, small patches to large swaths covering entire boulders. There were numerous offshoots from the trail, most leading up into the bluffs, others were simply washes where recent rains had made their own paths trailing down from the bluff and across the trail. A person could get lost in these offshoots, even if not physically lost, just lost in the world of giant Sandstone bluffs and all they had to offer for exploration.
We took the time to meander down one of these offshoots, following the packed dirt path between boulders and back to the main Sandstone bluff. We found a couple names carved into one of the smaller boulders and research showed them to be from the Civil War era, etched by former owners of the land with eerie precision.
The sweat was already starting to soak our clothes, making them cling to us. What little breeze blew didn’t make its way into the forest or around the bluff very well. For a cool summer day in August with temps only in the 70’s, it sure was sweltering in these woods.
That queasy feeling began to hit my belly, telling me it was time to try to eat a bite so I broke out the Nature Valley bars I had picked up and found a seat atop a small boulder. Our dog perched himself next to me and commenced to whine while looking at my pack, as if I was to pull something out for him also. I simply informed him he’d eaten all the trail snacks once already, he didn’t need more.
I hadn’t gotten a water bladder yet for my pack so I had to pack bottled water which we shared between us and the pup. I carry a small collapsible dog dish that can be used for food or water, it’s made with water proof cloth, cleans up easy and can’t weigh a tenth of an ounce.
One Nature Valley bar was all I could stomach (I’m assuming others have dealt with the inability to eat so early in the mornings), but it was enough to make my tummy hush its complaints so we headed back out to the main trail. There appeared to be a narrow trail leading up and over the edge of the bluff, cut into the steep incline and stone escarpment. We decided to stick to the main trail, especially since this was our first trip and I have a tendency to be accident prone. My body and I tend to have a love/hate relationship. I love to do things, adventure, explore, hike, etc. It loves to make me pay for it. It limits me with how much I can do and how often I can do it. Today was my day though, my body may make me pay for it later but right here, right now was mine.
We made our way down the trail, marveling at everything we set eyes upon. We again followed an offshoot back to a small Sandstone overhang where my husband looked for Native American activity from the past. You aren’t allowed to “rock hunt” or take any artifacts with you but you can turn them into the State Park where they will be studied and then put on display. My feet began to hurt a bit, directly in front of my heel. Memory foam is great in your sneakers, until you switch to hiking boots and hit the trail. Note: buy insoles for hiking boots.
We continued on and when we rounded the next bend I was in full wonderment. A long wooden boardwalk skirted next to the enormous Sandstone bluff we had been circling. It’s exposed face on one side and moss covered rocks dotted the forest on the opposite side. It felt like I was walking in a fairy tale. Once past the boardwalk, we made our way a little further down the trail. Rounding yet another bend I went from wonderment to Environmental Orgasm. Massively tall Sandstone towers stood on either side of the trail and a fully grown tree jutted up in the midst of them that made it’s way to the sky over the ledge of one of the monoliths. Tendrils of flora hung down from the ledges and more moss clung in patches to it’s face. We made our way down the “Giant City Streets” and came to a corner in the bluff. A sign hung on the rock wall telling us which way to continue, as if we had an option here. I had no plans to scale the exposed Sandstone walls or go back the way I came. We paused to soak up what little breeze could be felt in the corner and noted most of the breeze was coming from a crack in the rock wall. Standing on the corner of the “Street” we could see another trail sign that pointed us to the left but we couldn’t help wandering past it to explore what was on the next “block”. Unfortunately the next block didn’t lead anywhere more amazing than where we were already, but I did note another name carved into the rock wall with the same eerie precision as the others.
We turned back and followed the second sign telling us which way to go. The path became extremely narrow and I worried for a moment that with my pack on my back, I may get stuck like Pooh Bear in the honey tree. I found it plenty wide enough to fit through with some room to spare. Towards the end of this narrow little street was a huge boulder balanced upon a tiny little point of another rock. Clearly it had broken off the main bluff some years ago and fallen away but how it managed to land there and remain perched was an astonishing feet. Mother Nature and the laws of gravity had seemed to reach a compromise. It was slightly unnerving to have to pass under it and continue on the trail but what are the odds of it taking it’s final spill just as I passed? Now clear of the the balancing boulder of death we came upon another small flight of wooden stairs and a wooden boardwalk. My right knee began to ache a bit and I had to shift to leading with my left going down the steps. Most hikers dread the uphill, and I do as well to a degree but find going downhill just as taxing. I began to realize why this trail is described as Rugged despite the gravel path.
We rounded yet another bend in the trail, and passed between more enormous boulders before finding ourselves on the other side of the bluff. Here the breeze could be felt rushing through the trees. I found yet another perfect sitting rock, perched myself atop it and shucked off my pack. I wasn’t out of breath or spent, I just wanted to feel the cool summer breeze, listen to the bugs sing their songs of love, and enjoy the beauty around me. The sweat finally drying on our bodies, I decided to pick myself up, climb the next hill and create more sweat. We plodded down the trail past more boulders laying on the forest floor and the main Sandstone bluff to our left now exposed in places although the faces of it were becoming shorter and shorter as we progressed. It was clear we were coming back to the trail head and our little hike would soon be over.
I felt a little tired and my calves a little sore from the cramping. The bottom of my feet were still aching, but it felt good! In fact it felt so good I insisted upon another short trail after an early lunch break. Just a short little stroll down to Devil’s Standtable. This trail also started with a hill on a gravel path, and landscape timbers cut into the trail to keep it from eroding. At the top of the hill we were facing another huge Sandstone bluff. No sooner had we reached the top of the hill and made a few paces down the trail than my husband began to protest. His feet were beginning to bother him as well. The heavy boots he’d chosen were beginning to rub the tops of his feet.
I debated turning back but he offered to wait on the trail for me if I pressed on. I took the leash from him and plodded several steps ahead when I spotted a large overhang in the bluff ahead and a small wooden foot bridge over a seasonal creek that held that remnants of the latest rains. This spurred my husband forward and we pressed on down the now packed dirt path to the overhang. We could hear water running but could see none, and it became evident it was flowing under the bluff. I made my way to the little foot bridge, leaving my husband near the overhang. It seems when rain is falling or there is enough run off at this point in the bluff there is a waterfall, but not today. We soon saw and heard several bats flying about the bluff, maybe protesting our encroachment on their home. After a quick pause to take a couple photos and allow my husband to rejoin me, we continued on up the trail. I had no urge to wait for a bat to come along and swoop down into my hair causing me to freak out, running and screaming through the woods, flailing my hands above my head like some crazed madwoman. We soon came to the Devil’s Standtable which wasn’t easy to see given all the undergrowth in the forest. I think my husband was more thankful for the sign that not only informed us about Devil’s Standtable but also pointed us towards the trail exit.
I had completed my goal for the weekend, I hiked Giant City State Park Nature Trail and even topped off the trip with a short second trail. The Nature Trail is advertised as just 1 mile, but there is a lot of up/down hills (RUGGED is right) plus by the time you wander the off shoots and back to the main trail I’m sure it’s closer to almost 2 miles. I was spent, I knew there was nothing left in my tank for that day. It would take all I had to make the hour and a half drive home then finish some house work I had left behind. Thank God for cruise control! I’m definitely making a return trip and exploring more of Giant City State Park!