Starved Rock Nature Preserve

Winter sunlight on St Peter Sandstone in Starved Rock State Park

How Starved Rock State Park got its name remains a matter of debate. But that it harbors one of the most beautiful nature preserves is rock solid fact.

Legend would have it that the namesake feature of the park — a towering limestone bluff overlooking the Illinois River — derived its name from a mid-18th century conflict between native tribes. Purportedly as revenge for a murdered chief, the Pottawatomies and Ottawas waged battle with the Illinois, who sought refuge atop the bluff. The attackers laid siege, cutting off escape, leading to the death-by-starvation of the Illinois.

The namesake feature of Starved Rock State Park

There is scant historical evidence to support the legend, but archaeologists have confirmed that native people inhabited the area around Starved Rock as far back as 8,000 B.C.E. Fast forward to the 1890s when a Civil War veteran purchased the site and developed it for tourists. A couple decades later, the State of Illinois acquired the site as its first recreational park. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the lodge and cabins and made many trail improvements. In 1966, the park was designated as a National Historic Landmark. One year later, 700 of the park’s 2,630 acres was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

On a cold winter day, you can have the canyons all to yourself

In truth, few people visit the dedicated Nature Preserve within Starved Rock. The park, which runs along the southern shore of the Illinois River, is bisected by the north-south running Route 178. The historic lodge, cabins and hiking trails are located to the east of the highway. The nature preserve is to the west. Both boast dramatic canyons, carved through St. Peter Sandstone over the past 15,000 years, or so. The canyons form cooler micro-climates, which support species typically found much further north, such as Canada yew, northern white cedar and eastern white pine.

The original Stairmaster–the final set of stairs leading to the top of Starved Rock

Among the challenges of managing dedicated nature preserves is managing visitors and the impacts they can have on fragile ecosystems. This is especially true at Starved Rock, with its two million visitors per year. The steep slopes of soft sandstone are highly susceptible to erosion. This is bad for both plants and people. Erosion makes it difficult if not impossible for plants to take root and survive. Erosion also makes for bad footing for folks who–in spite of all the warning signs–hike off trail and end up with severe injuries, or worse.

To limit erosion — beyond warning folks to stay on the trails — there are lots of boardwalks and staircases installed in the main portion of the park. But the purpose of a nature preserve is to preserve the landscape in as pristine a condition as possible, which is why there is limited access to the Nature Preserve portion.

Due to the unusually mild winter, there were few bald eagles to be seen save for those that grace the lodge grounds courtesy of talented chainsaw artists

Still, to hike the public trails within Starved Rock is to get a good sense of the rugged but fragile beauty of this ecologically and culturally rich landscape. And after a walk on a cold winter day — a great way to see the park with relatively few people around — it’s terrific to be able to enjoy dinner in the lodge and be warmed by a blazing fire.

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