San Francisco

In the December of 2015 I visited San Francisco, California with two friends, one I’ve known since we were each five, the other was a good friend from high school. They’re roommates in Chicago and while visiting them for Halloween they asked I accompany them on their trip. How could I say no?

They already had tickets for flights out of Chicago, I was living in Springfield, Illinois at the time and decided to fly out of St. Louis, MO since it was only an hour and a half away compared to 3 hours to Chicago. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it was going to be my first time flying and I was nearly 25. (My family didn’t travel too much other than annual camping trips in Tennessee at the Land Between the Lakes area and a couple trips to Destin/Panama City Beach, FL.) I wasn’t nervous at all for the flight, I was just nervous getting through all of the hoops at the airport prior to the flight. I arrived early at the airport a couple hours early as everyone suggests and had ample time after getting through security as it was only around 6 am.

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Starved Rock & Matthiessen State Parks

One of the things I was most upset about when moving on from college and out of southern Illinois was losing all of the hiking down in Shawnee National Forest. I had grown used to having all of those places in my “backyard”. For anyone not familiar with central Illinois, it’s incredibly flat and there are not many hiking opportunities, not of the likes of Shawnee anyway. I did, however, stumble upon Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks near Oglesby, IL, which was about a 2 hour drive north of Springfield. It seemed promising from some of the photos. I would do them both in the same day as they were within 10 minutes from each other, but Starved Rock would be the first stop.

Starved Rock

Starved Rock was part of a shallow, inland sea about 425 million years ago. Later, only about 14,000-17,000 years ago, the glacier melt released torrents of water through the area and it created the gouges in the sandstone and glacial debris resulting in the Illinois River Valley and Rocks State Park. The Kaskaskia Indians inhabited the area for most of the last millennia, but Europeans discovered the area in the mid 1600’s with the French establishing Fort St. Louis on the sandstone butte in 1683. There is a recreation of the fort at Starved Rock where you can see where the fort was and a small scale replica in the visitor center. The significant French and Native American history is a huge draw as well as the landscape.

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Illinois’s Hidden Gem: Shawnee National Forest – West

n the second part of this post, I’ll explore what to see in the western portion of Shawnee National Forest. In case you missed the first part about the eastern portion of Shawnee, you can see that here..

Little Grand Canyon

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Jumping across to the far west side of Shawnee is Little Grand Canyon located near Pomona, IL. Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980, it’s my second favorite place in Shawnee, but favorite spot to go hiking. The trail is 3.6 miles long, which takes 3-4 hours from start to finish. The path starts at the high point of the canyon with a pretty easy and level path. The trail bring you to an observation point that overlooks the Big Muddy River and on clear days you can see the Mississippi River in the distance. I find the best view from the observation point is past the chain warning you not to go beyond this point. There’s a path that leads down a little further to an opening. Many people stop here and turn back, however I find the most beautiful part of Little Grand Canyon is the hike down into the canyon. The 3.6 mile loop takes you 365 feet down into the canyon and back up to the parking lot. You won’t come across many others here either, even on beautiful days I rarely came across 10 or more other hikers total in the 3 hours I was there. You truly get to experience nature in peace.

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Illinois’s Hidden Gem: Shawnee National Forest – East

When people think of the state of Illinois outside of Chicago they think of cornfields, cornfields, and well, more cornfields. They’re not entirely wrong either, the Land of Lincoln doesn’t offer much in the terms of scenery outside of a few small pockets. Most people, even those living in Illinois, don’t realize there’s a national forest with beautiful features in the far southern portion of the state with a total area of around 415 square miles. You can see the area covered by the Shawnee National Forest in the map below. il-map

Shawnee offers well over 250 miles worth of hiking/walking/horse trails, the most well known is the 160 mile River to River trail that spans from the eastern edge of the forest on the Ohio River all the way to the west part of the park that border the Mississippi River. I’m going to cover some of my favorite hikes in this post and the following post. In this post I’ll cover areas east of State Highway 37, the next post will cover areas west of State Highway 37.

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Solo Road Trip: Part VII – Return Trip & Conclusions

In case you missed previous posts:

We’ve made it! The last two days of the trip and some quick conclusions:

Day 7:

After a fairly chilly night in Albuquerque I got up, showered, and ate yet another amazing breakfast consisting of chocolate chip/s’mores granola bars and a few Slim Jims and hit the road. Driving through eastern New Mexico is as boring as driving through Utah was exciting. Also, eastern New Mexico and west Texas reminds me a lot of driving through Kansas (not a compliment). I was traveling on Interstate 40, which combined with Interstate 44 (which I would take once I hit Oklahoma City) runs along much of the old Route 66. Every once in a while I would pull off and follow Route 66, not because it was faster, but because of its historical significance. Four hours after setting off I was ready to chew my arm off, my granola bars and Slim Jims did not hold me over as well as I had hoped. I had just entered Amarillo, Texas, the first city of any significant size, and I decided to find an old fashioned Route 66 restaurant to eat at, I settled on Smokey Joe’s. Oddly enough, my great uncle who drives through here every year also stops here when coming through. After a beer and a burger I was back on the road.

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Solo Road Trip: Part VI – Grand Canyon

In case you missed previous posts:

Day 6:

I woke up feeling refreshed after just my second night in a conditioned room and real bed in nearly a week. I spent the night just across the Utah-Arizona border in Page, AZ and while I was getting around I wanted to see if there was anything nearby that I couldn’t miss out on while I was there. I happened across Antelope Canyon during my search of local attractions. Chances are that you’ve seen photos from Antelope Canyon, whether it’s been on a text book or as a default computer background. Anyway, Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon located on Navajo lands. There are two separate slot canyons there, Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon (real original, right?) the Navajo names for the canyons are a little more interesting. Upper Antelope Canyon is called Tsé bighánílíní, “the place where water runs through rocks” by the Navajo whereas the lower canyon is Hazdistazí, or “spiral rock arches”. The upper canyon is the more popular of the two as access is at ground level and beams of light find their way through the canyon to the ground floor making for some amazing photos. Continue reading “Solo Road Trip: Part VI – Grand Canyon”