Monday, May 11, 2009

Starved Rock State Park: Maybe next time we'll make it a day trip

Chicago is a world-class city, but unlike much of the country, there isn't much in the way of nature nearby. No mountains. No oceans. No great forests or wild rivers. But we do have Starved Rock State Park in Utica, about 90 miles outside of the city, and it only took me 15 years to finally check it out.

And you know what? It's pretty great. Gorgeous waterfalls, quiet streams, wooded trails and even some wildlife. Most of the trails are less than 5 miles, and many are less than 1 mile, so it's very doable with kids. Just don't bring a stroller as the trails are largely boardwalks connected by occasionally muddy (and slippery) wooden staircases.

Since we arrived in Utica an hour and a half before check-in, we stopped for a late lunch at Ron's Cajun Connection, which Josh had seen written up on LTH forum. We split the special appetizer and entree, and after stuffing ourselves with alligator, dungess crab, gulf shrimp and shrimp etouffee, I was treated to a free Mother's Day slice of pecan pie. I really needed hit the trails after that mostly deep-fried meal (and I still wasn't hungry at dinnertime).

We stayed in a "family cabin" at Starved Rock Lodge, which was built in the park in the 1930s. While I'd paid extra to have a two room cabin (two adjoining hotel-style rooms) so that Josh and I could sleep separately from the girls, we ended up sleeping apart, with separate kids. I kept Z company and Josh slept fitfully, afraid A was going to pinwheel herself off the king-size bed. Again. Our $190 off-peak room rate included a $30 breakfast credit in the lodge dining room, and it more than covered our breakfast, which was tasty--but no better than your typical diner or pancake house. I think the highlight of staying on the premises was the tiled indoor pool area, which had a full-sized pool, a hot tub and a bathtub-warm kiddie pool. Z and A loved it!

Before leaving Utica, we stopped off at Mattheissen State Park, which had even more impressive waterfalls and about as many hiking trails. We didn't stay there long since our morning hike was about 2 miles and Z threatened not to walk any more.

All in all, it was a fairly successful mini-vacation. The kids were fun, particularly A, who loved petting everyone's dogs, riding in the Ergo and getting down to master the staircases "by self." Z had fun, but tempered her good time with lots of complaining about all the walking, the length of car ride and the variety of snacks packed.

We left around noon on Sunday and returned to Chicago around 3pm on Monday, having stopped at Ikea in Bolingbrook on the way back. Cheap kid food, clean bathrooms and a chance to buy some things that have been on my Ikea list for months (recycling bins, a new duvet cover to Z, etc.)