While planning the schedule for our trips, Labor Day weekend was a little hard to decide where to go. We knew that all parks would be more crowded than normal, and didn’t want to go somewhere that the amount of people would be too overwhelming. We also didn’t want to go somewhere too far, and have to drive even longer in holiday weekend traffic. We finally landed on Rock Cut State Park, and it was absolutely the right choice for us.
The area surrounding the Rock River, including the park, has a long Native American history. Several different tribes moved in and out for decades before the land was ceded in 1832, following the Black Hawk War. After that was 20 years of people from New England and Canada resettling the area. In 1859, crews blasted through the rocks to make way for railroad tracks. While most of the railbed is now at the bottom of Pierce Lake, the park was still named for these blasts.
We got up to Rock Cut at 12:45, and managed to get a parking spot by the concession building and kayak rental. We got very lucky for this, as the park was quite crowded and most of the lots we passed were nearly full. The weather was fantastic, and several people took advantage of that by going out on the lake on kayaks or paddle boards. Most of our lake photos have at least one kayak in them. However, we weren’t dressed to go on a lake, and went left past the concession to start our hike on the paved bike trail.
It looked to us like this bike path may have gone all the way to the dam, but we turned away from the lake, up a short, grassy hill, and crossed the road to find the more wooded trails. We have been using an app to help us with trails, so we don’t get lost while we’re out. But even with the power of technology, finding the right path out there was kind of difficult. The first one we tried led to a wooden structure, with stairs leading down into a deeper part of the woods. We quickly realized we were not in the right place, but it was too neat not to explore a little. The stairs were built around the rock formations, and connected to another set around different rocks, but that trail was closed and we had to turn around anyway.
We found the correct trail about 5 minutes later after analyzing our app for any signs that we were going the wrong way again. This part was about a foot wide dirt path that ran around the edge of the woods, before finally crossing a road to the trail we were looking for.
The next stretch of trail was covered in tree roots. This area was slightly hilly, making the roots appear like steps. Moving carefully so we didn’t trip, we noticed the woods seemed greener, with more plants hugging the edges of the trail. This made the area feel thicker and more focused.
Eventually, the root-covered path and dense woods gave way to much taller trees and far fewer shrubs. It felt drastically different, more open. The ground here was covered in dried grasses that made noise as we walked. This was also the part of the hike where we found poison ivy. We are both fine, we did not touch it; it is just worth noting that neither of us had ever seen poison ivy before, and we were glad that we read about it on the signs at the trailhead. And now we know what it looks like for all future parks.
While pausing to look at the plants, we were able to hear several birds overhead. Rock Cut is known for its birds, and watchers often come here. We were distracted from hiking for a few more minutes when we accidentally became bird watchers ourselves. They were quite noisy, so we knew they were around. One of them had a call like a squeaking door, and it would have been nice to know what kind of bird it was. But even with stopping and actually looking, we were only able to spot one small, brown bird that had a different call.
Moving on, we crossed an old bridge and turned onto a path that would lead us back to Pierce Lake. Once again, the trail felt completely different. No dried grass or tree roots here, this time it was dirt and stones. The forest subtly changed too, to something between the dense greenery of part one and the openness of part two. Around here was where we started seeing more hikers, and the closer we got to the lake, the more we saw.
Pierce Lake is 162 acres, and was made by damming Willow Creek. The majority of the path along the lake is lined with wildflowers, except for the part where the path disappears entirely, giving way to a grassy picnic area. Lots of families were here, enjoying the nice weather and views of the lake. We were in the home stretch at this point, with only 0.4 miles left of the actual trail.
More forest, a stream that cut across the trail (which we went over slowly so we didn’t slip on wet rocks), a log with mushrooms growing on it, and a couple people with bikes later, and we were back to the concession and our car. Ready for lunch, we took the scenic route out of the park, crossing the dam and through a less forested area. Along the side of the road we saw two different flocks of wild turkeys. This was so random, especially since we haven’t seen many animals until this point. But it made going the long way worth it.
We went to Crazy Llama Brewing afterwards, a decision based entirely on the name. It is a small family business in Roscoe, IL, owned by two brothers. While we were there, they were in the process of expanding, so parts looked a little unfinished, but the beer made up for it. Emma had Citrus Fluff, and Steph had Liberty, both of which we recommend. The day we were there, the Savor BBQ food truck was there, which was also delicious.
At this point, it was still a little early and we didn’t want to go back home right away, so we made an impromptu trip to a second brewery: Prairie Street Brewing, located in Rockford proper. The building is on the Rock River and is huge. It looks like it used to be an old factory, but we weren’t sure. The aesthetic was fantastic, industrial is pretty common for the breweries we go to, but the labels used for their tap menu went in the other direction, being very colorful and having a clean, modern design. The beer we ordered was okay, but should we come back, we will probably go with other choices, the Hefeweizen being of particular interest. But after all of this, it really was time to go home.
We absolutely loved Rock Cut State Park. Of course it was exceptionally beautiful and we love walking along a lake, but what we really enjoyed was how many different landscapes we saw. With how much the scenery changed over that 3.4 miles, it felt like we’d taken about six different hikes instead of just one. We also appreciated that even though it is a well known park, it was not overcrowded, despite being a holiday weekend. The amount of people never bothered us, even in the most crowded places like the concession or walking through picnic areas. Neither of us had spent any time around Rockford before this, but we will definitely be back to explore more next summer.