Well into September and unable to travel on most Fridays anymore, we went north to Chain O’ Lakes State Park on a bright Saturday morning. This park was the one we’d heard the most about, without actually having any prior visits. We’d been going to Spring Grove for several years for other attractions, and Chain O’ Lakes would come up whenever we went there. We’d been told about how pretty it is, and about how much there is to see, but mostly we were told about how big the park is and how crowded it can get. So with our plan set to go the weekend after Labor Day, we picked a trail and a brewery and headed out.
The drive up to Spring Grove is beautiful. The lakes the park is named after are on the way and impossible to miss, as the main road runs right between Channel Lake and Lake Marie, with marinas on both sides. These two lakes, along with 8 others are connected by the Fox River, forming the aforementioned chain.
Chain O Lakes is one of the largest state parks north of Springfield at 6,063 acres. It supposedly borders three of the lakes and the Fox River. While it definitely does border the river, we aren’t sure about the three lakes. The main trail system only gets close to Turner Lake, which is not connected to any others. The one connected lake that is closest to the park is Grass lake, and this is where a boat would go first after launching, but it did not look like you could get there by walking. In fact, for a park known for its proximity to multiple lakes, the area we explored was pretty dry.
Putting our confusion about this aside, we focused on two trails: Badger Trail and Goldfinch Trail. They are two loops that add up to 3.4 miles and offer great prairie views, interspersed with more forested areas. The trails themselves were a similar gravel to those at the state park in Bartlett, but these were even more well marked, having very consistent trail markers and road signs for people on bikes.
We started by going south on the Badger trail, which was on top of a hill and offered the best views of the prairie restoration project. It is quite expansive and objectively very pretty. Even the parts nearest to the road were nice to look at, with plenty of wildflowers covering the landscape. Several dragonflies flew overhead, while a couple grasshoppers kept pace with us on the path. After coming to a fork and thinking about the road less travelled for a minute, we forged ahead.
Finishing the Badger loop and coming up on the short path that would lead us to the Goldfinch Trail, we finally saw animals while walking. First we saw a bunch of chipmunks, including two that had climbed up some particularly sturdy flowers. Then we actually saw a goldfinch flying away in a blur of yellow and black. At this point, we considered the trip a success, but kept going anyway.
While the first trail was really dry, the second trail was around significantly more water. There were several small ponds behind the trees that lined the path, and this is the only place in the park where the river runs along a trail. Here we saw weird berries, a weird bird, and a weird tree stump. Even though this was the same river that runs through Silver Springs, the plant life around here was overall less tall and more colorful.
After passing the river, we went in and out of several wooded areas until we got back to the car. This is also where the bugs became very annoying. It felt like walking through an unending curtain of gnats. We both got mosquito bites in this area, despite both of us wearing bug spray. Goldfinch Trail was far worse than Badger Trail in this regard.
Walking up the last hill, we passed the park office. It looked very old, and neither of us are convinced that it is still in use, though we didn’t check. It was getting hotter out, and close to lunch time, and we still wanted to drive around the other side of the park before leaving.
The concession and boat launch is near the south end of the trail system, and our final stop before the brewery. Part of the reason this is one of the busier parks is because the boat launch is free to use. Most of the cars parked here did have boat trailers hitched to them, so it was at least the main draw for the day we went. The concession leans into that, as it is the first we’ve seen where motorized boats can be rented, in addition to kayaks or canoes. Other than boats, you can also get snacks and fishing supplies. But we skipped this in favor of having pizza delivered to the brewery once we got there.
There are not many breweries or wineries that fit what we were looking for near Spring Grove, so we instead went to Gurnee to check out Only Child Brewing. They are a small family business that opened in 2013, though they moved to their current location in 2015. They are focused on community, and pride themselves on being a place that welcomes everyone, even kids and pets. The space was much bigger than expected, with very high ceilings and hardly any walls to break it up, just a small fence with their logo on it separating you from the stills and other brewing equipment.
We’d been looking forward to this brewery since we started planning, and there were several interesting options we wanted to try. It did not disappoint. We would recommend most of the beers we tried, with the pumpkin stout “Jeepers Creepers” and the hefeweizen “Tantrum” being the stand outs.
We both really liked this park, and can understand why it has a reputation for getting super crowded. It looked like there were plenty of amenities that would cater to large groups of people very well. Picnic areas are everywhere, we believe that all of them would have had people in them over labor day weekend. So far, this is the only park we’ve been to that had a ranger at the park entrance, including the ones we’ve been to outside of this project. The amount of people we saw while hiking was also the most we’ve seen on any trails. First it was people coming to do their morning walks, then it was people bringing dogs. We can’t blame them, if we lived closer it would definitely be worth coming here just to be outside to look at the views.
We think that the picturesque quality of the hills translated to the best photos we’ve taken. However, it didn’t feel as much like we were exploring nature as Rock Cut, Silver Springs, or even Illinois Beach did. We finished these trails quicker because there was less reason to stop and investigate. This is not a bad thing, the opportunities for things to do are abundant here, both in the park and the surrounding area, it is just something we noticed. We would still say Chain O’ Lakes is popular for good reason, and worth travelling to.