Illini State Park & William G. Stratton State Park: “This is basically an enchanted forest.”

With the season drawing to a close and the cold weather looming, we wanted to get a couple more parks in while we still could. The ones we did that day were Illini State Park and William Stratton State Park, mostly for their small size.

We started our morning by driving the hour and a half to Marseilles, IL where Illini is. However, before going into the park, we stopped at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial. It is dedicated to the servicemen and servicewomen who lost their lives since 1979.

After stopping there, we continued on across the Illinois river to go to the park itself. Illini State Park was dedicated as such in 1935. While the park does have hiking trails, it is actually known for being a good place for large family picnics, something which my family has done several times over the years. The pavilions and other stone structures around were constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and are something that people from this area are very proud of.

But we were there to hike, so we found a trail through the woods, west of the dam and the bridge. Because of how late in the season it was, we didn’t expect to see much while we were out. But despite this, we saw birds everywhere. It was probably the noisiest park we’d been to, between all of the rustling and bird calls. In fact, it was so noisy that we can now identify 3 bird songs. This might not seem like a lot, but we didn’t know any when we got there, and we didn’t have the intention of learning any. We mostly saw robins, cardinals, and blue jays on the trail. The most exciting though, across the river we saw an eagle in flight. That was really neat, but neither of us are good enough photographers yet to get a picture of that.

While walking, we kept talking about how this trail felt the most like an enchanted forest. This was partially from the amount of birds (seriously, there were so many) and partially because of the weather. The sun was bright, it was quite cool out, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. But the most prominent factor for this magical vibe was the plant life. We saw a lot of mushrooms, which is not uncommon in itself, but the scale was completely different. There were tiny ones growing by the river, only noticeable by kneeling down to look, and giant ones growing at the tops of the trees, much bigger than the portobellos found in the grocery store. There were also trees where the branches were twisted tightly around each other. This type of twisting is usually caused by people manipulating stems on very young trees, and leaving them to become sturdy in unlikely shapes. It was really interesting to see this, especially since it would have been done many years ago. What’s more, there was more than one tree we saw like that. Definitely not something we expected to see while we were out.

We didn’t have a map, and the trail was not in our app, so we followed the path for about 40 minutes before turning around. On the way back, we were startled by some kind of animal darting across the trail. Stephanie thinks it was the gray cat we saw as we were leaving, but we cannot be sure.

The last thing we did was drive out to the Marseilles Lock and Dam, which control the water level in order to allow boats to pass through more easily. They basically turn parts of the river into a series of steps so the various watercraft can gradually ascend or descend water that may be too steep otherwise. While we were there, the lock was in the process of filling, lifting several boats up to match the river level to the east. Definitely interesting to see it in action.

Finally, we left the park to head to Ottawa for lunch. We went to Tangled Roots Brewing Company, which fully embraces the idea of keeping food and beer local. All the ingredients are grown in the region, brewed in house, and named for towns and landmarks nearby. One of these beers is Devils Paintbox IPA, named for the landmark in Matthiessen State Park. Tangled Roots has several locations, but the one we went to is within The Lone Buffalo Brewpub and Taproom, and we enjoyed all the food and beer we tried. We think that more places should put everything seasoning on soft pretzels because of that menu item.

Before heading home, we stopped William G. Stratton State Park, the smallest of all the parks in Illinois at only 7 acres. There are several parks that have lakes that are bigger than 7 acres. It was developed in 1959, and it’s whole reason for being there is to provide access to the Illinois River with 4 boat ramps. Additionally, the I&M trail runs through this park. However, there is nothing else going on here, so we finished up for the day.

There are several state parks along the Illinois River, most notably Starved Rock. Illini tends to be overshadowed by those bigger and more famous parks, but we feel it is still worth visiting. If you have trouble walking on hills or lots of steps, if you want to avoid crowds, or if you just want something quicker and more low key, Illini state park is probably a good option for you. On the other hand, we would only recommend William Stratton if you live nearby and want to launch a boat. Otherwise, visit one of the many other parks nearby.

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