On day two of our long weekend, we had an extremely full day, visiting 3 parks, the zoo, a brewery, a gastropub, and finally stopping for ice cream. The plan was to start with the largest park, and then get to as many parks as we could that did not have any hiking.
The first park of the day was Sand Ridge State Forest. At 7,200 acres, it is both the largest state forest in Illinois, and the largest park we have been too to date. The trail system is extensive, for both hiking and horseback riding. There are also several campsites available. This is one of the more unique parks in that parts of it are almost desert like, a remnant of extreme dryness and heat thousands of years ago.
We had high hopes for this park, especially with the unique landscapes, but unfortunately it did not live up to what we had hoped for. Our first issue was that we had a lot of trouble navigating anywhere. It took a lot of digging to find a park map, and even with that we took at least 3 wrong turns on the way to the trail we had picked.
There are miles of both hiking and equestrian trails, all of varying lengths and difficulties, and the one we picked was in line with our usual distance based on our abilities. We ended up not being able to hike at all because the bugs were so bad and we were genuinely very worried about ticks. Instead we walked along the dirt road for a couple miles before turning back. Despite all the trouble, we still saw plenty of butterflies as well as dozens of snails. We also saw a family out on their horses, the first time we’ve actually seen riders out at all.
Final thoughts on Sand Ridge is that there is a lot of great stuff here, but only the most well prepared and outdoorsy people will be able to experience any of it. The best trails were far outside of our skill level, and the ones that were seemingly within our capabilities were extremely difficult to locate.
Disheartened and needing change of pace, we went across the road to the Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery. While it is an operating hatchery, it also serves as a museum, with exhibits about natural history as well as the industry. In stark contrast to Sand Ridge, this place was jam packed with displays and information. Everything you could ever want to know about midwestern fish is here.
We both found this place interesting, even if just for the sheer amount of information randomly in the middle of nowhere. We would recommend stopping here, especially if you’ve just come from Sand Ridge and want to quickly get into air conditioning and use a bathroom with indoor plumbing.
After that, we went to Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area. We could not find very much information on this park while researching, and so we arrived with no expectations for what we’d find there. What we found was for sure my favorite park of the day, despite not knowing what to expect. All we knew was that it was around 2,000 acres, and over half of that was just the lake itself.
Spring Lake itself was beautiful, the main road runs right down the middle, with tons of lily pads growing all over. Most exciting of all was the family of swans moving around the lake, and eventually coming right up to where we were parked. They had cygnets, so we opted to get back into the car and take photos at a distance, but it was still really neat. The scenery here was easily the best for taking photos, which is why I liked it so much.
While we felt that there actually was quite a bit this park had to offer, the problem was that we kept finding contradictory information and could not approach this park with any kind of plan. One thing said there was hiking, another said it was just the lake. We figured out there were trails once we were leaving, and only found the sign by chance. Had we known about the hiking, we definitely would have made that a priority, especially with how pretty it was here.
The final park of the day was Powerton Lake State Fish and Wildlife area. This is a cooling reservoir owned by Commonwealth Edison, and the only activities here are fishing and waterfowl hunting. We did see several people doing just that, but there is no other reason to stop here.
We headed back into city, stopping at Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery. The beer was pretty good, but what stood out was the building itself, being inside an old church. There are plenty of chandeliers and stained glass windows to give the whole place a unique charm.
Finally, we decided to explore a little bit more of Peoria, since neither of us had been before. We stopped at Thyme Kitchen and Craft Beer to try some of their cocktails. I had the Blackberry Thyme Bramble, and Stephanie had the Cosmo flight, and both were very enjoyable. We also found a statue of Richard Pryor, who it turns out was born in Peoria.
We also stopped at the Peoria zoo, because Stephanie never passes up the chance to see sloths. Unfortunately, they were not out when we got there, but we still walked around all the exhibits just to see what they had. We are both accustomed to Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo, and while Peoria’s is not as large as either of these, it was still a nice stop. It only took about an hour and a half to go thru the whole zoo, which was about all we had the energy for after everything else we did.
Our last stop of the day was Emo’s dairy Mart for ice cream, the absolute best way we could have finished the day.
While some of these parks had more to offer than others, the real issue with all of them was the lack of information. We believe that both Sand Ridge and Spring Lake have a lot to offer, and yet the biggest barrier is finding where your preferred activities are. Getting lost trying to find trails in Sand Ridge because nothing is marked, or simply not knowing the thing you wanted to do was available at Spring Lake until after leaving. We still recommend going to Spring Lake though, the lake alone is worth stopping just to take photos of.