Buffalo Rock State Park : “A prairie on a cliff”

In Utica, all of the road signs directing you to the nearby state parks will have three different destinations on them. First: Starved Rock, Second: Matthiessen, and Third: Buffalo Rock State Park. We have been to the first two parks several times over the years, but we finally managed to make it to the third in late June.

Diverging from our usual path, we drove up to the top of the bluff on the north side of the Illinois River. Our first impression just from the drive in was that it was going to be very similar to the other places nearby; very rocky with canyons and lots of waterfalls. However, once we started our hike, we realized it is vastly different than what we were expecting. Instead of the deep canyons and complex trail systems, we saw a much more prairie-like landscape. At the time, I described it as “someone took a slice of Chain O’ Lakes State Park and dropped it on the top of a cliff”.

The one thing that is similar to the other parks in the area is the history. Buffalo Rock, Starved Rock, and Matthiessen were all home to different American Indian tribes for thousands of years, before the French set up military, trading, and missionary posts in the region. But a unique point we found is that in 1912 the Chicago Crane Company purchased Buffalo Rock and maintained a sanatorium on the property for employees ill with tuberculosis.

Buffalo Rock is primarily known for two things. The first is is the Effigy Tumuli, a unique natural art exhibit unlike anything at any other state park. The earth has been sculpted into the shapes of five different animals, similar to other effigies created by native peoples thousands of years ago. The second thing are the buffalo living on site. Both of these things made us pretty excited to visit.

Walking down the Effigy Trail, you can’t actually see the sculptures clearly from the ground. The smallest of the five is the 140 ft long frog, and largest is a 2,070 ft snake that curves with the landscape. We decided to look up aerial views later, and we can say with certainty that it really interesting to look at.

Water Strider – Courtesy Google Maps
Catfish – Courtesy Google Maps

We knew beforehand that Buffalo Rock was significantly smaller than most of the other parks in the region at only 298 acres (Starved Rock is 2,630 acres). We also knew that the trails available were pretty short, both under 3 miles long. In visiting, we would say these trails are both pretty accessible to all ability levels. The trails run both thru the different sculptures as well overlooking the river. They are probably the best views we have seen at an overlook without needing to climb up a very steep hill.

The one downside is that there is a shooting range nearby. Walking around, the sounds of gunshots was not escapable. In our raw video footage, you can hear the distinct popping of it in the distance. Even further into the park we could still hear it. If you were to visit just to enjoy some peace and quiet, this would not be the park for you.

However, getting to see the buffalos did make up for the noise. There are two living there, and they can bee seen every day.

After a very fun but noisy morning, we drove into Utica to get lunch at Lodi Tap House and have a beer at the Obscurity Beirgarten. We love Lodi Tap House, and get lunch their almost every time we drive down. The Beirgarten was a relatively new addition to the town that we had never been to before. Since it was pride month, we opted for the seasonal Let’s Grab a Beer Together. It’s a very good one to try while sitting outside on a summer afternoon.

Buffalo Rock has a lot going for it: great views, relatively easy trails, an interesting history, and real buffalo to see. All the noise was a bit off-putting, but if you know to expect it we feel this park is still worth it. We also feel that it can compete with Starved Rock and Matthiessen, especially if the crowds at Starved Rock are overwhelming, but you should keep in mind that the things that make that park exciting are not things you will find at Buffalo Rock.

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