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Illinois' Best Winter State Parks
The Top Choices Include Limestone Caves, Sparkling Waterfalls, and Frozen Lakes.

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Mississippi Palisades State Park
Native American pathfinders along rock palisades of the Mississippi River did as present day hikers do - in coursing the bluffs, they took the paths of least resistance. Trails at the park, especially the park's southern routes, put you in touch with the past. Walk them and you'll trace the footsteps of all those who came before you, some of whom came this way nearly a thousand years ago. Located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Apple Rivers in northwestern Illinois, the 2,500 acre park is rich in American Indian history.

Palisades is the word used to describe a line of lofty, steep cliffs usually seen along a river and the park, 3 miles north of Savanna in Carroll County, lives up to that name. Caves are evident as are dangerous sinkholes - limestone caves that go straight down. Erosion carved intriguing rock formations including Indian Head with its aquiline characteristics, and Twin Sisters, a pair of humanoid figures on the bluff tops. The U.S. Department of the Interior recognized the remarkable nature of this area when in 1973 it designated acreage here as a national landmark.

Wooded ravines with brilliant hues splash the cliffs with color each autumn dissecting the unglaciated terrain. Animal life within the park and river areas is varied. Waterfowl and shorebirds are numerous as are wild turkeys, striking pileated woodpeckers make their home in the park and depending on ice conditions, eagles feed at the river in January and February.

Winter sports at the park including cross-country skiing and sledding; anglers ice fish at the boat launch area when the ice is thick enough.

Starved Rock State Park
Whether you enjoy hiking along the nature trails or viewing the many spectacular overlooks along the Illinois River, recreational opportunities abound including winter sports. The park is best know for its fascinating rock formations, primarily St. Peter sandstone, laid down in a huge shallow inland sea more than 425 million years ago and later brought to the surface. The Illinois River Valley in the Starved Rock area is a major contrast to the flatland. The valley was formed by a series of floods as glacial meltwater broke through the moraines sending torrents of water surging across the land deeply eroding the sandstone and other sedimentary rocks. During early spring, when the end of winter thaw is occurring and rains are frequent, sparkling waterfalls are found at the heads of all 18 canyons and vertical walls of moss-covered stone create a setting of natural geologic beauty uncommon in Illinois. Some of the longer-lasting waterfalls are found in French, LaSalle and St. Louis canyons.

Waterfalls, rivers and streams can undercut a cliff, creating overhangs in the sandstone like Council Overhang at the east end of the park. Other sights can be seen from the bluffs themselves which provide vantage points for enjoying spectacular vistas. Abundant wildlife and bird populations including woodchucks, beavers, muskrats, moles, vireos, catbirds, wood ducks, red-tailed hawks and whitetail deer can be seen at the park. You can see many species of trees along with bluestem and Indian grasses and in sandy prairie soil the prickly pear cactus grows alongside lead plant, compass plant and rattlesnake master in the park.

The area has been home to humans from as early as 8000 B.C. Hopewellian, Woodland and Mississippian Native American cultures thrived here. The most recent and probably the most numerous groups of Native Americans to live here was the Illiniwek from the 1500s to the 1700s. Approximately 5,000 to 7,000 Kaskaskias, a subtride of the Illiniwek had a village extending along the bank of the Illinois River across from the current park. In 1673, French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette passed through here on their way up the Illinois River from the Mississippi River. "Pere" (Father) Marquette returned two years later to found the Mission of the Immaculate Conception (Illinois' first Christian Mission) at the Kaskaskia Indian village. When the French claimed the region, they built Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock in the winter of 1682-83 because of its commanding strategic position above the last rapids on the Illinois River. Pressured from small war parties of Iroquois in the French and Indian wars, the French abandoned the fort by the early 1700s and retreated to what is now Peoria. Fort St. Louis became a haven for traders and trappers but by 1720, all remains of the fort had disappeared.

Starved Rock State Park derives its name from a Native American legend of injustice and retributrion. In the 1760s, Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa tribe upriver from the park, was slain by an Illiniwek while attending a tribal council in Southern Illinois. According to the legend, during one of the battles that subsequently occurred to avenge his killing, a band of Illiniwek under attack by a band of Potawatomi (allies of the Ottawa), sought refuge atop a 125-foot sandstone butte. The Ottawa and Potawatomi surrounded the bluff and held their ground until the hapless Illiniwek died of starvation - giving rise to the name "Starved Rock."

Starved Rock is host to a number of enjoyable annual events including the Winter Wilderness Weekend in January and the Cross-Country Ski Weekend in February.

Starved Rock State Park
courtesy of Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources

Rock Cut State Park
Chiseled out of the state's far northern region is Rock Cut State Park in Winnebago County. Nearby are other "rocky" landmarks - the mighty Rock River and the place where wagons once forded it, Rockford. It's an area of rolling plains, interesting history and recreational variety.

Two lakes set off the park's 3,092 acres. Pierce Lake (162 acres) is a retreat for people wanting to fish, ice fish or ice skate. The second lake, Olson lake (50 acres) is especially for swimmers. Rounding out the park's recreational options are camping, biking, hiking, horseback trails, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Whatever the season, you can be sure there's quite a bit of activity going on at the park.

By the middle of the 17th century, Miami-speaking tribes of Native Americans entered the region of Rock Cut State Park after the Iroquois drove them from territory on the southern end of Lake Michigan. From about 1655 until 1735, the Rock River was within the range of the Mascouten who were also pushed westward by the Iroquois. The Winnebago ranged southward from Wisconsin to the Rock River from the 1740s until 1837 while the river's upper portion was on the periphery of the Fox and Sauk territory from about 1765 to 1833. By 1800, the Potawatomi, Ottawa and Chippewa nations had extended their range into the area but they ceded their land to the United States 32 years later following the Black Hawk War.

Because water serves as a welcome mat to birds and animals, wildlife watchers to the area won't be disappointed. Birders report good viewing with waterfowl being abundant. Deer, fox, muskrat, woodchuck and beaver inhabit Rock Cut State Park as do opossum, raccoon and both gray and fox squirrels.

Settlement of Winnebago County began after the Black Hawk War. The region that is now Rock Cut State Park was settled partly by Scots around Argyle (named for their Scottish home of Argyllshire) and partly by Canadians, New Yorkers and New Englanders around the town of Harlem (named for New York City's Harlem). The Illinois version of Harlem was moved in 1859 when the Kenosha-Rockford Rail Line was built. The dammed waters of Pierce Lake now cover much of the railroad bed within the park, although portions of the railroad grade are visible along Willow Creek below the spillway. Blasting operations in a rock outcrop that railroad crews conducted during the 1859 construction left lasting impressions here - they cut through rock to provide a suitable roadbed and gave Rock Cut its name.

An elaborate multi-use trail system puts the park high on the list of hikers and cross-country skiers who have 12 miles of trails to enjoy. The main trail around Pierce Lake is 4.25 miles long with separate interpretive trails putting you a little closer to nature. All trails are well marked and maintained. Horseback riders and snowmobilers aren't forgotten at the park. It's closed to horses December 1-April 15 while other activities come to the forefront. During winter, the 14 miles of equestrian trails are open for snowmobiling. Ice fishing at Rock Cut is a great pastime.

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