Into The Wild: Castle Rock State Park an area of major scientific importance

As with “No Child Left Inside,” welcome to a new series of articles in partnership with Four Rivers Environmental Coalition (FREC) and The Rock River Times. In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the FREC presents this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit

By Lynda Johnson
Sand Bluff Bird Observatory Volunteer and retired environmental educator

If you have never been to Castle Rock State Park, you are in for a really big treat! From Rockford, travel south on Highway 2 along the Rock River. This is one of my favorite drives. Leave all your electronic devices at home, and just enjoy meandering along this route.

The river turns and twists, and the vegetation and trees are lush and green. Don’t expect it to be like traveling on Interstate 90 into Chicago. You probably will get behind someone who is going slower than you wish, and you can’t get around them because the road is full of curves and “do not pass” signs.

Relax, and just enjoy the scenery! Don’t forget to look for the big statue of Chief Black Hawk on the east side of the river, north of Oregon, Ill.

Just south of Oregon, Ill., you will see the entrance to Castle Rock State Park on the west side of the road. Keep going just a little ways farther, until you see a parking place on the river side. This is where you start your climb up Castle Rock.

Castle Rock is high on a bluff overlooking the Rock River—it’s a magnificent view when you get to the top and look at the river far below. This is one of the few places where St. Peter Sandstone comes to the surface. It’s a big, big rock! No, you can’t get off the stairs and climb on it—that’s not permitted. Plus, it would be very dangerous.

I counted the steps going up to the top: 129! But they are in groups of four, six, eight or 10 steps, with straight walkways in between, so it is manageable, and there are benches at the top. (Just think, people pay money to get this kind of a workout at gyms—this is free.) While we ascended, we paused many times to look at birds that were singing very close in the canopy: indigo bunting, blue-winged warbler, American redstart, and more. It was early in the morning, and birds were everywhere!

We enjoyed looking at the trees and bushes: black oak, wafer ash, sand cherry, juneberry, bigtooth aspen, hackberry, witch-hazel, and more. Twenty-seven different ferns inhabit Castle Rock and the Castle Rock State Park across the highway. We saw polypody, interrupted, lady and bracken ferns. Once at the top, we were very glad we climbed up. I couldn’t help but think about the Native Americans who lived in this area before European settlement in the early 1800s. They would have used the Rock River as their highway, and the plants and animals in the area would have provided them with plenty of food and supplies for living.

We are fortunate that George and Barbara Fell, from Rockford, discovered this unique spot, and worked very hard to preserve it. George was a visionary. Very early on, he recognized we needed to preserve natural areas before they were destroyed by the building of towns and roads. He and his wife, Barbara, went to Washington, D.C., in the 1940s and started the Nature Conservancy, an international preservation organization. They returned to Rockford in 1958, and started the Natural Land Institute (NLI), a local conservation organization.

In the early 1960s, the NLI started purchasing Castle Rock lands, and by 1970, the state of Illinois acquired those acres, plus more. It became a state park in 1978, with more than 2,000 acres—710 of which are dedicated as a nature preserve. These natural areas are part of George and Barbara’s legacy, which they preserved so we, and all future generations, can see what Illinois was like long ago. I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping this natural heritage for our children and grandchildren to enjoy! We need to appreciate the unique, and sometimes rare, plants and animals living here, too!

After we climbed down from the big rock, we went back to the entrance of the Castle Rock State Park and drove through the north part, where there are hiking trails and picnic and restroom facilities. Then, we drove through the nature preserve area, which is between the north and south entrances to the state park. We parked the car and hiked on the road. This is one of the largest significant natural areas in northern Illinois, with deep ravines and rock formations, and unique northern plants in the nature preserve. The vegetation is very thick and lush, and we enjoyed just looking from the road and knowing it is preserved for the plants and animals.

Then, we drove to the south entrance and hiked on a trail that went along a ridge. By this time, the day had become hot, and the birds had stopped their early songs, but it was cool walking in the forest, and we enjoyed the vegetation. The end of the hike went through prairie, and the prairie flowers were beautiful! Just as we came to the parking lot, a male Eastern bluebird was singing, perched on a fencepost. Close by was a bluebird house; probably his family was nearby…a nice sight to end our excursion to Castle Rock State Park.

Please visit this unique place. Castle Rock is special to my husband, Lee, and me, because we always visit Castle Rock Aug. 3 to celebrate the day we met 30 years ago! It is a great way to celebrate, and to unwind and enjoy the natural world. On your way home, stop at one of the many restaurants in Oregon or Byron for lunch.

From the Aug. 4-10, 2010 issue

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