I am in love. And as happens when one first falls in love – one cannot get enough of their lover. In my case, it is not a woman, car or other vehicle, it is a forest. I can’t get enough of hiking in the spectacular Lowden–Miller State Forest near Oregon, Illinois.
While I was sort of remotely aware of the existence of this preserve, it was only after flying over this vast dense hardwood and pine forest that I was struck with the uncommon beauty of it. I emailed Sonia Vogl who lives nearby, asking what this area might be – but before she could reply, a Google Maps search discovered its true identity – the 2,291 acre Lowden–Miller State Forest. A quick search found a description of it at http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r1/lowdenmi.htm that includes a trail map.
After the first long hike with my miniature Schnauzer Berghie I was hooked. I became determined to hike all of the 22 miles of forested trail. I’m still working on that, although by time I go for a hike later today, I’ll have about 80 percent of it hiked. The average hike is about 2.5 miles and takes two hours. If you decide to go yet this fall and winter, check the website for dates when the forest is closed due to gun hunting. Read the interesting history of this forest on the website as well.
There are six gravel parking areas and the trails are very wide – so wide that three horses could be ridden abreast at the same time. The trails are limited to hiking, equestrians, and cross-country skiing. But the dense and varying forest litters the trails with leaves and limbs, so despite the width, the trails seem very “natural.” It is nice that one does not need to fight through any brush to hike. The trails undulate up and down small hills and cross ravines. There are areas of all hardwood, all pine, and often a mix of both. The trees have been there a long time and are very mature. Much of the forest is free of invasive species such as buckthorn and honeysuckle, so one has a good clear view through the forest, and the sunlight can filter through to the forest floor where often there are ferns growing. I can’t wait to come back in spring to see what flowers pop up.
I particularly enjoy walking the pine filled areas when the wind is blowing hard. The sound of the wind in the tops of these tall straight trees really takes you to another place. The smell is of the great Northwoods and lately while in the hardwood areas, the fall colors and smell of wet leaves is truly special as well. There is a lengthy trail along the Rock River that the forest is bound by on the west side, but it is not the most interesting or scenic part of the hike. It is also not possible to hike just the riverside trail and come back to the beginning in one grand loop. It will need to be experienced in sections. I already have favorite trails that I know I will be coming back to time and again to experience them in the different seasons.
I have been to all 42 of Winnebago County’s forest preserves and Rock Cut State Park. I regularly hike in the huge Atwood Park that is run by the Rockford Park District. Having been there and done that – and done it repeatedly. Finding some new scenery is exciting. And that is exploring our neighboring parks and preserves to the south. Oregon, Illinois and Ogle County are host to three state parks and the Lowden–Miller State Forest. I’ve rediscovered White Pines State Park and its several more elusive rugged trails. Lowden State Park is where the Native American statue lives, but it too has many trails and some very steep climbs/descents on stairs leading to the river. It has fantastic views of the Rock River Valley as well as excellent camping facilities.
Just south of Oregon is Castle Rock State Park that straddles Highway 2. Along the river there is a rocky pinnacle that is the “castle” you can ascend and where canoe camping along the Rock River Trail is available, while inland there is more dense forest, trails, prairie and picnic shelters with grand vistas. Castle Rock State Park manages the Lowden–Miller State Forest where there are no facilities – not even outhouses.
How does this tie into green transportation? All these wonderful natural experiences are less than an hours’ drive from anywhere in Winnebago County. There is no need to burn a lot of fossil fuel to go have a great outdoor experience – we have fabulous outdoor resources in our own backyard – sometimes literally. One can have the comforts of living at home and taking day trips to these places without the need to drag along or drive a big RV to have comfort. Sure it is still expending some energy to go for a simple walk in the woods, but it is much less impact than those adventures on a grander scale and distance.
Frequent, thoughtful, peaceful hikes in the woods restore our souls. It engenders an appreciation for nature and what came before us. These encounters can create a will to protect our environment so that future generations may come to enjoy the benefits of a natural experience – and that may well lead to the sort of conservation that our planet desperately needs. These are your places. Get out and enjoy them. I’ve coined a new saying I hope catches on, “Illinois, where the outdoors is free.”