Monday, August 6, 2018

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Over the previous two days I’ve managed to ride all of the Tunnel Hill State Trail south of Tunnel Hill. By real biker standards not much of a feat, but you may have noticed that I’m not a real biker.

Anyway, that leaves everything north of Tunnel Hill, all the way up to Harrisburg, unexplored, including the supposedly quirky little museum there in Stonefort, which actually used to be the railroad town of Bolton before the actual Stonefort, about a mile east, where the railroad was originally slated to go, and so named because it occupied a semicircular walled site of either a village circa 500 AD or perhaps an animal trap since the open south side of the semicircle is an unscalable cliff, not content to by bypassed by the railroad, sidled west a bit and got the post office and railroad station renamed, although some residents stubbornly held onto the Bolton name for several more years which confused the crap out of things! (The fact that the townsite straddles the Williams and Salinas county lines doesn’t help matters either.)

The original Stonefort site, now called Stonefort Bluff, sits out there just south of CR-16 and just west of Bill Hill Hollow Road, although it looks like if there’s anything left, it’s buried under the trees now.

But all that is going to have to wait for another trip, because after two successive days on the Quad-B I’m putting her on the rack and limping heading off to Ferne Clyffe State Park, up there in the top left corner of the map above, for some good old-fashioned hoofin’-it.

The good news is that there is no day-use fee for Illinois State Parks, the bad news is that getting info about, or decent maps of Illinois State facilities is, in my experience - well let's just call it difficult.

The web sites are so superficial as to practically impart no useful information at all and the maps, if you can find any, are incomplete at best and often confusing. I was unable to find the map pictured above on-line at all and I only managed to obtain this paper version at the Shawnee National Forest Headquarters.

I tried to research the park’s primitive camping sites before leaving on this trip but reserveamerica are only interested in the hookup sites that earn them money so other than the briefest of mention that they exist at all, I could find no real information about the primitive sites,not even where in the park they might be.

Even this map. accredited to the Illinois DNR, doesn’t seem to bother with the primitive sites, some of which are located along that little spur-road just above the “P” that I’ve marked above.

Which also happens to be where trail 9, the short Rocky Branch Trail, leaves from on its way to connect with the Happy Hollow Trail I’ve picked for today’s hike.

Depending on which source you are going to trust, Happy Hollow Trail is either an 8 mile difficult slog or a 5 mile moderate hike, or somewhere in between.

Based on my own personal experience I would call it a 5 mile difficult hike, especially when hiked during record heat.

After an initial drop down the bluffs on the east (Red) there is a nice amble along Pine Creek (Green) then an abrupt 180 and a climb up the bluffs on the west side of the creek (Blue) from where you work your way back down towards the creek though areas of managed food-plots where stuff the local animals like to eat is available. (Brown) Of course, to cap it all off, there’s the daunting climb back up the east bluffs to where you parked.

And before I actually get out there and hike this thing, you see that lake to the right of my track? Quoting from the official park pamphlet; “16 acre Ferne Clyffe Lake offers additional recreation opportunities” but “boating and swimming are prohibited”. So apparently you can look but don’t touch! Which might seem restrictive but is deemed OK since the state designates 'looking' as a recreational opportunity.

With a plan in place I headed out before dawn in order to cover the 30 miles between my camp and here and still get an early, heat-beating start. But even with a plan the lack of signage in the park meant two wrong turns before I found the right trailhead.

It turned out that this trailhead parking lot is also a primitive camping area with sites behind as well as in front of The Van and a couple more sites up along that road leading into here. If you look close, just past The Van’s windshield you can see a small pop-up camper that has been horsed by hand into one of the primitive sites.

All the other sites were empty, which being a Saturday I found somewhat surprising, but then again maybe there aren’t very many of us foolish enough to be out camping in this unseasonable heat. . .

Even that pop-up was gone by the time I finished my hike.

But never mind, the first few feet of the trail were wide and easy and I was ready to clock some good old-fashioned foot-miles while giving the saddle-sores on my butt a break.

But that wide and easy crap didn’t last long before the bluffs started making themselves known.

But with fresh legs I made my way down, and down, and down, with little trouble and much enthusiasm, though that didn’t stop me from throwing the occasional worried look over my shoulder, as the thought that I had to climb back up this trail at the end of the hike niggled at the back of my brain.

Once I made it down to the relatively cool, if buggy, and of course, muggy, Pine Creek I soon forgot about that climb back up out of here.

Especially when I came across this stone-work

that was clearly an abutment for a bridge that at one time serviced the barely discernible road that cuts up through the woods roughly along that sun-dappled line there.

I couldn’t help but stand there where the road once was and wonder about the people who built this bridge and why, but since I haven’t been able to find any info on this lost bridge, that was all I could do; wonder. Which is a shame because here is yet another lost piece of history that somebody put a significant amount of time and effort into.

If there is one thing that dominates early morning trails, no matter where in the country they are, it’s spider webs.

Eventually, at the far southwest reaches of the trail, it turns back to the northeast and briefly tracks along the border of the park which is shared by a farm over there on the other side of the fence.

Being a Saturday I really expected there to be other people on the trail, and eventually there were, one single couple, but I hadn’t run into them yet.  So far the auditory part of my hike, with the exception of my own footsteps, has consisted of nothing but natural sounds, but here, as I was standing at the fence line looking across the empty field, I found myself serenaded by, some of you have probably already guessed this, the distant but incessant drone of a lawnmower. . .

Up to this point the trail has actually been a 4-wheel track for ease of maintenance, but here it started some serious climbing up the western bluffs and abruptly pinched down to a narrow foot-trail

scrambling up the slope between rock outcroppings,

that included some impressive shelter-bluffs.

(Shelter bluffs are more overhang than cave but offer similar protection without the risk of a grumpy bear coming out of the cave behind you.)

At one point the trail comes out under this arch which is very similar to the arch along the Natural Bridge Trail at Bell Smith Springs

which I hiked last year and is about 18 crow-flight miles due east of here.

Like the Natural Bridge Trail, Happy Hollow Trail switchbacks up to pass just above the arch too. Though this arch is about a third of the size of the one at Bell Smith Springs, it’s still impressive, and tempting to walk and cavort on, which I didn't since I figure it receives enough abuse as it is. (Besides I don't really do much cavorting anymore. . .)

Most of Happy Hollow Trail is also a link in the River to River trail, and although I saw a half dozen of the R-to-R blazes along the way, for some reason I only managed to capture this single, seriously out of focus, shot of one.

Once the worst of the climbing was over I started coming across a series of these food-plots designed to attract wildlife.

The couple I mentioned earlier were coming around the trail the other way so had just passed these food-plots before I got to them, clearing out any wildlife that might have been dining there, but that’s alright, back down there near the farm I came across a pretty good sized buck that they probably won’t be able to catch sight of either.

By now the heat and some overly aggressive blood-pressure meds (90 over 50? That doesn't sound right to me. Does that sound right to you?) had sucked the starch right out of my legs so the descent back down towards Pine Creek was welcomed, right up until I found myself at the foot of that initial stretch of trail again - you know - the one with a significant vertical component to it.

Oh well, if I want to get back to The Van I don’t have much choice but to start climbing, although I’m pretty sure by the time all was said and done, it took me nearly as long to climb back up that last little bit as it did to cover the whole rest of the trail.

One step, two steps, pause, lean heavily on the hiking sticks to counteract noodle-legs and gasp at that near 100 degree air while trying to convince myself that I’m simply enjoying the view and not really dying. Repeat, over and over and over and over – and over.

Oh come on! Just how far is it to The damn Van??


  1. I am happy to read you are getting all of that exercise. Nah, that 90 over 50 sounds pretty strange to me. I wonder what your pulse rate was at that blood pressure reading?

  2. I think I could do without at least some of that exercise!

    The combination of my social anxiety (they call it a disorder but to me it's just common sense) and a bad case of white-coat syndrome often has the check-in nurse exclaiming 'we need to get you to the emergency room right now!' as she bleeds off the cuff for the second time. Since doctors are notoriously bad at listening, even though I always bring a chart of my at-home readings I usually come away with the wrong dosages and it takes time to figure out what's really right. In this case instead of a whole pill once a day it turned out to be one-quarter pill once every other day.

    Pulse rate was in the high 90's when I took that reading after finally getting back to The Van. My resting pulse is high 50's/low 60's so at 90 I wasn't working the heart all that much, just couldn't get enough oomph all the way down to my legs. . .

    The good news is that if all stays the same, I've got enough drugs to last me for 8 years now!