Do it It’s possible to get your Southwest fix without leaving the Midwest. How? Tour this patchwork of woods and desert just three hours southwest of Chicago on a two-day, 15.6-mile trip from the Red/Yellow/Blue trailhead (1).
Follow the silky sand path northwest under oak and hickory, looking for wild turkeys, woodcocks, and pheasants foraging in the underbrush. Enter fragrant pine woods (2) and walk 5.7 miles across the undulating trail, looking for broad-crowned blackjack oak trees—characterized by duck-foot-shaped leaves—that thrive in sand. You’ll trace one of the park’s 15-foot-tall namesake ridges, edged with blue phlox (blooming in March).
At mile 6.5, skirt a stand of 100-foot-tall pine trees (3) set in perfect rows 10 feet apart (a remnant of a Depression-era government experiment to control erosion). Pass Oak Camp’s car-accessible sites, but tank up a gallon per hiker at the water pump (4) (tonight’s camp is dry).
Continue east on the Yellow/Red Trail and find Backcountry Campsite 1 (5) shrouded among pines and raspberry bushes (ripe mid-summer) at mile 8.1. Look for white-bellied Cooper’s hawks hunting pocket gophers at dusk and listen for the calls of nocturnal whip-poor-will birds. Sneak out to the prairie (6) in the morning to see white-tailed deer grazing among the sunflowers and prickly pear cactus. Then, continue on the wooded main path, scanning for native prairie plants—such as violet buttonweed and red lovegrass.
Turn right at the first T-shaped fork (7) to continue on the Yellow Trail and crest a hill. Connect the Blue/Orange, Red Diamond, White, and Blue Trails the final .5 mile over loose sand—look for tan-camouflaged toads spring through fall—to your car (8).
As seen in the March 2014 issue of BACKPACKER.
TO TRAILHEAD: 40.391733, -89.894998*; 35 miles southwest of Peoria off Mason County Rd. 2300 N.
Distance: 15.58 mi
Total Time: none
Speed: 0.0 mph
Pace: 0:00 / mi
Active Time: none
Speed: 0.0 mph
Pace: 0:00 / mi
Points of Interest
Location: 40.392027, -89.894569
Begin your two-day, 15.6-mile adventure from the Red/Yellow/Blue trailhead (1).
Location: 40.398795, -89.889993
At mile .4, turn left off the boot-sucking sand and follow a dilapidated wooden fence across farmland to fragrant pine woods (2).
Location: 40.407709, -89.870976
Cross asphalt Pine Valley Drive to a stand of 100-foot-tall pine trees, set in perfect rows, 10 feet apart (4).
Location: 40.404833, -89.864724
Just past the snowmobile sign, turn south (hiker’s right) and cross an unmarked road to the Oak Camp water pump (4) where you can replenish a gallon per person (tonight’s camp is dry).
Location: 40.403192, -89.852340
Next day, sneak out to the sand prairie (6) at dawn to look for white-tailed deer and wild turkeys grazing among the blue phlox, sunflowers, and prickly pear cactus.
Location: 40.391587, -89.890247
From here, connect the Blue/Orange, Red Diamond, White, and Blue Trails past pines back to the trailhead and your car (8).
Location: 40.374508, -89.846721
Turn right at the first T-shaped fork (7), and crest a pine needle-covered hill to a farm vista of sowing crops, including cowpeas, clover, and hairy vetch.
Location: 40.403658, -89.851101
At mile 8.2, find Backcountry Campsite 1 (5) just off the main path to the east (hiker’s left), shrouded among pines bound by raspberry bushes (ripe mid-summer).
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