Winter is a good time to spot eagles at Starved Rock State Park near Utica, Illinois. – Jolyn Wise, Starved Rock State Park photos
by Mary Bohlen
If you are eager to eye an eagle this winter, head to Starved Rock State Park near Utica. Like swallows returning to Capistrano, bald eagles wing their way to the park every year, seeking fish found in the cold Illinois River.
Combine eagle watching with winter hiking on 13 miles of trails bordering canyons and ice falls; a lodge with a roaring fire, indoor pool and sauna; a lively sports bar and multiple flavors of fudge, and you’ve got yourself a weekend. The park, 95 miles southwest of Chicago, has been voted one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois.
A winter visit bonus is crowds substantially lower than the 9,000 to 18,000 visitors the park usually gets on a summer day. Columbus Day weekend can bring as many as 50,000 fall foliage seekers, but a winter weekend often tops out at 3,000 even during peak eagle-watching.
On a clear day the best viewing spot is atop Starved Rock, the park’s signature sandstone bluff, 125 feet above the Illinois River.
“The best time to walk the trails is after a fresh snow when you can almost have the trails to yourself,” said Assistant Park Superintendent Don Petre. “There’s nothing like it, especially if you want to spot various animals.”
You can see some eagles around the park all year, according to Petre, but “as soon as it gets really cold, we see large numbers.” The highest concentration usually is in late January, and the park celebrates with an Eagle Watch Weekend, this season on Jan. 28 and 29.
On a clear day the best viewing spot is atop Starved Rock itself, the park’s signature sandstone bluff, 125 feet above the river. Legend says in the 1760s a band of Native Illinois fled to the top while under attack by some Pottawatomie and Ottawa. They were avenging the killing of the Ottawa chief, Pontiac, and surrounded the bluff. The stranded Illinois eventually died of starvation, their plight memorialized in name.
While Starved Rock is a good place to spot the eagles gathering on the river’s Plum Island, nearby overlooks at Lover’s Leap and Eagle Cliff afford views of the open water below the dam, popular with the birds once the river freezes. Lover’s Leap remembers the story of two distraught young people from rival tribes forbidden to marry, who supposedly chose to die leaping off the cliff rather than live apart.
Modern-day visitors can learn about these legends and other park history at the Visitor Center, open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily all year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. The center is a good place to get trail maps, learn what animals have been sighted and stock up on snacks for hiking or ice climbing. Snacks include tempting fudge, made on site.
Starved Rock Lodge offers a full-service restaurant, a café, a sports bar, a large indoor pool, a sauna and a gift shop in addition to a massive lobby and outdoor veranda overlooking the river. You can book a room in the historic lodge or rent one of 21 nearby cabins. One cabin is set aside for massages, where you can ease those hiking muscles.
Scattered throughout the grounds is the largest collection of chain saw art in Illinois. Commissioned chain saw sculptors create works of art when a tree dies in the park, and the results include bears, eagles and Native American likenesses.
Special events such as wine tastings, tribute bands, craft classes and children’s activities offer something for everyone. December brings breakfast with Santa, Santa’s workshops, holiday lights trolley tours, a Christmas day buffet and a New Year’s Eve party.
Starved Rock participates in America’s State Parks’ First Day Hike on Jan. 1, and guides will offer winter wilderness hikes Saturdays and Sundays in December and January. Trolley tours depart from the lodge and include a bald eagle tour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays in January and February.
You also can explore the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center across the river from Starved Rock and take a short drive to Matthiessen and Buffalo Rock state parks. The nearby towns of Utica, Oglesby, LaSalle-Peru and Ottawa offer alternative lodging and a variety of restaurants and shops.
Once you have sampled what the area has to offer, you may find yourself following the lead of those eagles and returning often.
For more information on Starved Rock, visit www.starvedrockstatepark.org. To book a room or cabin in the park or reserve space at a special event, go to www.starvedrocklodge.com or call 800.868.7625. Special events can fill quickly so reserve as far in advance as possible. For tips on other area sites and events, see www.enjoylasallecounty.com.
Mary Bohlen is a freelance writer and editor from Springfield and former journalism professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.