Experiencing the joy of the season at state parks, nature centers

By Dave Fidlin For Chronicle Media

For those looking for some outdoor activity over the holidays, Starved Rock State Park in Utica offers many trails to hike and explore. (Photo courtesy of Starved Rock State Park)

From the fireplace to the dining room table, holiday-themed imagery has almost always focused on the warmth and coziness of the indoors. Thoughts of spending time outdoors, particularly in Illinois’ sometimes-brutal conditions, typically hibernate until spring.

But recreation-focused organizations across the state do keep their doors — and their trails — open throughout the holidays and into the depths of the winter months that follow. Several local officials say they have to step up their marketing efforts to let the public know they are indeed still in operation.

“(State parks) facilities are, for the most part, open year-round,” said Tim Schweizer, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “Many of our trails are still maintained, and we have great accommodations for cross-country skiing.”

With the holidays in full swing, organizations across Central Illinois have created programs designed to give youth — and persons who are young-at-heart — a flavor of the festivities that mark this season.

: All of the animals at Wildlife Prairie Park in Hanna City received egg carton Christmas trees to get into the holiday spirit. They were pack with food like meat, unflavored popcorn, snake sheds, and more. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Prairie Park)

This month, the Sugar Grove Nature Center in Funks Grove, just outside McLean, has transformed its hiking trail into a pure wonderland for children looking for a way to reach Santa. A special drop-box is located on the trail for youngsters to “mail” their wish list.

As the story goes, the critters of Funks Grove will personally deliver the correspondence to Jolly Old Saint Nick.

Jill Wallace, environmental educator with the Sugar Grove Nature Center, said the drop-box activity has been a staple at the center and has become an annual ritual for many families.

Children traveling the trails along the Sugar Grove Nature Center in Funks Grove can drop off letters to Santa. As the tale is told, the critters of Funks Grove will collect the letters and personally deliver them to Jolly Old Saint Nick. (Photo courtesy of Sugar Grove Center)

After the holidays, Sugar Grove will unveil other time-honored traditions, including the long-running “maple sirup(sic) experience” tours that offer up demonstrations and a glimpse into Funks Grove’s deep heritage.

The Forest Park Nature Center in Peoria Heights offers similar activities to spread holiday cheer throughout its natural surroundings. Earlier this month, the organization featured a longtime favorite, the holiday shop and stroll, and a candle-lit walk along the trails.

Through Saturday, Dec. 31, Forest Park is offering a nature art show and sale that is designed to put the spotlight on local artists. Visitors gazing at the art displays will be able to enjoy other holiday festivities, including an opportunity to sit by a wood burning stove while sipping on hot beverages.

While it is easy to be a Scrooge to Old Man Winter, Kristi Shoemaker, manager of Forest Park Nature Center, said winter provides several unique features in nature that cannot be enjoyed any other season in Illinois.

Cross country skiers will enjoy exploring Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton. (Photo courtesy of Pere Marquette State Park)

“You can see animal tracks so easily,” Shoemaker said. “You definitely get a different natural viewpoint. As long as you’re prepared, and dress appropriately, you can go out and explore the trails any time of the year — including the winter.”

Wallace agrees. Speaking to the trails along Sugar Grove, she said she frequently is in awe of the animals that stay behind and endure the winter conditions.

“This time of year gives you a very different kind of beauty,” Wallace said. “Without the leaves on the trees, you can see so much deeper into the forest. Nature is just amazing that way.”

For bird watching enthusiasts, the opportunity to see bald eagles with minimal obstruction is another major selling point.

Attendance for all winter recreational activities inevitably drops off this time of year — a reality recreation organizers across the state readily recognize and anticipate.

The Forest Park Nature Center in Peoria Heights offers a nature art show and sale featuring local artists through Saturday, Dec. 31. (Photo courtesy of Forest Park Center)

But Schweizer said there are die-hards who take the state DNR up on its amenities. Although many facilities are winterized for the season, camping within many state parks is even an option for persons truly willing to harness winter’s challenges.

“We encourage people to check the DNR’s sites, but it certainly is encouraged if people want to do it,” Schweizer said.

Although many more layers of clothing are typically needed, Wallace said there are a number of reasons she encourages people to brave the cold and venture outdoors.

“It’s still important to be spending time outside,” she said. “We obviously don’t get as much sunlight this time of year, and we need to soak it up while we can. It improves your mood, and it keeps you moving.”


  • Starved Rock State Park and Lodge, Utica

Starved Rock Lodge is nestled in the center of the state park in Utica.  (Photo courtesy of Starved Rock State Park)

The lodge offers a place to stay and enjoy a variety of outdoor activities during December and January.

In addition to hiking and cross country skiing, the park runs Christmas Lights Trolley Tours through Dec. 23 from 6 to 8 pm. Ticket price: $15/adults, $10/children 10 & under

Relax before the holidays on this illuminated tour of the LaSalle, Peru, Oglesby and Utica area, just days before Christmas.

Trolleys are heated but we suggest bringing along an extra blanket. Christmas carols are played to help get you in the holiday spirit. Reservations required. Call (815) 220-7386 to book tickets.

See more at http://www.starvedrocklodge.com/activity/trolley-tours/#sthash.WFl6LtT3.dpuf

Pere Marquette State Park and Lodge offers packages for eagle watching programs during the winter months. (Photo courtesy of Pere Marquette State Park)

  • Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton

The park offers a lodge and many trails to hike in addition to cross country skiing.

The lodge also is hosting a Christmas Feast, Sunday, Dec. 25 at 10 a.m. and then a New Year’s Eve Party on Saturday, Dec. 31 beginning at 3 p.m.

For those looking for a family outdoor winter activity reserve your spot for one of the park’s Bald Eagle Watching Programs. See more at http://www.pmlodge.net/2016/11/bald-eagle-watching-program-21/
For a list of all December and January events at Illinois State Parks, go to https://www.dnr.illinois.gov/calendar/Pages/Events.aspx





— Experiencing the joy of the season at state parks, nature centers–