HONORABLE MENTIONS SANDY FORD LAND AND WATER PRESERVE northwest of Streator offers a more challenging trail that takes hikers to the banks of the Vermilion River. Known for its wildﬂowers, the trail cuts through the heavy tree cover on the river›s eastern edge. The entrance along North 18th Road, locally known as Leonore Road, can be easy to miss. Those traveling westbound from Route 23 will want to watch their odometers. The gravel parking area is 3.1 miles down the road; if you cross the Sandy Ford Bridge, you’ve gone too far. For eastbound travelers, the Sandy Ford Bridge is a sign you’re nearing the entrance. Motorists will pass East 1391st Road on their right; immediately after will be the entrance to the land and water preserve on the left. Watch the signs; Visitors should pay attention to signs posted at the state land and water preserves. Certain times of year, the sites are closed to hikers and open only to hunters. Due to spring turkey season, the locations are closed to hikers until May 15.
of meandering streams and falls.
DAYTON BLUFFS PRESERVE 2997 Route 71, Ottawa
From the moment you turn onto the gravel road three-quarters of a mile from the Interstate 80 exit, you’ll leave behind the sense of city and interstate. Once you step out of the car and embark onto the trails, you may instead discover a sense of the sacred. The approximately ﬁve-mile trail system of Dayton Bluffs Preserve provides a trifecta of prairie, woodlands, and historical signiﬁcance. Sunny trails branching off from the parking lot outline acres of open prairie, which eventually branch into the preserve’s 154 forested acres. It’s along the narrow dirt paths of the woods where hikers can commune with history rooted deeper and older than the surrounding trees. Dayton Bluffs is home to Native American burial mounds along the preserve’s northwestern ridge trail. The path leads through tree cover and foliage, eventually opening up to a view of the Fox River to the left and 14 burial mounds to the right. It’s an area worth hiking slowly — an unknowing eye moving too quickly can mistake the more than 1,000-year-old mounds as rolling landscape and miss them on a ﬁrst pass.
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A trail loop at the park’s northeastern edge also introduces hikers to another patch of hallowed history: the Daniels Cemetery, a pioneer cemetery dating back to the 1830s. A picnic table and rest area are located near the site. Other than mowed paths through the prairie, the scenery has a sense of being largely untouched. Hikes taken shortly after rainfall reveal far more deer, fox and coyote tracks than human footprints. Wildﬂowers and ﬂora also grow close to the trails — the preserve has more than 160 species of plants. Like Spring Lake, Dayton Bluffs offers a waterside view. The preserve’s steepest trail leads from the burial mound site down to the river. The river trail also can be accessed from the south, which has less extreme elevation. The park features ﬁve water cascades along the southern trails as well. Dayton Bluffs is a more rugged hike than Spring Lake, with some narrow trails, steep treks, ridges and ravines. However, the trails pose only a moderate challenge to older children and adults — the preserve can be hiked in a morning or afternoon with time to spare. Leashed dogs are welcome at the preserve. A portable bathroom is available in the parking area. Dayton Bluffs is open yearround from sunrise to sunset.
FOX RIVER WALK, OTTAWA: This paved path stretches from Ottawa’s botanical downtown, through Fox River Park, to the Illinois & Michigan Canal towpath. The River Walk, which can be accessed from the western end of Jefferson Street downtown or from Fox River Park, curves along the banks of the Fox River, north of its conﬂuence with the Illinois River. The park features disc golf, a playground and a splash pad. The 0.9-mile walk is wheelchair accessible and stroller-friendly. HOPALONG CASSIDY TRAIL, STREATOR: The 1.47-mile trail begins at a trailhead park on the corner of Broadway and Madison streets, then follows the Vermilion River into light woods within city limits, ending at West First Street. (There is no parking at the First Street trailhead, so it›s best to begin at the Broadway Street park.) The packed-dirt path leads through several sunny areas with wildﬂowers and pollinators, as well as shaded wooded stretches that include a scenic footbridge over a creek. The trailhead park includes restrooms, a playground and exercise equipment. BAKER PARK, PERU: The man-made Baker Lake features a 1-mile loop around its banks. The paved path is easy for walking and jogging and also is wheelchair accessible and stroller friendly. The park also offers ﬁshing, picnic areas, a playground, shelters, restrooms and a soccer ﬁeld. A parking lot is available along Chartres Street.
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