On Tuesday, my Road Scholar hiking group boarded two vans, and drove to Ferne Clyffe State Park ( www.dnr.state.il.us ). Our first trail to explore in this park, was the Round Bluff Nature Reserve Trail. This area has been formally dedicated as a sanctuary for native plants and animals. It contains a high-quality sandstone glade and cliff communities, typical of the Shawnee Hills Natural Division in Illinois. It is a notable geographic feature, in that it is a small mesa, with cliffs rising to 110 feet.
As our shoes were being scraped of any noxious substances, we could read on the placard in front of us, that this practice was started to reduce the spread of exotic invasive species.
The trail starts out on a gradual incline, beside a sandstone bluff, covered in moss, ferns, and other indigenous plants. Some members in our group were listening intently to identify the chirping birds we could hear in the tree tops high above us!
After a short distance, the group climbed up onto the sandstone bluffs, in an area with "step-like" ascents to the top. The taller people were very helpful to us shorter ones, who did not have legs long enough to take the "steps" in one giant stride!
Once we were all on top, we stopped to rest, and take a group photo. The Road Scholar staff from Camp Ondessonk were always very accommodating, when being handed about ten different cameras, to click the shutter on the camera of anyone who wanted the scene captured on their own personal camera. In addition, the staff members were carrying both a video camera, and still camera, to take photos of our adventure, for use as promotional marketing tools for future programs. If I had known I was going to be photographed so much, I would have planned my wardrobe a little better! My only goal had been to have lots of layers, as we were told it would be necessary to dress for temperature changes throughout the day. So, I had lots of layers, but none of them were matching!
After climbing down from the top of the bluffs, we continued our hike around the base. There were many places where the dirt had eroded from beneath the cliff base, to create rock shelters. I can imagine these would have been suitable gathering/living spots for early humans who lived in this area.
And of course, there were more crevices to explore! I followed these guys up into one of the crevices (left photo), and posed for a photo (lower right hand corner), where the opening ended in a very tall and narrow passage, with no way out. After getting reports that the crevice was "somewhat unremarkable", about half of the group waited at the base of the bluff (upper right photo), while we quickly explored the area, and returned to the bottom.
One of the reasons I chose this particular Road Scholar program was because it was held in the Autumn, and I am a "leaf peeper"! I was able to photograph a few of the colored leaves of deciduous trees, but most of them were in the early stages of their color transitions.
After we completed the Round Bluff Trail, we progressed to the Big Rocky Hollow Trail, which is also within Ferne Clyffe State Park. Botanist Chris Benda pointed out this tree, that is still alive---despite having a hole all the way through it, big enough for his arm to pass into, so he could wave his hand on the other side!!
During rainy seasons, there is a waterfall flowing over this bluff. On the day were were there, however, the area was dry, enabling us to thoroughly explore the rock overhang, without getting wet!
There were very tall bluffs on either side of the "waterfall", and several in the party climbed up to a ridge above the falls to explore. I like to get humans in my photos, to help provide a scale of the relative size of the geographic features. I especially like my human beings to give the "uplifted arms victory symbol", to make it easier to spot them in the photo. Both Jean ( on the left ) and Brian ( on the right ), were kind enough to grant my request, as I photographed them from a long distance away. One of my acquaintances that regularly photographs climbers on El Cap at Yosemite, told me it is near impossible to see the climbers, who appear the to be the size of ants, in a long shot of El Cap----unless they have on a brightly-colored tee-shirt! All our group made it down safely from their climbs, and we enjoyed an outdoor lunch (complete with a warm fire in the steel fire pit!), in the picnic area located near the entrance of Big Rocky Hollow Trail. (I was glad this location also had well-maintained women/men's toilets, too!)
From Ferne Clyffe State Park, we drove to hike a section of the River to River Trail. The name refers to a popular trail that goes between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River.
Our group did not hike the entire section of the River to River Trail, as we were headed to explore the Panther Den Wilderness area of the Shawnee National Forest ( www.fs.usda.gov/shawnee ). Botanist Chris Benda explained to us that the designation "Wilderness Area" means no mechanized traffic is allowed (plus a long list of other criteria, that I cannot remember).
The vertical walls of this area were AMAZING!! Our trail co-ordinator "let us loose" to explore on our own, with directions to meet back at the bottom in an hour. Even though I was trying to keep up with the leader, he was soon out of sight, as there were so many "crooks and crannies" to dart into!
Every now and then, I would come out into an opening, and spot some of the group in the distance! I had a whistle on my backpack, so I knew that if I got completely lost, I could make myself heard, if necessary!
One of the Camp Ondessonk ( www.Ondessonk.com ) staff, told us about yet another crevice he would lead anyone through that wanted to try it. He encouraged us to give it a try, saying he had successfully led an 80-year old gentleman through it earlier in the year. I entered the crack, and saw staff member, Johnny, standing at what I thought was the end of the pass-thru. However, what I found out after I got inside so far as to be totally committed to finish, was that Johnny was standing at a space where the rocks made you turn 90 degrees, in order to proceed to the exit.
This second half of the "crevice expedition" is where I encountered my biggest obstacle, and literally got STUCK!! It was only by these guys holding onto the tree outside the exit, and pulling really hard on my arm, that my adipose was able to get sufficiently compressed to make it through! I joked later that I was beginning to think I was going to have to phone a surgeon to give me "emergency liposuction"! Apparently, my dilemma was enough to discourage any of the other women from trying this one!
After getting stuck in the dark crevice, I was ready to see some BLUE SKY, and that is exactly what happened, as our group drove to the Blue Sky Vineyard ( www.blueskyvineyard.com ), to see where our Road Scholar director had married his lovely bride. It was a very picturesque setting, and easy to understand why someone would choose it as a wedding venue!
To help us interpret all the natural flora and fauna we had seen, Chris Benda had visual aides during the evening, to put "written words" with the "spoken words" he had shared during our time together. I was thankful for this follow-up, and in a similar way, I am thankful for the "written words" in the Holy Bible that help us get to know God. I am using this example as a visual aid to help me learn one of my First Place 4 Health ( www.FirstPlace4Health ) memory verses. It says "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom..." Colossians 3:16 . Hopefully, these words I have written (with accompanying photos!) have created a spark of interest in exploring the places shown. Simply log on to www.southernmostillinois.com to start planning your own adventure, or check out www.RoadScholar.org for a pre-planned experience. Either way, I think you will see it is a place that can give you MILES OF SMILES!! Tricia