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Backpacker Magazine – March 2014

Sand Ridge Loop, Illinois

Traverse dunes through wooded corridors in the state's largest forest.

by: Katy Welter

TRAILHEAD 40.391733, -89.894998*; 35 miles southwest of Peoria off Mason County Rd. 2300 N.
GEAR UP Bushwhacker, 4700 N. University, Peoria; (309) 692-4812, (closed Sunday)
SEASON Spring and summer for wildflowers, strawberries, and raspberries (but be wary of ticks); fall for colorful leaves and ripe prickly pear fruit
PERMITS $6/night; reserve in-person at the park headquarters or online
CONTACT (309) 597-2212; Website 
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).

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