I didn’t expect to find a sprawling riverine wilderness in the middle of the Corn Belt. Yet here I am, diving into a dense emerald forest crisscrossed by a web of rocky-bottomed streams. Bright orange spotted touch-me-not pushes its shoots through the fallen leaves, while trumpet creeper dangles its flowers from above. My lungs burn as I climb in and out of innumerable steep-sided ravines and hop across gurgling brooks rimmed by rocky outcroppings. It’s a treat of topography. I drop into one shady hollow and scatter a flock of chattering turkeys; in another I startle a herd of whitetail deer, their snorts puffing out through the morning air before they disappear into a green sea of maple and beech. As I climb out of the forest to a bluff beside the Vermillion River, a bald eagle swoops low over the lazy current before alighting in an ancient streamside sycamore. I’m only a few minutes away from acres upon acres of Midwest farmland, but as I trek in silence along the sandy riverside bluffs I feel like I’m a million miles away
Turn by Turn From the Lorna K. Konsis Visitor Center
1) Head east on the River Ridge Trail through a restored prairie, where the meadow fades to green and gold in the fall. Head into the trees at mile .8 to experience the fluctuation between oak-hickory forest, which generally occurs on drier soil, and maple-beech forest, which tends to grow in wetter areas.
2) Cross several ankle-deep creeks before reaching East Camp, your home for the night, at mile 3.2.
3) The next morning, continue .3 mile north to the Vermillion River, then follow the watercourse west to a trail junction at mile 4.8.
4) At the junction stay right, passing a second campground (not recommended for backpackers; it’s close to a road) at mile 7.8.
5) Follow the gravel double-track through the campground before turning back onto singletrack trail at mile 8.2 (look for the trail entrance on the right side of the two-track).
6) Hike beside Willow Creek, a tributary of the Vermillion River, for 1.5 miles before passing through a grove of maple trees where the park harvests sap for maple syrup (taps and buckets are visible on the trees during late winter).
7) Trace the west shore of Willow Creek Pond (watch for wood ducks and kingfishers) for the final mile to the trailhead.
The backcountry sites at East Camp (equipped with pit toilets and picnic tables) are perched atop a rise beneath a thick canopy of oaks and hickories. You probably won’t see the mottled, superbly camouflaged whip-poor-will, but you might hear its lilting cry once night falls. Hike about 500 feet west and downhill of the camp to filter water from a stream (typically running year-round).
Near mile 9.2, you’ll pass Howard’s Hollow Seep, an ecological oddity where groundwater coming up through the soil has created a boggy marsh. Although pioneer farmers drained most of the Midwest’s seeps, Howard’s Hollow remained untouched, likely due to the rough terrain surrounding it. Today you can find a unique community of plants and wildflowers in the seep, including marsh marigold, golden ragwort, skunk cabbage, and several kinds of sedges.
Trailhead 40.0083, -87.5715 Season Year-round Permit Required for overnight backpackers; $10/group for parties less than 10, $1/person for parties of 10 or more