This is a multi-use facility, offering picnicking, camping, backpacking, hiking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, hunting and trapping (deer, red and gray fox, coyote, squirrel, pheasant, woodcock, and dove), and offers archery and trap shooting ranges. A 160 acre fish hatchery that raises 13 species of fish and is open daily to visitors and adjoins the forest. The Henry Allen Gleason Nature Preserve is on the western edge of the forest. Bird watchers can observe a variety of neo-tropical migratory birds such as oven-bird, indigo bunting, veery, and scarlet tanager.
The forest represents a geologic oddity giving it its name. Fifteen thousand years ago, the last ice age receded leaving a vast desert-like expanse, allowing this prehistoric incursion of the Sonoran Desert into the Midwest. As a result, you can find desert plants and animals, including prickly pear cactus, silver bladderpod, pocket gopher, and coyote. Shifting winds sculpted 100-foot-high sand dunes, later planted with pine trees by the Civilian Conservation Corps to prevent wind erosion.
The result is a forest of 3966 acres of native black oak, blackjack oak, and hickory forest, 2492 acres of white and red pine, and 800+ acres of open fields and sand prairies. The desert plants are evident in most all of the open meadow areas. The forest contains forty-four miles of marked trails ranging from 1.6 miles to 17 miles in length. The trails are color-coded and well-marked with the appropriate colored blaze. An additional 120 miles of fire lanes are also available.
Here it is! Proof that cactus plants do indeed survive in the American Midwest, even through the annual winters. When we checked in at the ranger station to get our backpacking permit, I asked which section of the forest we should hike in order to see the cactus plants. The ranger replied, "They are everywhere." He then took us out of the office to the side of the walkway, brushed aside some taller vegetation, and pointed out a number of species within feet of the path. He continued, saying, "Anywhere there is a clearing, you will find them." And he was correct. The prickly pear plants were not as tall as in Arizona since the growing season is so much briefer here, so they were often much shorter than the surrounding plants. But they were abundant and healthy, and we were fortunate in arriving when the yellow flowering blooms were prolific.
Separate campgrounds offer sites to families, large groups, and equestrian campers. Twelve backcountry sites offer primitive walk-in camping for backpackers. There is no water at these sites and a permit is necessary from the office. In 1998, the cost per night for campground use was $7.00, and the cost per night for a backcountry site was $6.00.
The trails are predominantly sand, making for tough walking. We found no water sources, probably because rain water soaks immediately into the sandy soil. The advantage is that there are no muddy areas to contend with. The map available from the office was not completely accurate, but route-finding difficulties were minimal. This area would make a very good beginning backpack experience for new hikers. Also, you can day hike from one of the campgrounds or hike your gear into a backcountry site and use it as a base camp, which is what we did. It is an interesting locale for those like myself who are intrigued by the thought of desert plants being found in Illinois. We were awakened around midnight one evening by the howling of coyotes in the distance. Neat!
This is our backcountry campsite -- secluded, scenic, yet with easy access to the trail network. The designated backcountry (walk-in) campsites were all in lovely locations, large enough to accommodate several tents, provided with a firepit, and mostly out of sight of the trail and other campsites. NO WATER is available at these sites, so carry it in. Water containers can be refilled at any of the campgrounds or the picnic shelter, so we hiked by these whenever our water supply was low.
Though the majority of the property is forest, meadows and open areas exist and it is here where the cactus species abound. In this photo, Len is hiking on (and griping about) the sand trail, which makes hiking a bit tougher than hard-packed trails -- a good reason to set up base camp and only carry a light pack for a day hike. In the photo below, we are on one of the old fire roads and thus it is quite wide.
The majority of the trails are forest-enclosed as seen below. After all, it is a state forest. Again, sand is the dominant trail covering. This is the perimeter (and longest) trail, and it is also quite wide. The loop trails within the interior of the forest were single-file trails, and some of the trails are closed to horses and therefore better surfaces to hike on.
We were here at the end of June and the ticks and flies were already in profusion, but mosquitoes did not seem too prevalent.