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Prickly Pear Cactus are common in the Illinois Sand Prarie, but are not often found in the rest of the state.

If you read my blog last Friday, I bet you’re anxious to know which Memorial Day Weekend destination my husband and I chose.  After careful consideration, we headed north and visited Sand Ridge State Park, in Forest City, Ill.

Sand Ridge is the largest state park in Illinois at 7,500 acres, so we only got the chance to scratch the surface of what it has to offer on this short visit. One thing I can tell you is that this is the most unique environment I’ve ever seen in our area.

Justin Sievert builds a fire at the campsite.

The park gets its name because it is, in fact, very sandy. The receding glaciers dumped most of the sand there about 15,000 years ago, and a subsequent dry period turned the area into a desert. Fast-forward a few thousand years, and the deciduous forests of Illinois have grown onto the great sand dunes and merged with this formerly arid area to form what’s known as a Sand Prairie.

The area itself is so unique that it’s difficult to describe. There are the usual suspects from an Illinois forest: similar trees, deer in the distance, cardinals and robins raising a ruckus in the early morning hours, but there are also some strange features. For example, I trod over Prickly Pear Cactus in the first ten yards of the unceremoniously named “Orange Trail.” The trail was completely made out of deep sand and supported a variety of wildflowers that I’d never seen before.  The plants seemed sturdy and worn and reminded me more of the southwestern U.S. than northern Illinois.

The sand also supports a wide variety of bugs.  Besides some really pesky gnats and an unfortunate number of seed ticks, we saw some unique beetles, huge centipedes and several lovely types of butterflies.  My favorite butterflies of the forest were the bright yellow Tiger Swallowtails and blue and orange Woodland Swallowtails.

The abundance of bugs supports a variety of animals that eat bugs — particularly birds and bats.  As I was walking away from our campsite early Sunday morning, an electric buzzing sound caught my attention.  I thought to myself how strange it was that they’d run electricity clear out in the woods, when I noticed that the sound was coming not from a light pole, but from a dead tree. The dead tree was evidently the home of a whole colony of Myotis lucifugus, or Little Brown Bats.  I guess the noise was just the bats getting settled from a night on the wing at the best bug buffet in Illinois.

Out on the sandy trail!

Hiking and camping at the park is very rustic.  The trails are fairly well-marked, but there are not many of the amenities you might expect.  The bathrooms are all latrine style and unplumbed, and there are no playgrounds, rental areas or shelter houses.  The sand was wet due to storms this weekend, and the temperatures were in the 90s, so the hiking was pretty exhausting. The back country campsites are stationed every few miles on the trails and do include nice fire pits. If you’re planning a trip to Sand Ridge State Park, you can reserve campground sites (with or without electricity) or backcountry sites at http://www.reserveamerica.com.  The park does have very nice equestrian trails and a hand-trap range that look like fun.  Seasonally, hunters find this park to be one of the best destinations in Illinois for deer, pheasant, quail, doves, turkey, and red and gray fox.

Overall, if you’re looking for a rustic outdoors experience at a very utilitarian park, or if you are interested in seeing a unique ecosystem in our own backyard, Sand Ridge is for you.  I’m looking forward to visiting again in the winter and learning what a Sand Prairie looks like in colder months.  But for now — does anyone know how I’m going to get all of this sand out of my sleeping bag?

Original Post June 3, 2011

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