You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
Having fun outside, in winter, in the midwest, often comes down to making the best of poor conditions. As soon as the temperature drops, we wish for snow and ice; anything to at least offset the uncomfortable chill with the fun of sliding around on various specialty shoes. But all the while, as we skate and ski, few of us are truly content. We wish, secretly, that it all would melt, and we could get back to normal again. At the time this first airs, those wishes have been granted; the first big melt of this winter season is underway. But unfortunately, this is not an early slice of April like the forecast might make it seem.
Yes, the air feels nice, but on the ground it’s a different story. All the accumulated snow and ice has to go somewhere, and it doesn’t drain away very quickly. If you’re trying to get outside this weekend to enjoy the nicer weather, you might find your options are limited. In these conditions, everything just stays wet. Most trails are a soupy mess, and you can’t even embrace the encompassing dampness, it’s still too cold to go out on the lakes. I say this from a generalist beginners perspective. Obviously, with the right equipment, you can do anything, but most of us are left racking our brains for what this “improved” weather is actually good for.
The natural solution is to find a trail minimally effected by all this swampiness, but in Dane County, that’s going to be tough. Most of the Madison area is pretty flat and swampy. Consequently, I suspect we’re going to see a lot of people head up to Devil’s Lake this weekend. It’s a sensible choice, as it offers some of the only hiking in the area where the trails are consistently either underlaid with rocks, or elevated enough that the melt water will run off somewhere else. If you don’t mind crowds, then great! That’s your weekend plans, you can check out until Rob’s segment, roughly eight minutes from now. But for the agoraphobes who are this segment’s true target audience, I have an alternative. It’s a bit more of a drive, but I think that’s part of the appeal. If you enjoy driving, the driftless parts of Wisconsin and Illinois can be quite pleasant. And for an off the beaten path hike, Apple River Canyon is well worth the trip.
Apple River Canyon State Park is a 1,900 acre preserve in the northwest corner of Illinois. Its name is more descriptive than many parks, but first time visitors to this part of the state will still be taken aback by its effortless beauty. The park offers a few trails, no electricity, and the only running water is in the river itself. There’s nothing wrong with this inherently, a park can be many degrees of simple or fancy, primitive or modern. I do wish it felt more intentional, and not like a result of budget cuts. Hiking the limestone bluffs grants you commanding views of the river, but then you hike farther, and usually the trails just kind of end. I suppose the geography of the park, several disconnected bluffs centered around a long valley, lends itself to trails that sort of radiate out from the middle. It’s just not clear if they’re unfinished, or if perhaps they reach the edge of the property.
Either way, these hills and valleys, bluffs and streams are a sight to behold. And it doesn’t hurt that Illinois State Parks are free to enter. That kind of makes this feel like a really impressive county park instead. And actually, Apple River Canyon’s simplicity belies an important past. Let’s look for a few minutes at it’s history, and how that relates to the evolution of parks in general.
The purposes of a state park are many. At its most lofty, a park aspires to preserve the world in its natural state, to provide a place where life can flourish, unmolested by human impulses. In a more practical application, parks are a refuge not for nature, but for us, a place where we can take a beat, reset, and relax. In most instances, their mission serves a mix of both, and the most successful parks are both wild and accessible.
Illinois is a great example of this. It’s no coincidence that the state’s most trafficked park happens to be right in the middle, 15 minutes from two interstates that cut across the Land of Lincoln. For people journeying across the country, Starved Rock State Park is a natural reprieve, better than any oasis the state could throw over the highway. After hours, or even days, on the road, a little time in nature is the perfect way for the tired traveler to recharge.
In this function, Apple River Canyon was the Starved Rock of its day, perhaps the most prominent natural attraction along one of Illinois’ busiest highways. Before the Civil War, Galena, IL was perhaps the lead capitol of America. But despite holding this distinguished title, the city wasn’t the easiest to reach. I mean, any road trip before cars sounds terrible, but at this time, Galena was the western frontier, and especially hard to reach. The main way of traveling to Galena was a stagecoach that left daily from Chicago. This coach would average a breakneck 5mph, which meant the one way trip could take a whole three days.
Given this leisurely pace, it was necessary that a bunch of little towns formed to supply the trail. Like convenience stores and motels along a modern freeway, these towns catered to a traveler’s needs, whenever they might stop along the way. One such town was Millville, Illinois.
Nestled along the Apple River, Millville was an ideal rest stop. The river, for the most part, is small, yet swift. In this valley, the otherwise treacherous water spreads out and flattens over a wide bed of rocks. This solid foundation makes this section of the river much safer to cross, but you can imagine that driving straight through water was never a small undertaking. So many things could go catastrophically wrong, and it’s helpful to have a town full of people on hand for the crossing… just in case. Of course, the people of Millville were happy to sell travelers food, or rooms for a night. As long as the stagecoaches supplied customers, the town would remain strong.
When people chose to stop in Millville over another local town, I imagine they did so for more than fresh baked pies. The whole driftless area of northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin is idyllically beautiful. Ask anyone who lives within 20 miles of Viroqua, they won’t shut up about it. But here the characteristic driftless hills are cleaved in half, revealing the dramatic limestone layers beneath. If you chose to stop your stagecoach here, the background of your picnic would rival any scenery the midwest has to offer.
Of course, the stagecoach was a horrible way to travel. I already mentioned the 5mph of it all, but it’s also worth remembering that the person riding “shotgun” was literally tasked with defending the coach at gunpoint. Before long, a rail line was built to connect Chicago and Galena, and it was a huge improvement. Not only could people travel between the cities faster, but the lead they mined no longer had to be shipped out on the river. As far as the miners were concerned, the railway represented wins all around.
But unfortunately, that wasn’t true for everyone. The new rail line was straighter than the stagecoach trail, and it skipped over some of the towns the trail had serviced. Millville was suddenly a mill, a pretty canyon, and not much else. For a while, the undercut town died a slow death; without its economic lifeblood, the town withered. But it was an act of God, not government, that ultimately did Millville in.
In 1892, torrential rains caused a dam on Clear Creek to burst. Water rushed into the Apple River, and the canyon walls prevented it from spreading out. The small, low-lying town of Millville was hit with the water’s full force, and obliterated. Though the State Park was established over the same grounds on which the town stood, it shows no traces of Millville’s existence. In one final blow, the town was wiped from the map.
Nowadays, Apple River Canyon is no stopover. It’s miles out of the way of all major routes, and though it’s now much less than a day’s journey away, Galena is still very much its own destination. Even in recreation, local competition now has the park pigeonholed. Not that Apple River Canyon could really facilitate boating or a golf course, but artificial lakes and country clubs up the road preempt the question entirely.
So the people who come to Apple River Canyon do so with specific activities in mind. They want to hike one of the trails, or to fish for trout, or simply to sit in nature not overrun by everyone with a Yahoo search toolbar and a 312 area code. These days, that’s increasingly hard to do. In March of 2020, all events were cancelled, indoor gathering was discouraged, and everybody decided that hiking was now their new favorite thing. This has made my job a little more difficult.
Years ago, when I first started writing features like this, it was easy to find underrated parks that deserved a highlight. But for the last two years, every outdoor recreation area has gotten exactly as many visitors as it deserves. It’s possible that Covid has permanently reawakened our collective love of the outdoors. Anecdotally, it doesn’t seem like park attendance will slow anytime soon.
Perhaps these conditions are perfect for a remote park like Apple River Canyon. On a nice day, it can get lively, but it’s far less crowded than most parks its size. When you visit today, you’re unlikely to find precious metal amongst the driftless hills of Illinois. But if you’re lucky, you might find peace and quiet. At a state park, in 2022 that might be the rarest prize of all.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.