Wide Open Dunescape

Rolling Hills

Continuing an early morning hike, we came upon an opening in the woods leading to a vast open area of rolling, grassy dune. These openings are common in this area, and illustrate the progression of the dunes, or the stages in which they are formed. The dunes range from beach, to grass, to savanna, conifer forest, then oak savanna. These stages are all found at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and in some places, all within a mile hike.

Opening Up

Not our first time here, we encountered some familiar features such as particular trees we used to climb and rest upon. These trees were at one time destinations for our hikes, as we noticed them from far away and set out to find a way to reach them.  The children grew up exploring these areas on weekends, so these special places bring back memories, and also allow us to see how they've changed over time.

Wide Open

These hikes take quite a while, and not only include trekking through loose sand trails up and down the rolling hills, they also include a relatively long, easy hike on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Morning Dunes

Morning Panorama

Following our hike to view the sunrise, we headed down the shore of Lake Michigan about two miles, searching for fossils on the beach, until we arrived at a large blowout in the dunes. This was the perfect location to begin our hike into the rolling dunes.

The sounds of crashing waves faded into the distance as we headed inland along the trail through the wooded dunes. After a bit of winding trails, we arrived at the first large expanse of open dunes, illuminated by the rising sun. Lake Michigan was still in view from this vantage point, as the trail stayed relatively close to the shore.

Trail Beginning

At times, when hiking the valleys between dunes, nothing beyond the grassy dunes is in view, making you feel as if you are hundreds of miles away from civilization, when in fact, you're only about two miles from the parking area, and 5 miles from Michigan City, Indiana, a relatively large city.

The trails here wind around for miles and miles, but this is our favorite trail, almost every type of dune landscape can be experienced here in just a few miles.

First Light

Moments Before Sunrise

Leaving home well before sunrise, we were able to drive to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and get in some hiking before the sun came up.  Hiking about a mile from our car, the sun finally began to illuminate the tops of the clouds, then a few moments later, the sky became a bit brighter until our surroundings were visible.

First Light

The first part of our hike was through the wooded trails up and around a rather large dune. The sky was bright enough to differentiate from the trees, but the trails were still quite dark - especially in the dense woods. My hopes were to capture the sun as it broke the horizon, but the view from the top of the dune was blocked by a number of trees, so we hiked the half mile to the beach.

Once again, we had the entire beach to ourselves for the first hour or two. After the sunrise, we continued and explored the wooded dunes and grassy dunes on a particular trail we've come to enjoy.

Fall Creek Gorge Waterfall

The Waterfall of Fall Creek Gorge Visiting the potholes of Fall Creek Gorge, we explored a bit more of the preserve, following a narrow trail upstream until we heard the sound of falling water. We came upon a waterfall that seemed to be carved into a perfect stone wall - almost as if it was man-made. The rock here, changes level abruptly, and evenly, giving this natural waterfall the look of a stone dam. Looking Downstream Stopping on the "dam" of rock following a bit of exploration, gave us the perfect view downstream toward the popular potholes of the gorge, and a bit of time to take in our surroundings. This very small preserve isn't too well known, so running into other visitors is unlikely - we had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed hearing only the sounds of nature. Exploring Fall Creek Gorge The potholes were only about 100 meters downstream, but with our camera gear, it's all but impossible to walk back through them, plus, it's not allowed. But we did explore a bit more of the creek.

The Potholes of Fall Creek Gorge

Potholes When one thinks of potholes, damaged city streets come to mind, but the potholes of Fall Creek Gorge are far from any urban area, and actually a welcome sight. Found along the narrow canyon formed by Fall Creek, these round holes in the creek bed were formed long ago as water pushed rocks around small depressions in the rock. Over time, the eroding action of the water and stones created these potholes. Each pothole is around 4 feet in diameter, and around 3 feet deep, making a series of small pools perfect for relaxing in - just like a personal spa. And on previous visits, I've encountered people lounging in them. The Potholes Beneath Fall Creek The most interesting potholes are along the narrow gorge, where the elevation changes, creating a series of interesting waterfalls. But the formations are more easily seen along the level stretch of creek just downstream of the falls. It's a good thing the water is clear, walking through this area could result in stepping into one of the potholes, a change in water depth from 3 inches to 3 feet or more. Cascades The small waterfalls provide seemingly endless photographic opportunities, but I found myself, as usual, stepping back to take in the surroundings for a while. There aren't too many environments like this in the Midwest, or anywhere for that matter. Exploring Fall Creek Gorge Fall Creek Gorge is a bit out of the way, and certainly off the grid. There are no signs guiding you to this preserve, and the only access is a small parking area, suitable for three or four cars. Once the parking area is full, visitors are asked to come again some other time, as too many people can damage the area. Volunteers keep the gorge clean, and also make sure visitors are obeying the rules outlined on a small sign at the trail head.

Green Canyon

Green Canyon A seemingly less traveled trail at Turkey Run State Park is trail 6, a rather short hike through a deep canyon. Most visitors wish to see the popular trails and waterfalls found on the other side of Sugar Creek, but after hiking those trails, we decided to explore this short trail. This canyon is a bit wider and deeper than those of trail 3, and even more wooded overhead, giving it the feel of a rain forest. Walking down this quick trail gives visitors the an idea of this part of the country before the last ice age. The sandstone here was deposited about 600 million years ago, then worn away by the rushing waters of the creeks and streams of the area. Deep Canyon

Exploring Wedge Rock

Passing Wedge Rock Just two and a half hours south of Chicago, Turkey Run State Park is a short trip to the ancient geologic world. Featuring rock dating back up to 600 million years, the natural features of the park entice visitors year round. Many of the trails in the park follow creeks and canyon floors, taking hikers through natural wonders not seen elsewhere in the region. Wedge Rock One of the most recognized features in the park is Wedge Rock, a wedge-shaped rock that broke away from the canyon wall a long time ago. At an estimated 30 feet tall, and six feet thick, this must have made quite a sound when it fell to the canyon floor. Because the rock landed on an angle, hikers are able to walk under it as well as climb on top of it. Posing on top is a popular take-away photo of many visitors. The Backside of Wedge Rock Most of the canyon walls of Trail 3 are composed of Mansfield Sandstone, but some other rocks and minerals can be found in the area, including glacial erratics and veins of coal. The trail follows the winding creek and even requires hikers to walk up a waterfall or two. It's refreshing in this day and age to visit a park where you're not discouraged from walking on the actual ground! Certainly worth the trip down to Parke County.

Williamsport Falls

Williamsport Falls

Said to be the tallest free-falling waterfall in Indiana, Williamsport Falls is located in the middle of the town of Williamsport, steps away from the old train station. It's a surprise to see such a canyon hidden right in the downtown area of a town. It's a short hike along what appears to be a steep old road through the woods, and down to the creek where you can hike a little way along the creek to the foot of the waterfall.

Williamsport Waterfall

The sandstone cliffs are quite impressive, especially considering their proximity to the railroad an roads above. This area was quarried many years ago for stone blocks for the local buildings. This quarrying may have made the waterfall a bit deeper, but the creek appears to be at a natural level, so perhaps the cliff was simply cut back and not cut deeper.The waterfall is said to have a height of 90 feet, but it looked to me more like 60 feet or so, but of course, I didn't measure.

Sunlit Falls The depth of the canyon keep a bit of the direct sunlight off of the rocks and falls, but depending upon the time of day, the sun highlights the falling water against the thick woods beyond. Williamsport Falls is an easy to access waterfall that is certainly worth the detour from the more traveled parts of western Indiana.

First Quarter Moon

First Quarter Moon

As the moon "grows" larger in the sky, it reflects more light into the atmosphere, blocking out the distant and dimmer stars. Photographing the Milky Way, stars, or planets becomes more difficult, so I simply captured the cause of the problem - the moon.

This image was captured hand-held (no tripod) with a 600mm lens, with a 2x tele-converter attached. The tele-converter doubles the aperture, so this was capture at the lowest possible for this set up, F13. It's a good thing the moon is actually very bright, with an aperture that low, it's often necessary to bump up the ISO or drastically lower the shutter speed, which can introduce noise or camera shake.

In addition to the set up above, the camera was put into DX mode. This crops the image area when using DX lenses on a full frame camera. This "trick" increases the magnification of a lens by 1.5 times. So, the equivalent magnification here is 1800mm.

I prefer to capture images of the moon when it's less than full. The craters cast long shadows making them easier to see in the photograph.

Interdunal Pond

Interdunal Pond

Nothing beats a walk through nature on a summer morning. This view, while very close to industry and other activity, conveys serenity, and was the perfect side trip on our way to the trails along the dunes.

This area of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was restored after industry left. Toxic remnants were removed during the restoration, including acid ponds very close to this spot. The dunes create valleys and in places, rainwater has no way of absorbing through the ground. The small bodies of water formed in these valleys are called interdunal ponds, and are often a haven for small animals.

This pond shows signs of animal activity - a few trails meander through the wetland in and around the pond. Other interdunal ponds in the national lakeshore are home to many more animals. They are generally larger ponds, out of view of a lot of activity. West Beach has one such pond that is just off the trail, but shielded from view; the wildlife can enjoy a bit of privacy there. The photo below was taken quite a few years back.

Interdunal Pond

Meteor Crossing the Milky Way

Meteor Crossing the Milky Way

The Perseid Meteor Shower of 2018 happened on a calm, clear night, allowing us to view the show - and comfortably I might add. While we only spent about an hour looking at the sky, we saw seven or eight meteors, but I was only able to capture three or four. Of course, where I pointed the camera was the wrong spot most of the time! 

I'm not a night sky photographer, but I do find it challenging to capture the Milky Way and meteors, and in the summer, I don't mind spending a long time trying to capture an image. The main problem is light pollution, and there's plenty of it around Chicago.  Even in rural LaPorte County, Indiana, Chicago casts a yellow light on the western horizon, and bluish tones to the rest of the sky when long exposures are attempted.

I have to settle for this image of the meteor, not the two long, bright meteors that passed just under my camera's view. There's always next year!

Sunset Rays

Sunset Rays

Following a rainy morning and early afternoon, the weather turned partly sunny for the rest of the day. Toward sunset, more clouds rolled in, and at different levels, creating the perfect pallet for the sun to create beautiful rays stretching high into the evening sky.

As usual, the rays only lasted a few minutes - changing every few seconds along with the colors in the clouds.

The location can be the same everyday, but the view is always different, and constantly changing.

Exploring Nachusa Grasslands

Outcropping on the Prairie

Just outside of Franklin Grove, Illinois, and a few miles from Dixon, lies 3600 acres of Illinois prairie. Much of it is in the process of restoration, but there are many rare remnants of natural prairie, savanna, and wetlands withing the boundaries.

Volunteers work to remove non-native species of plants from the grassland, and also plant native prairie plants and flowers. Visiting Nachusa gives visitors a glimpse back into Illinois natural history, before agriculture and the introduction of European and other non-native plants. This is what the real prairie was, and IS.

View From the Top

I have to admit, at first I was a bit lukewarm to the thought of exploring a prairie. I can think of flowers, bugs, and birds as subjects for photography, but not much else. After reading a bit about the prairie restoration, and realizing this wasn't like any "prairie" I've seen before, I was intrigued. Many of the plants I've come to think were prairie plants were actually invasive, and absent from Nachusa. I began to appreciate the prairie a lot more without these tall, spiny weeds I see everywhere else.

Another strong motivating factor was the fact that Nachusa allows - actually encourages- visitors to explore on the trails AND OFF. You can go where you want. If you wish to walk through the 4 foot tall plants to see the rocky hill, go ahead. They even encourage you to wade or swim in the creeks along some of the trails. Where else can you do that?!

Most state parks discourage and fine visitors for wandering off the trail - this is so refreshing. My son had the right response to allowing people to walk anywhere in the prairie: "Two feet walking through the prairie will do a lot less damage than the bison that roam here."  And there are bison here, around 100.  The bison areas and the crumbling rocks are the only places off limits to visitors - that makes sense, it's for their own safety.

The Only Shade on the Prairie

I never really thought of prairie as having rolling hills or rocky hills sprinkled around every so often, but this is real Illinois. I'll bet these rocky areas prevented people from farming them - and in doing so, kept them intact for the Friends of Nachusa to preserve, restore, and share with everyone.

French Canyon

Blind Canyon

One of the closest canyons to visit in Starved Rock State Park is French Canyon.  Just a few hundred meters from the parking area, it's a popular destination for visitors.  However, the narrow canyon makes it just a bit tricky to walk up a short portion of the stream. The canyon narrows to about 4 feet, and the running stream to about 18 inches, so one must walk in the water to access the end of the blind canyon and see the dramatic waterfall.

While only your shoes will get wet, you can climb up without getting any water on you what so ever.  Pressing a foot against the right side of the canyon wall, then quickly pressing the other against the left wall, then repeating.  This way, you never set foot in a drop of water.  Winter... that's a different story.

Narrow Canyon

The waterfall is known for the multi-level cascade where the water never leaves the rock face. This creates a spectacular frozen sculpture in winter, and a soothing fall all year round.

Visiting the Falls in LaSalle Canyon

Through the Falls

The recent rainfall in Illinois increased the amount of water falling in the canyons of Starved Rock State Park. The waterfall in LaSalle Canyon is a popular destination for hikers, and the trail goes behind the falls. The view through the falling water is not seen that often in the other canyons of Starved Rock, so this is a treat for visitors.

Visiting LaSalle Falls

The rain certainly kept a lot of people away from the trails, but we encountered a few people here and there on our four hour hike. The trails do get a bit slippery when they get muddy, but I was surprised they weren't soft and impassible.

Falls at the End of LaSalle Canyon

The lack of crowds allowed us to concentrate on photographing details we would often pass by. The big waterfalls are always captured, but some of the small falls are quite interesting as well.

The Waterfalls of LaSalle Canyon

LaSalle Canyon in the Rain

The rain let up just before we arrived at Starved Rock State Park, allowing us to view the waterfalls at their full flow. Summer often dries up most of the waterfalls, and leaves the others dripping a trickle of water to the canyon floor, but luckily they were all flowing for our visit.

LaSalle Canyon rarely disappoints in any season.  In winter, the falls are frozen and create an ice cave under the overhang of the canyon wall. In warmer months, the trail through the canyon runs behind the waterfall, allowing visitors to see the canyon through the flowing water.

First View of LaSalle Falls

The canyon isn't difficult to access, but it is about equidistant from the two main parking areas, making it a bit less crowded than most of the canyons closer to the trailheads. The distance doesn't keep everyone away, as this is still one of the most popular canyons in the park.

I'm often in this canyon during the winter months, so it was a rare experience for me to see the lush, green plants surrounding the canyon.

Photographing the Falls

Another surprising thing was the lack of mud on the trails we followed. Some areas were a bit soft and slippery, but mostly, they were surprisingly hard packed and easy to hike.

Color Returns to the Dunes

Lupine in the Woods

Following a colder than usual spring, the colors and flowers are back again along the rolling dunes of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  A large cluster of wild lupines blooms just over the ridge of a wooded dune, just a few yards from Lake Michigan.

The Trail Ahead

Following the path through the woods, we came to a vast open area of Marram Grass dotted with shrubs. The open space, while not filled with blooming flowers, was deep green, with blue Lake Michigan beyond. This open area leads to a very large blowout facing Lake Michigan, which is now off limits to visitors.  A blowout is an area of the dune devoid of vegetation, so it begins to erode, creating a sort of depression in the dune.  These are naturally occurring, and not necessarily created by people walking on the dunes, yet, the park seems to close them all with hopes of stopping the erosion.

A Line of Puccoon

Crossing the backside of the blowout, we headed back toward the beach and Lake Michigan. On the journey, familiar clumps of yellow flowers appeared all over the landscape. These flowers are called Puccoon, and were once used to make dyes by native people of the area. Some varieties have also been used for medicinal purposes.

Most of the flowers of the Indiana Dunes blossom for just a short period of time, so make sure to visit often to see as many as you can.


Canyon Waterfall

DuPage Waterfall

Waterfall Glen forest preserve is known for miles of hiking trails and a popular waterfall almost everyone loves to visit. But that popular waterfall is not what it seems, it's a man-made waterfall built in the 1930s.  The real attraction at Waterfall Glen is the lesser known waterfall (unknown waterfall) referred to as a secret waterfall.

This eight foot high fall is the only natural occurring waterfall in Waterfall Glen - and, reportedly, the only natural waterfall in DuPage County, Illinois. The park does not publicize the actual location of this waterfall, in an attempt to keep it secret and pristine. While locals have visited the area for decades, they've respected the land, and kept the location to themselves.

Hiking the Falls

The creek is quite a distance from the popular hiking trails of the rest of the park, and even farther from any parking area outside the park. I'm looking forward to visiting this waterfall in all seasons, especially winter.

Before you ask - NO, I'll also keep the location of this waterfall a secret.

Sagawau Canyon

Dolomite Canyon

Sagawau Canyon near Lemont, Illinois, is Cook County's only natural canyon, and a protected environment. It's not only a protected area to save the intricate dolomite canyon walls, but the canyon supports some rare and endangered plants and even some wildlife - a micro environment for some interesting life not common anywhere else in Cook County.

Sagawau Canyon Tour

The canyon is open to visitors during scheduled naturalist-led tours, which run periodically from Spring to Fall. The tour lasts about two hours, and touches on the geologic history of the region, as well as the plant and animal life found in the canyon. The tours also stress the importance of walking carefully through the canyon to avoid damaging the rare plants - something I do anywhere I hike, regardless of the plant species.

Sagawau Canyon

While not a strenuous tour, some of the rocks in the canyon are loose and slippery, so it's not unlikely your shoes can get wet, especially after a rain. Wooden stairs lead into the canyon, and natural dolomite stairs lead out, which can be challenging for those who may not be used to climbing steps greater than 14 inches tall.

Sagawau Canyon is certainly a Cook County gem, and well worth the visit. Check their website for canyon tour dates, and stop by to hike the grounds until 4pm daily.

The Restricted Cliffs of Hanover Bluff

The Cliffs of Hanover Bluff

The tall stone cliffs of Hanover Bluff Nature Preserve seen from afar. The area is now restricted, and not open to the public. We wandered around the area for quite some time, looking for an open trail, but were not successful. A DNR officer happened to drive by so we flagged her down and asked about access, and were told the area is no longer open to the public because of fragile and endangered species in the area.

We continued our walk down the dirt road with hopes of seeing some cliffs, and we did find a few.  It seems the outer cliffs were the only ones that could be seen from the public road. Beyond these cliffs, another row of cliffs exists with a flat, low area between them. There was at one time some sort of mining operation in this area, and that may have created the dual bluffs seen today.

As we walked along, we noticed plenty of large birds flying around the bluffs, without worry about any human bothering them.

 The Outer Cliffs of Hanover Bluff

It was pretty disappointing not to be able to explore the area between the bluffs, but at least we did get to wander through the areas that were not restricted, and take in the views of the area below.

Perhaps one day the area will open again to the public.

The View From Hanover Bluff

The SVAD From Hanover Bluff

After a long hard climb to the top of the bluff, we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the valley below. No trails led to this open area on top of the wooded bluff, well over 100 feet above the flat Mississippi River valley, but we managed to navigate our way up and find the only clearing on the bluff,

This portion of Hanover Bluff is part of a large wooded series of rolling hills and stone cliffs. Most of this area is restricted, so the public is not allowed to enter. The areas we were initially looking for were clearly marked "Restricted" so we continued until we found an area that was not closed to hiking. While we weren't able to explore the rocky cliffs we came so far to find, we did manage to find an elusive clearing with a great view.

High Above the Mississippi Valley

Below us was the old Savanna Army Depot (SVAD), a sprawling military installation used between 1917 and 2000. Zooming into the images here, you can clearly see dozens of buildings in this installation. Even farther away are farms across the Mississippi River in Iowa.

This area was very difficult for us to reach, the hills were very steep, and at times, we slid down uncontrollably, only to have to climb back up. Ever careful of stepping on plants or small creatures, we slowly made our way up until we reached the clearing.

With every intention of climbing the rolling, wooded hills all the way to the rock cliffs, we headed toward their general direction with no trail or markers to follow. A short distance later, we encountered another "Restricted" sign; this ended our exploration for that particular hike. A future hike in the area is planned, and with any luck, we'll received authorization to explore the restricted areas including the rocky cliffs of Hanover Bluff.