Mississippi Palisades State Park—Great Views, Muddy Shoes, and Eagles in Twos

IMGP2931Where: Northwest Illinois—16327A IL Route 84, Savanna, IL 61074, 815/273-2731, http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r1/palisade.htm
Distance From City-Center Chicago: 150 miles
Travel Time: About 3 hours, 15 minutes depending on how leaden your foot is
Visited: February 11, 2017
Quick Review: The region where the park is located in what is called the Driftless Area, which was untouched by glaciers during the Ice Ages—so expect rugged hikes. In fact, the park features 2,500 acres of rolling hills and towering cliffs above the confluence of the great Mississippi and Apple Rivers. Great views, yet sometimes steep and slippery trails. Excellent bird watching. Hang on to your young kids on those precipitous cliff-top trails. Recommended as either a short-day trip from Galena or a one- or two-night camping destination in the summer (although I hear the nearby train tracks make camping a bit loud). Best as an add-on to a visit to Galena, Dubuque, or nearby state parks and recreational areas. There are many good trails but, in the North Trail System, try the High Point Trail (3.5 miles) and Aspen (1.9 miles) Trails. In the South Trail System, try the Sentinel Trail (1.2 miles, including spurs) for a challenging hiking experience.

“IS IT WORTH IT?,” asked the well-dressed couple—who looked as if they’d be more comfortable at a country-club lunch than on a hike amidst the woods and rolling hills of northwestern Illinois. “It” was the view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Apple Rivers from the cliffs in Mississippi Palisades State Park (MPSP). I answered a hearty “yes,” although as I looked down at their muddy dress shoes, I thought, “as long as you don’t mind tossing those shoes when you get back to your hotel.”

My wife, our 6-year-old son, and I took a short day trip to Mississippi Palisades State Park in mid-February, a time of the year that typically requires parkas, hand warmers, and snowshoes. But, this year, it was sunny and in the 40s. MPSP is known for its great views, rugged terrain, wildflower-covered hills in the spring, and eagle-watching in the winter. It is about a half-hour southwest of the historic town of Galena, which boasts the home of President Ulysses Grant, a thriving shopping district, tons of outdoor activities, and many historic buildings. The views at MPSP were awe-inspiring (my son and I even spotted two eagles fishing in the Mississippi), but hikers beware—there was only a short stretch of boardwalk, with the rest of the quickly-descending trails consisting of wet and slippery leaves, mud, and rocks (my wife and her bad back were not happy with me). Illinois state parks are consistently underfunded, which is a shame because they have so much to offer. It would be nice to see some more improved trails and a little better signage (e.g., maps, interpretive text, etc.) throughout the park.

Our hike was a bit of an adventure, and as we descended the rough terrain from the high area where we’d left our car, we soon realized that it would be quite difficult to climb back up the slippery trails to our car. So, we kept walking and ended up—via the winding descending trails—in a lower parking lot nearly a mile from our car above. I left my wife and son down below and made the arduous hike—huffing and puffing at times—to reclaim our car. Some people might be irritated by this, but I found the whole thing mostly exhilarating. Some of the best aspects of hiking are occasionally getting lost and embracing the chaos. Lessons learned: 1) Get a map, even if you only plan (as we did) to hike to check out the views and head back to the car; 2) Be ready for anything and embrace uncertainty; you never know where the trails will take you and what you’ll encounter; and 3) Dress for the conditions; we were largely good, but, as I mentioned, lots of people weren’t dressed for a muddy walk on steep cliffs.

IMGP2889Where to Stay: On the outskirts of Galena, check out the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel, a charming hotel that provides everything necessary for a good time: an inviting restaurant and pub (Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub & Grill) with 16 draught beers and nearly 50 whiskeys, scotches and bourbons; friendly staff, a pool, and live musical performances by our friend, the great singer Katie Sullivan, who graces the stage of the hotel’s restaurant one weekend a month, and other performers. There’s even a Faerie Ring and a hiking trail behind the hotel. I love hiking the short semi-rugged trail in the snow or even amidst a raging snowstorm—especially with the thought that a Potosi Pilsner, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, or a shot of Jameson Black Barrel Select Reserve waits for me back at the cozy bar. Other options include The DeSoto House Hotel, Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, and a plethora of chain motels on the outskirts of the town.

Dining Suggestions (all in Galena): Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub & Grill, Fried Green Tomatoes, Galena Brewing Company, One Eleven Main, Durty Gurts Burger Joynt, and Vinny Vanucchi’s

Other Noteworthy Destinations in Galena and Nearby Towns:

  • In Galena: President Grant’s home. More than 1,450 buildings on the National Historic Register. Antiques. Bookstores. Art galleries.
  • The town of Elizabeth (villageofelizabethil.com/ve), which is about 15 miles from Galena. The Apple River Fort State Historic Site, a re-built fort that was the site of a battle in the Black Hawk War of 1832, and at which Abraham Lincoln and his militia supposedly were present. Great for kids—especially during the warm months when reenactments and other events are held. Elizabeth’s Grand Antique Co., 28,000 square feet of antiques in an old school in which I lost my family multiple times during our visit. I’ve never seen so many rooms and rooms of antiques. I didn’t leave a trail of bread crumbs to follow to the exit, but was tempted. Also, check out the Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum and Apple River Canyon State Park, which is about 17 miles from Elizabeth.
  • Dubuque, Iowa, an underrated city 25 minutes from Galena that has many interesting attractions, including the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the Dubuque On Ice Brewfest, and the Dubuque Museum of Art.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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