BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
The Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation and the Galena Area Land Enthusiasts are the official managers of stunning Galena Gateway Park (9300 W. Powder House Hill Road, Galena, IL 61036). But when I visited last week, the red-winged blackbirds were firmly in charge—especially in the highlands. These beautiful and noisy birds were everywhere—flying overhead, perched on the remnants of last year’s prairie grasses (e.g., Canada wild rye, big bluestem grass), and calling to each other repeatedly as if to say, “Spring is here…finally after a cold winter!”
I visited Galena, Illinois, with my wife and 11-year-old son last week, and spring was certainly in the air—at least for a few days. On the day I visited Galena Gateway Park, it was 59 degrees and mostly overcast, with the sun peeking through occasionally. To the northwest, a large stormy mix of rain and snow was pummeling Iowa and headed our way. My aim was to hike every day on our trip. On day one, we enjoyed a windy hike at Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary in Stockton, Illinois (more on this great destination in a future blog post). On day two, my destination was 180-acre Galena Gateway Park, but I only had a few-hours window to hike before heavy rains were expected.
Galena is located in the Driftless Region (or the Driftless Area), which features limestone bluffs, rolling hills, wooded valleys, waterfalls, creeks, wetlands, rivers, caves, Native American Effigy Mounds, and rare ecosystems and plant and animal species. Unlike much of the Midwest, this area was not flattened and otherwise reshaped by glaciers during the Wisconsin Glaciation. The Driftless Region comprises about 24,000 square miles. Why is the area called the Driftless Region? When a glacier recedes, it leaves behind deposits such as gravel, silt, clay, sand, and boulders, which are called drift. The term “Driftless Region,” comes from the fact that the area contains no drift, hence “Driftless.”
Galena Gateway Park preserves the first view visitors have of Galena when driving west on Highway 20. These vistas are stunning. In the 1990s, the land that now comprises the park was in danger of being developed, but after a fierce fight by conservationists, the town’s zoning board denied the request. The Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, Galena Area Land Enthusiasts, and others fought to protect the land for all time from development. Bravo! The park opened to the public in 2014.
I arrived at the parking lot of Galena Gateway Park around 10:00 a.m. and began hiking. There is a loop trail (including an ADA-accessible spur) that takes you to a stunning overlook of the historic river town of Galena. This town, which was founded in 1826, has more than 1,450 buildings on the National Historic Register, including President Grant’s home. Galena features eclectic restaurants, antique shops, bookstores, art galleries, opportunities to see live music, and much more. On this overcast and slightly hazy day, the views of Galena—with its numerous church steeples and historic brick buildings—reminded me of charming oil paintings of 19th-century New England towns.
It will only take you about 10 minutes or so to hike to the viewing area—longer if you stop to savor the birds, the spring blooms, fall colors, or the brown-eyed Susans, compass plants, and other wildflowers we saw during a visit last summer. But then, you’ll have to make a decision. Head back to your car or explore the rest of the park by descending some very steep grassy and muddy hills. I mean…STEEP. Because I like an adventure and wanted to take a long and demanding hike, I descended—slid at times on the wet grass…these trails would be very difficult in ice and snow—to the bottom of the hill, where I followed wide grassy trails that passed occasional stands of white birch in the soggy areas that were closer to the Galena River, then below and eventually through hilly areas crowned with burr oaks.
I was alone in a vast, hilly landscape with a big sky that you can’t see in Chicago (where I live)—and it felt good. No, it felt great. The landscape and the weather (a little foggy and occasional spitting rain) reminded me of trips I’d made to Ireland.
I was the only human within half a mile or so, but I had plenty of company. My hike was blessed with some excellent animal watching. As I walked, I saw a dozen or so hawks overhead riding the thermals looking for food, a heron daintily walking into the brush as I rounded a trail bend, and a fast-moving skunk. As I hiked in the mist, I saw three large birds, which I thought were owls or hawks, high atop an oak in the distance. This portion of the trail involved a steep ascent, so I periodically stopped to catch my breath. I watched the three birds throughout my walk on this segment of the trail. They didn’t move from their perches during the 25 minutes I saw them. The spooky day and the absolute stillness of the birds created a gothic mood, and I vowed to read some Edgar Allan Poe or watch Wuthering Heights when I returned home. I later learned that the birds were turkey vultures (thanks to Bob Dolgan, author of the This Week in Birding blog, for help with identification).
Other highlights includes spotting a rusted windmill near the remains of a 19th-century farm, an isolated copse of Kentucky Coffee trees (which were used medicinally by Native Americans), and views of Native American burial mounds. Most of the trails link up with one another, and there are occasional trail maps posted at trailheads. (Perhaps trail maps are typically available at the trailhead, but not when I visited.) But there could be a few more signs, and they should include a “You Are Here” feature) to improve the hiking experience.
If you venture down into the lowlands from the viewing point near the parking lot, be prepared for a sometimes challenging hiking experience (at least on the way down and up). After my hike, my phone told me that I climbed the equivalent of 26 floors and walked 2.7 miles during my nearly two-hour sojourn. My aching muscles were a worthwhile tradeoff for a wonderful time.
But the temperature had dropped 10 degrees during my hike, the rain spits had become more frequent, and the sky had grown darker, so I decided to head back to the hotel. As I hiked out of the valley toward the parking lot, I saw two white-tailed deer race by on the bluffs above me. I literally just saw their white tails dancing through the prairie grass because their brown fur blended in so well to the landscape. It was the perfect ending to a day exploring the park.
Galena Gateway Park is just one of more than 25 destinations in the Galena area, and larger Driftless Region, that I cover in my book, Nature In Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. Only one town in my book receives the full chapter treatment, and that’s Galena. I did so because I love visiting it; it’s a special place, and it is the perfect home base for many nature and historical adventures in eastern Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, and northwest Illinois. You can also learn more about the Galena area by checking out VisitGalena.org and visiting the website of the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation. Here are just a few of the activities you can do in the Galena area: Bicycling, Birdwatching, Camping, Canoeing/Kayaking/Boating, Cross-Country Skiing, Downhill Skiing, Educational and Self-Enrichment Opportunities and Classes, Fishing, Golf, Hiking, Horseback Riding, Hot Air Balloon Rides, Local History, Museums, Nature Centers, Photography, Picnicking, Restaurants, Running/Exercise, Shops, Snowshoeing
Things to Know Before You Go
- Open daily dawn to dusk.
- Restrooms are available near the parking lot.
- Dogs on leashes are welcome.
- Bicycling, cross-country skiing, and snow shoeing are allowed.
- The following activities are prohibited: smoking, fires, camping, use of motorized vehicles and horses on trails, amplified music, and removing any flowers, plants, or other foliage, as well as any historical or cultural artifacts.
- The park is closed at times during hunting season; contact the city of Galena for upcoming closure dates.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes
Looking for some great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. The book has 306 pages and 210+ photos and is only $18.99. Click here to purchase the book.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.