The drought this year has certainly left Illinois a dreary brown and threatened the survival of our food crops, but after a visit to the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park
outside Kewanee, I was excited to be surrounded in green again. Not that the grasses weren't scorched, just like every lawn you pass in this part of the state, but the trails were still gorgeous despite the high threat of fire in the area.
Just six miles south of I-80 on highway 78, this state park was named after State Senator Frank Johnson and the Sauk Indian tribes that inhabited the area. It once was part of the Great Willow Swamp, and features a variety of terrain perfect for hikers and hunters. While the trails are pretty easy and measure just about one mile, they can take you through prairieland, pine trees or the forest that surrounds the lake.
The lake is man-made, smack dab in the middle of the park. A boat launch is available, as are paddle boats and several miles of shoreline for easy fishing. When my husband and I first explored this park, which is never very populated and offers a peaceful day for the entire family, we took a paddle boat trip with our dog, Tasha, on a leash in the back, and made our way to the center of the lake. Things were going great until Tasha, a 100-pound black lab, jumped out of the boat and took her first ever swim. She loved it. Unfortunately, she loved it so much that our attempts to get her back into the boat swamped it with water and my husband had to swim back to the dock, pulling it while the fishermen on shore stared at at our hilarious situation with utter amazement.
For those traveling in an RV or who like to sleep with the stars, the park offers camping for both. The road looping around the lake area, which is only open during warm weather months, is both scenic and filled with grassy areas for family get-togethers, grilling and picnicking. The geese that call this area home offer great entertainment when enjoying the shoreline, and a family can catch the glimpse of the plethora of wildlife inhabiting the forest throughout this area.
If the nature is not enough, the park sports the fabulous Ryan barn
. Open in the afternoons on the first, third, and fifth Sundays of the month (May-October), this red beauty is round and was built in 1910 to house Dr. Ryan’s show cattle. Today it is in great condition and serves as a museum for farm implements.
When exploring this part of Illinois, I’d suggest a trip to the Johnson-Sauk Trail Park any day of the week. If you like quiet, this is definitely a spot you’ll cherish. On weekdays I rarely pass another soul unless at the lake. I have walked the trails here for several years (not on a daily basis) and despite the inconvenience of having some blocked off during hunting season, the setting has been beautiful and I have literally never encountered another person while exploring the forest.
Best of all, Tasha can join me. While my husband and I still hide our faces when at the lake, lest anyone who saw our slightly humiliating show with the paddle boat remembers us, Tasha marches on with pride and loves to sniff the vestiges of the more professional animals that were there before her.
The park is open sunrise to sunset, with campers of course able to remain after dark. The cost to enter is free, but if you are going to linger with your tent, hunt or fish, you will have to pay for these extra activities.
Photo: Cy Tottleben