Weekend Backpacker: Chicago
Sand Ridge State Forest
PO Box 111
Forest City, IL 61532
Though the Sand Ridge State Forest is a bit farther than a three-hour drive from Chicago, it is worth the trip to experience this sandy, inland sprawl (covering 7,500 acres) of oak-hickory forests, pine plantations, grasslands, and sand prairies a few miles southwest of Peoria.
The largest of Illinois's state forests, this unspoiled site provides almost endless hiking opportunities with 44 miles of marked trail and over 100 miles of unmarked fire lanes. Loop trails range from 1.5 miles to 17 miles.
The gently rolling, sandy terrain of the forest is the last remnant of a prehistoric incursion of the southwest desert into the Midwest. It is also one of the few places in Illinois that supports a variety of desert plants and animals like prickly pear cactus, silvery bladderpod, pocket gopher, and coyote. The area is also a nesting place for a variety of neotropical birds such as the ovenbird, indigo bunting, veery, and scarlet tanager.
In 1962, forest fires burned over 1,500 acres. Today, 3,916 acres of native oak and hickory, 2,492 acres of white and red pine, and over 800 acres of open field and sand prairies make up the landscape. Desert plants are visible in most open meadow areas. It is not unusual to see a horse on the trail; if you do, speak to the rider so the horse doesn't become frightened.
The yellow loop is the longest loop at 17 miles, with tent sites along the way. Combine the yellow loop with the red (9.5 miles), green (2.2 miles), blue (7.5 miles), white (1.6 miles), orange (4.5 miles), or brown (2 miles) loops and you will have hiked the whole forest.
Camping: Twelve backcountry campsites are located along the trails. Cost is $6 per night. Register at the forest headquarters. Advance reservations are not accepted. Water is available at the parking lots. Pine Camp has 24 well-shaded, quiet sites for $7.
Getting there: The forest is located off of Topeka Road, a few miles southwest of Manito.
Permits: Camping permit required for all sites.
Maps: Available at the forest office.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication