Sunday, July 12, 2015

Kayaking Downtown on the Chicago River

With my own kayak, making trips up and down the Chicago River is pretty easy. I store my kayak with Kayak Chicago and essentially have access to the river during all daytime hours. Its a nice way to blow off some steam after work. 
Kayaking the Chicago River
Kayaking the Chicago river is a delightful novelty. Sure, it isn't like kayaking the San Juan Islands or Mississippi River, but it is unique. I've kayaked the Chicago River before but this time I had my own boat.

Living in downtown Chicago is an exercise in small space management. With scarcely greater than 700ft to most residences, there isn't exactly enough space to keep a 16.5ft touring kayaking in one's apartment. Hence, I store my boat with Kayak Chicago which actually offers reasonable rates for such things. My biggest stressor in moving to Chicago was solved- boat storage.

Another advantage of this is being able to hit the Chicago River after work. When I have a short day like I did, it makes for an unusual way to get some exercise in the afternoon. I pushed off just North of Goose Island
Kayaking around Goose Island
What many don't realized about the Chicago River is that it is an actual river with plenty of natural features and life. Downtown, this might not be evident but Goose Island is just a mile and a half away from the main branch and I saw lots of wildlife, including this massive snapping turtle-
Snapping turtle on the Chicago River
As I paddle further south, towards the center of town, the flora was replaced by Chicago's famous architecture. I've done the architecture tours before which are actually less touristy than I would have imagined. That background did help with identifying all the buildings. They did look more impressive when viewed from a kayak. There were some sections that were so crowded with boat traffic that it felt like I was in rapids. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the curious onlookers from the tour boats and riverwalk. I paddled on though the urban canyon.
Wolf Point, perhaps the most scenic point on the Chicago river's kayaking tour
All the famous buildings came in to view
I paddled all the way down to Roosevelt street and turned around to the gorgeous view I had in the first picture. I'll always prefer natural vistas and mountain landscapes but nobody can deny that Chicago has picturesque skyline.

At just an hour and a half paddle, I think the timing was just right for a post-work workout. Wish I could do this every day!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Hiking Apple River Canyon State Park, Illinois

For some reason, this gem  in Northwestern Illinois hardly ever makes it on to anyone's list save for a few locals and some folks from Rockford. Personally the novelty of hiking through a 300 foot deep and narrow canyon through farm country is well worth the visit. Its a great spot to cast a line too.
Apple River Canyon State Park
Visiting Apple River Canyon State Park was a stop along our way back from Galena. The entire fin of Northwestern Illinois is part of the Driftless Area. Most rest of the upper Midwest was essentially pulverized into flatness by four glacial advancements. Curiously, the four state area of NE Iowa, NW Illinois, SW Minnesota and a substantial portion of Wisconsin are quite rugged. There aren't mountains, per say but certainly there are enough hills to keep a hiker in good shape. Apple River Canyon State Park is towards the eastern edge of the area and about 2.5 hours from Chicago.

As we were crossing some of the flatter land along the way, I almost thought we were headed in the wrong direction. The road takes a very abrupt drop into the densely wooded canyon and it was hard to tell we were still in Illinois. At the bottom, three rivers converge and form a nice pool where the fishing is excellent. A few families were there picnicking as well. It was a perfect lunch spot for us too.
Along the banks of the Apple River
The hiking trails follow the river and the rim and although there aren't more than 10 miles in the whole park, any trail is worth hiking. We chose the Tower Rock and River Route Trails were well worth the effort. Both trails involve a substantial amount of elevation gain and loss- don't be fooled!

River Route brought us to the view in the first picture. In the early summer after some torrential rains, the river was running quite high but the sounds were soothing. On a hot, humid day such as this, we appreciated the shady and comfortable temperatures of the canyon's bottom.
Nature walk
The pool where most people like to fish
Another nice walk along the river bank
Tower Rock Nature Trail kept us well up along the rim and led to, well, a towering rock! I was bummed I didn't have any climbing shoes with me because it looked like a scramble to the top would have offered a perfect vista. But we were contented to walk through the forest and enjoy the sounds of nature- much different than what we usually hear living in downtown Chicago.

I've always been interested in finding the "Grand Canyon" of every state. I would call this the grand canyon of Illinois but somebody already gave that name to another canyon in southern Illinois in the infamous Shawnee Hills. Well, I suppose this could be the grand canyon of Northern Illinois. It was well worth the visit while we toured the Galena area.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Weekend Getaway in Galena for Busy Chicagoians

Galena is an iconic town in the rolling hills of Northwestern Illinois that's know to we Chicago urbanites as a lovely place for a weekend respite. It bore a likeness to many of the little New England towns I used to frequent when I lived in Maine.

Horseshoe Mound, just south of Galena
With D and I both locked in the high-paced and occasionally grueling lifestyle of being relatively new in our careers in Chicago, its been easy for us to forget about taking little trips from time to time. As with all the trips we take together, it always ends up being a strange combination of both our interests. Mine are obviously more to the tune of outdoor adventure and wilderness while hers are much more sophisticated. Galena suited both our tastes.

Galena is located near the rugged banks of the Mississippi river among storybook hills reminiscent of Ireland. The town itself has a famously picturesque Main street lined with boutique shops and historical sites. Not surprisingly, it is frequently mentioned as a destination for bikers and road-trippers and nearly everyone in metro Chicago has spent at least 1 weekend here. This would likely be the first of many trips for us.

Driving to Galena was just as enjoyable as the stay
Our plan to visit Galena was a bit spur the moment and we found that most everything was booked as far as bed-and-breakfasts go. Fortunately, we grabbed the very last available room at The Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel which provided posh accommodations. It was preferable to be about a half mile outside of town as it was quieter and we enjoyed the hotel more fully.

We got up early on Saturday and enjoyed breakfast at the hotel. Blueberry crêpes, potatoes, sausage, eggs and Irish crème coffee was the best "continental" breakfast we could ask for. With calories to burn, we headed across to our neighboring state and enjoyed Dubuque and the Mines of Spain Recreation area. I've not spent much time in Iowa but I walked away with the impression that the Mines of Spain had to be some of the better hiking in the upper Mississippi river valley.

Main Street, Galena
Galena's Main Street was a great time. I'm not much of a shopper but there were so many options that we both indulged. Like a good Northern Californian, I was instantly drawn to the Galena Garlic Company store. We both stocked up on summer culinary novelties including tasty olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a few rubs to try for July barbeques. D was drawn to the numerous antique shops and I sheepishly admitted that I hadn't enjoyed shopping this much in a long time.

It is very fortunate that the hills of Galena offer much in the way of walking exercise because we must have consumed a week's worth of food in our weekend. Downtown Galena had about as many delightful and locally-sourced restaurants as our downtown Chicago neighborhood but with a distinctly rural sophistication. Fried Green Tomatoes and One Eleven Main lived up to their praises on yelp.

Galena has an abundance of open space and public parks that are as pleasant to walk as downtown. Grant Park pays tribute to General Ulysses Grant and the 8 other civil war generals which called the town home. A pedway across the river also gives one appreciation of how massively the river can swell during the spring.

Grant Park Flora

View from the top of the town

We felt that we had done enough walking and eating to justify a retreat to the hotel for the evening. Usually I'm one to stay out until the sun goes down doing outdoorsy things but we really enjoyed the ambiance of the Irish Cottage. There was live music and Irish Dancers at the pub and a surprising amount of talent with both.

Stand Up Paddleboarders on the Galena River

We spent another lazy morning gorging ourselves on another gigantic "continental" breakfast of quiche and sausage. Horseshoe mound was the destination of the morning. At over 1,000 above sea level, it offered a 40 mile panoramic view of the Mississippi River Valley and Galena. It was strange to think that we were still in Illinois- could have sworn I had somehow traveled back to New England.

Our return trip to Chicago was punctuated by several stops along Highway 20 with similarly sweeping views. Northwest Illinois had so much in the way of outdoors and I was eager to return for more exploration. We did make a brief stop in Apple River Canyon State Park. If there wasn't already a place in the state named "The Little Grand Canyon", I name it for Apple River Canyon.

Without a topographic map, it would be easy to miss this 300 foot gorge which is encircled by miles of dairy farms. We almost thought we missed it until the road took a precipitous drop into the canyon and it's shady oasis. Three creeks converge at this point to carve a Utah-like slot which is noticeably cooler on otherwise humid June days. A favorite spot for fishing and hiking, we were enamored by the novelty of this rugged canyon.
Hiking Apple River Canyon State Park
A perfect spot for fishing or a picnic 
We couldn't believe how much we accomplished while we were there in the northern fin of the state but there was clearly much to come back for. The Mississippi river's "highlands" aren't the elevation of the Rockies or Appalachians but I'm finding that the area holds about as much potential for adventure and exploration. By the time our 48 hours had finished, I'd circled at least 12 destinations for future destinations. My more cultured counterpart was happy that these destinations were close to a town she could easily enjoy as well. We've already booked another stay for the Midwest Garlic Festival!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!