My initial plan for this month’s Walkin’ in the Woods was to take an easier, more accessible walk and visit the Abandoned Observatory Trail near Oakland, Illinois. Alas, all the excess rain created a new lake where there hadn’t been one before and the trail was under water. So I decided to head back to Vermillion County, land of all my favorite local-ish trails, and revisit the Forest Glen River Ridge Trail.
Billed as a moderately challenging,10.3 mile trail on AllTrails, I knew from one prior visit in December 2021 that it would be closer to 11 miles. I planned accordingly by making sure my phone had a full charge, and bringing extra water. What I didn’t plan on was the need for warm weather hiking socks so if you’re a novice like me consider researching some light moisture wicking socks because it’s only going to get sweatier out over the next few months.
Getting There and Parking
Once again, AllTrails is only somewhat helpful when it comes to getting to the park. It wants to take you directly to the trailhead without any regard for parking access. And the route it took me led me directly to a small farm with cows and the employee park entrance which was blocked to the public. I had forgotten about this from the last time, but fortunately once I saw the big stop sign I remembered a small experimental tree grove with a few parking spaces. But my recommendation to you, dear reader, is to be smarter than I was and program “Forest Glen Preserve” into your GPS. It’s a popular park this time of year and there is ample parking if you manage to find the public park entrance.
One other thing to note is that there is signage at the trailhead indicating that you should register prior to embarking on this trail. This registration requirement only applies to campers and not to day hikers. On the other hand, day hikers are asked to pay a $5 fee via PayPal to help offset maintenance costs and provide vehicle and emergency contact information.
After the Abandoned Observatory fail and the extreme mud of the North Fork Trail, I was nervous about trail conditions but the trail turned out to be in great condition! There were of course a few muddy spots and some stream crossings, but nothing that should cause a problem to anyone in waterproof shoes. If you plan to use the stream rocks as stepping stones just know that they are slippery and step with care.
The trail is decently well marked with red marks on trees and red arrows. There is some discrepancy between the AllTrails route and the route according to the park website. This may account for the mileage discrepancy on the app vs. the park website. Whichever map you use, the River Ridge backpacking trail is an amalgamation of several smaller trails. Pay attention so you don’t take a wrong turn somewhere. I took two wrong turns which I caught on the GPS map but still ended up adding length to an already long hike. There was also a point on the trail with a big red barricade about three miles in that seemed to indicate trail closure so I turned around to go back, but after asking a couple other hikers if they knew why it was there I decided to take my chances and finish the trail after all.
The Bathroom Situation
There are plenty of gas stations right off the I-74 exit for snacks and flushable toilets but honestly this trail is just chock full o’ potties. They are rustic and smelly and the first one I visited had a few wasps, but they all had toilet paper and a locking door. So no squatting behind a tree necessary!
Safety-wise this trail was excellent. I saw park staff on a few occasions escorting groups and doing maintenance and there were more than a few other hikers. It wasn’t so crowded as to disrupt the communing with nature experience but it was nice to know that should something unexpected occur there was a reasonable chance of help along the way. The only actual safety concern I spotted was a wasp nest dangerously close to the walking trail but that didn’t end up being a problem.
Wildlife and Scenic Views
Spring has sprung and boy can you tell! This trail is a bird watcher’s paradise. I saw swans, geese, finches, robins, cardinals, blue jays, and I am pretty sure I even spotted a belted kingfisher or two. There was a large, majestic herd of deer frolicking around, and a huge group of frogs raucously getting frisky in the pond towards the front of the trail. I also saw a number of adorable dogs on trail and although I know they aren’t technically wildlife it made me really happy.
Beyond animal sightings, wild and otherwise, this a cool time for plants as well. Tiny little flowers are emerging in the warm weather, and there were these really interesting little umbrella looking plants that might be saplings or might be something else. I didn’t touch them because I had no idea what they were but they were cool! There were also plenty of river views and scenic spots with little benches to take a rest.
No way around it, this is a long ass trail. It took me just under five hours from start to finish. That included getting turned around a few times and one snack break sitting on a bench trying to make up my mind about whether to ignore the red barricade or not. Despite the length, it’s a little less up and down than North Fork so I’d say it’s a bit easier, but it’s still a little over 1,000 ft. elevation gain and some of the gnarliest uphills are towards the end. The deer herd also makes me think that these woods would have a lot of ticks so bug spray is a good idea. But this beautiful, well-maintained trail is popular for a reason and certainly worth a visit.