Smile Politely

Outdoors adventure season

Every March, I get road trip fever. The promise of warmer weather, the arrival of summer camp brochures in the mail, the melting rivulets of road ice that suggest, for those like me with desperate imaginations, kayak runs or water-park slides, all get me in the mood to research trip itineraries, dust off the kayaks and picnic basket, and make camping and cabin reservations. In fact, most of my outdoor family trip brainstorming for the rest of the year gets done in the first few weeks of March, before spring break. This is great fun, even if only half of the trips actually ever happen. It is much cheaper than therapy.

Here are some ideas for outdoor escapes, both far and near, that have had big payoff in fun and value for our family. Most of the places listed below have wide appeal for all ages. I also gain particular pleasure in discovering places or approaches that have eluded the attention of most travelers in these parts (with the exception of Holiday World and the Harvest Moon, perhaps). However, there are some secret spots even I won’t reveal, although the intrepid explorer may find them out on their own using clues below.

  1. Holiday World in Southern Indiana. Most Hoosiers have a soft spot in their heart for this gem of an amusement park that’s been around for decades (known as “Santa Claus Land” back in the day). It has some of the highest-ranked wooden roller coasters in the nation, as well as a top-notch water park. If you detest the crowds and prices of big-city theme park chains, try out this independent family-owned park in the middle of cornfields near Evansville, IN. Lincoln State Park, only a couple of miles away, has cabins and a large campground. The cabins rent by the week from mid-June to mid-August, so we usually reserve a cabin for a couple of nights just before or after this period as a respite from the cranked-up amusement park vibes. At and around the state park, there are many educational and natural areas to explore.
  2. I really do love water parks, but why spend the money and time to get to one when there are REAL water experiences within an hour’s drive of C-U? This may not be Boulder or Eugene, but we do still have some fine quality streams and rivers in the area.

    For example, every year we blow up our truck inner tubes and float down the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, near and through Kickapoo State Park. If you go with a friend who has a car for shuttling back to the put-in, this is great free fun (and only 25 minutes away)! Of course, I would also highly recommend the restaurant and inexpensive canoe/kayak/tube rental and shuttle service provided at Kickapoo Landing in the state park. If you float on the weekend, then you may be lucky enough to catch live music on the dock. 

    Another fun river to explore is Pine Creek, just over the state line in Indiana. Yes, you can float it (be careful if the water is high … very dangerous for novice paddlers!), but perhaps even more fun is parking the car a few miles south of the Rainesville Bridge for a picnic and a splash in the cascades and falls in that area. Don’t miss the custard stand in Attica, or the other natural areas (Portland Arches, for instance) that aren’t highly publicized to outsiders. Ask around!

    Rent a canoe from the University’s Outdoor Adventure Center (public welcome), and head just a few miles east of Urbana to the Salt Creek for another “off the beaten track” water outing. The book Paddling Illinois by Mike Svob is a great resource for finding out shuttle routes and ramps. We have put in at Rock Ford Bridge just south of Oakwood and taken out at the Anderson Hill Bridge a few miles east, but there are other routes of varying lengths. Be aware of high water risks and obstructions!

    You can also take advantage of county parks that provide great, inexpensive camping, floating, and outdoor experiences. Our favorite is Forest Glen County Preserve, south of Danville. You can arrange canoe put-ins on the Vermillion River with the rangers there and float across the state line to a picturesque covered bridge (and cute little restaurant near-by). There are other little secrets at Forest Glen, such as the best places to find morels (wild mushrooms) or the location of the “swimming hole.” If you poke around a bit, you might discover some of your own favorite spots. You might even forget how close to home you really are.

  3. The warmer weather also heralds in the drive-in movie season for our family.  Several times a summer we caravan up Route 47 to the Harvest Moon Drive-In with friends. Once we’ve found that perfect parking spot in the front row, we pop the trunk, spread out the blankets, lawn toys, and snacks, and proceed to enjoy the fine company and festive atmosphere. There, in front of the screen, the kids run around and play soccer, Frisbee, and tag while the adults pull out that special pitcher of summer magic. What happens next is pretty cool: our group of kids starts playing with other groups of kids, and the grown-ups, feeling pretty kicked back and happy, start chatting it up with the neighbors. Pretty soon, we’re all one big happy family, townies and gownies, reds and blues, SUV and hybrid owners, side by side inside the drive-in fence.

    Of course, you really need to get there early to truly enjoy the unique culture and atmosphere (weekends are the best). The kids love to run over to the tiny merry-go-round powered by some jimmy-rigged lawn mower engine. Yes, the attendant has to give it a push to get it started! There’s a pimped-up golf cart turned concession wagon that circulates up and down the rows selling everything from flashing glow rings to pizza slices. And, from time to time, the resident fox makes an appearance. Even if he doesn’t, you can tell he’s there from his thankfully short-lived stench.

    Although often enough the movies are forgettable (or the sound is murky), the experience itself never is. There, right off Route 47 next to the power substation, as east central Illinois as you can get, you can cut your engine, climb out of the driver’s seat, and make new friends.

  4. Try camping among the cacti at the relatively undiscovered Sand Ridge State Forest, south of Peoria. A beautiful primitive campground under the pines and lots of hiking (watch where you step!) makes this a wonderful weekend camping excursion. Visit the fish hatchery, Dickson Mounds museum, and have a picnic at Havana’s riverfront park.

All this outdoors adventuring leaving you feeling bug-bitten and sleep-deprived? Stay tuned for my next travel column on undiscovered destinations in the big cities of Chicago and St. Louis.


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