Guest Blogger: Matt Boyce, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
I grew up traveling to National Parks. My parents, more specifically my dad, has a deep appreciation for enjoying nature. As such, nearly every summer I was either in a car or on a plane and by the time I was ten I was a pro at sitting in vehicles for 12-plus hours, making my own entertainment,
and enjoying the great outdoors. By the time I was sixteen I had been to Acadia, Arches, Badlands, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Denali, Glacier Bay, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Sand Dunes, Great Smoky Mountains, Kenai Fjords, Mammoth Cave, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks. And by twenty I had added Crater Lake, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Olympic, and Redwood to that list. More-or-less come August I looked much more like a surfer-boy from SoCal than a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago; I’d have sun-bleached hair, a dark bronze tan, too many scabs, and a plethora mosquito bites to prove it. But I’d also close out each summer with countless pictures and priceless memories exploring absolutely amazing places.
This appreciation for the outdoors was very much reflected in my study abroad decision. As I’ve already talked about in previous blog posts I decided to spend my time studying abroad on a small, arid slab of rock in the Caribbean studying coral reef ecology, catching turtles and/or sharks, cliff diving, chasing the wild donkeys across salinas, and bathing in the ocean. Very much my cup of tea. Then I returned home to Illinois, set aside my alter ego, and once again focused on my studies at a University surrounded by corn. And don’t get me wrong I love my school and I love corn. I’m probably one of a select group of people that thinks driving down I-57 is an enjoyable drive with small, family owned barns speckling the countryside. But if I’m honest with myself, I missed the grandeur of the nature I’d found in the National Parks and Caribbean. I missed living out my modern mountain-man alter ego. You know the guy I’m talking about — the kind who wears faded jeans, old t-shirts, and a backward baseball cap. They prefer finding adventure to sitting around, are genuinely kind to everyone, can start a fire, and need all of a second to decide that it’s a good idea to pull over to the side of the road and take a dip in the ocean. I felt free. And I liked that. So, I made it my personal quest to find that same wanderlust freedom in the Land of Lincoln. Here are my favorite (and in my opinion most feasible) options for U of I students:
No doubt you’ve heard of this one if you’re from the state of Illinois. About 1.5 – 2 hours away from Champaign, this state park is home to a number of waterfalls, river otters, bald eagles, and a host of other attractions that one would probably not expect to find in state. You can go for a hike or swim in the Illinois river by summer, admire the beautiful fall colors in fall, hike to frozen waterfalls in winter, and watch the park thaw out and come back to life in spring.
(Photo Credit: AJ Sus)
This park, located inside Shawnee National Forest, and just inside the Illinois border, is also the coolest in my opinion. Though it is the farthest from campus, at about 3.5 hours away, driving through the southern part of the state is a completely different experience than driving through the northern or central parts. Dixon Springs’ landscape is characterized by rolling hills and rugged bluffs, and is home to a massive rock arch. And for an added bonus, make the short drive to the Cache State River Natural Area and check out the marshes and hundreds of bald cypress trees.
Yes, this one is in Indiana. But our Hoosier neighbors can relate to a landscape dominated by corn. Turkey Run also presents us with the closest park, as it is just over an hour away. This area is home to some awesome sandstone ravines and gorges that you can hike into. And for me, coupling some of these sweet Midwest canyons with options to fish, swim, canoe, and camp… I was sold and I think you will be too.