A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I loaded up our 9-month-old baby and made the hour-and-a-half drive out to Starved Rock State Park. I’d hiked there pre-baby and loved the hidden waterfalls and canyon views, but bringing a kid made me nervous. What if we forgot something important? What if we got stuck up a cliff with a wailing baby?
Our trip began a little rockily. We had some trouble with the carrier and picked a trail with a ton of steps. But our son slept the entire hike, which worked out really well as we made our way to a gorgeous waterfall (and then back to the Lodge for ice cream).
Afterwards, I called Edna Daugherty, Activities Director of the Starved Rock Lodge, to get a few tips so that our next hike goes a little more smoothly. Visiting soon? Take her advice!
Tip 1: Start Early
Edna says the park starts filling up around 11 a.m—which is when you want to be leaving. You’ll beat the heat and the crowds.
The park opens at dawn, so head out early to take advantage of the quieter, cooler hours. This was the biggest mistake we made on our trip! We couldn’t leave very early, so we ended up hiking in the middle of a hot day, and our little guy got a bit sweaty in the carrier.
Tip 2: Bring the Good Snacks
Okay, it goes beyond snacks: Do whatever you can to make the day comfortable for the kids. That means favorite foods, comfortable clothing, and the right shoes. Pack water for everyone, plus an extra water bottle. I was surprised how much water we guzzled during our short hike.
“If you give [kids] everything they like—you have food and snacks that they like, and picnic along the way—and wear shoes that are appropriate, they’re going to be comfortable,” Edna says.
Tip 3: Leave the Stroller at Home
Starved Rock trails are definitely not stroller-friendly; Edna doubts you’d make it 20 yards with one. For really young kids, go for a sling or baby carrier, like we did.
When are kids old enough to hit the trails? Edna says it’s worth considering whether the child will be able to listen and walk next to you, or if they’ll be running away or veering off the path. You don’t want to spend the day yelling.
Tip 4: Start at the Visitor Center
Before you even arrive, call to find out about trail conditions. When it’s rainy in the spring, Edna says, “you’re either going to be walking in mud and seeing a waterfall or walking on dirt and not seeing a waterfall.” If trails are muddy, make sure to choose shoes accordingly (or opt to reschedule so you’re not schlepping through mud to reach the waterfalls).
The Visitor Center staff will also help you plan a route when you arrive. Let them know everyone’s ages and abilities so they can steer you towards a scenic route that’s within everyone’s capabilities.
Edna says the staff will steer families with younger kids towards flatter trails, including some of the river trails marked in red on the map. Avoid the brown trails, which take you by cliffs and steep drops, sometimes without a railing. You don’t want to be inching along a path with a steep drop-off into a canyon with a toddler in tow (even if the canyon is gorgeous).
Tip 5: Embrace Nature
Even though our son slept the whole time, the outing felt like a first (baby) step towards helping him appreciate nature.
In her job, Edna sees firsthand how nature impacts kids. Some campers staying at the lodge are stunned to see what a real starry night sky looks like away from the city lights. If your child has a blast on the trail, the Visitor Center staff can point you towards resources for encouraging their interest.
Edna herself grew up in a family that loved camping, and she’s honed a passion for the outdoors through her work at Starved Rock. Maybe we’ll see her out on the trails: When her grandchild is born in the fall, she expects to be out with a baby in tow, too.
Note from Annie from when her family went: “We walked to St. Louis Canyon because the man at the info desk said it was the least muddy and is 3 miles round trip- he was so right and it was a perfect distance for our family. How peaceful and beautiful!”