Looking for some great, cost-effective outdoor activities this summer? Here are a few good ones…
- Geode Hunting in Western Illinois
Imagine wading through a spring-fed steam, and finding a baseball-sized rock in the clear water. You crack it open to find it filled with crystallized quartz, knowing that the sparkling mineral has not seen the light of day in over a million years. Welcome to geode hunting. Geodes are geological treasures, formed millions of years ago as bubbles in molten lava. I recently took the family on a road trip to western Illinois, home to some of the best geode hunting in the country. We set up camp at Spring Lake Park, a public campground and reservoir located three miles north of Macomb. After we pitched the tent and set up camp, we headed down to the lake to catch some dinner. Fishing with minnows and small Cubbie jigs, we caught a limit of crappie from shore before a spectacular sunset. The next morning we headed 45 miles west to look for geodes in small streams feeding the Mississippi River. Different from other rocks, most geodes are perfectly round like a golfball or baseball, but big ones can be the size of a basketball or bigger. Searching the stream beds and banks, the kids got the “eye” for what we were looking for and found close to 40 geodes. There’s a small market for geodes, and rock collectors love them. But my kids just like to crack them open to look at the crystallized quartz “treasure” that each one holds. The best places the hunt geodes are in small, rocky streams that feed into the Mississippi River near the towns of Warsaw, Hamilton and Nauvoo Illinois. There are some nice hotels nearby, or other places to camp. Argyle Lake just 10 minutes west of Macomb is an Illinois State managed park and also has plenty of great camping and fishing. For the geode hunters looking to pitch camp closer to the geode hunting grounds, Hamilton Illinois is home to Wildcat Springs Park that has some nice campsites as well as a public pool. Despite a few rain showers, my kids had a blast. And the whole weekend cost about a tank of gas and couple nights camping, or around $100.
- Take the Kids Bluegill Fishing
There’s a reason the bluegill is the Official Fish of the State of Illinois— there are billions of them and they are fun and easy to catch, which makes bluegill fishing a great summertime activity for kids. We recently fished some strip mine lakes in southern Will County and caught some giant “gills”. In June, the bluegills are on spawning beds located along shallow rocky or sandy shorelines, or on little humps of shallow water throughout the lake. We had success by drifting close enough to these rocky flats without spooking the fish, then casting jigs and working them across the rocks. I used a tiny sixteenth-ounce jig with a one-inch piece of night crawler. My son Nate was having luck simply using a small hook with crawler on a slip bobber. He would cast across the shallows and slowly reel the crawler through the rocks where big gills and redear sunfish would slam the bait. This is why bluegill fishing is such a great activity for kids. Rig them up with a simple hook and bobber with a little waxworm or tiny piece of night crawler, and they’re going to catch some fish. Will County Forest Preserve Lakes offer some excellent bluegill fishing. Most of them have easy-access from shore, or they have nice wooden docks and platforms. In summer, just look for weeds in the water and cast your bobber about a foot away from the edge. Bluegills also like to hang out under structure like docks or piers. If you get into some big gills, they really put up a nice fight, but not enough to pull your kid into the water. Parents can get a fishing license for around $15, and kids under 16 can fish for free. Throw in a night of camping and you have a cheap, fun weekend adventure.
- Take a Hike
The Starved Rock Area has some of the best hiking and biking in the Midwest. Pack a cooler with some food and drinks and head about an hour west on I-80 to Utica. Starved Rock State Park is a beautifully maintained park with miles of trails for hikers and bikers. Deep canyons and rock bluffs that offer spectacular views over the Illinois River Valley have made Starved Rock one of the best outdoor attractions in the Midwest. If you want to get away from the crowds, head 5 miles down the road to Matthiessen State Park. It has fantastic hiking trails, with some of them leading down into the canyons. It’s an amazing experience to hike 200 feet down into one of these canyons and see waterfalls where streams flow down into the canyons. Up on the bluffs, there are plenty of picnic areas and restrooms. These great facilities are free to the public, so for the cost of a tank of gas and some food, this can be a great day trip for any family.
Here are a few links to help you plan your trip…
So unplug the kids and get outdoors this summer, before it’s over!