Frozen Cascade

Frozen Cascade

The second stop on our trip to Matthiessen State Park was Cascade Falls.  Located in the lower dell portion of the park, it takes a bit of a hike to reach, even though you can view the area from the trail head.

Right after heavy rain or snow melt, the lower dells can be flooded, making it impossible to reach the canyon floor to view the caves and waterfall. But on this trip, we were able to make the full trip to the foot of the falls.

Behind the Ice Cascade As a matter of fact, we were also able to climb behind the frozen falls to view the ice from below, something that becomes increasingly more difficult as the ice increases in size. It's always interesting to see the ice illuminated from behind. Through the Cave Entrance Another feature of the lower dells are small caves. These caves are large enough to walk through, and some connect with each other via smaller passages. One cave opens up to the end of the canyon with a view of Cascade falls in the distance.

The First Frozen Icefalls of the Winter

Twins Beyond Cedar Point Over a week of frigid weather has turned the waterfalls of Matthiessen State Park into fantastic icefalls. Each winter, we make the trip out to Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks to view the canyons and especially the frozen waterfalls. The recent below zero temperatures turned the waterfalls into icefalls in a matter of days, and they're only going to get larger over the next several days.
  Ice Fall Approach
 Often, these frozen falls don't last very long, any warm weather can destroy the delicate formations; large chunks break off from above and crash into the canyon below, tearing up the intricate ice on it's way down. The forecast is for very cold weather to continue, so it appears the icefalls will last a few more weeks at least. Behind the Falls On many visits, the rock cut-outs are completely covered over by ice. Other times, such as today, the back of the ice was accessible, and we made our way behind the ice. Daylight filters through the ice, illuminating the formations from the back, and seemingly from within. The falls are continually growing, as water falls inside and around the ice formations, freezing, and adding layer upon layer of new ice. The area near the ice is always wet and slippery, so clothes and camera gear get splashed up - something you don't want in the winter. It can make the trip back pretty uncomfortable. The Falls From Above These two falls beyond Cedar Point are not often found by visitors of the park, and can go unnoticed. They're certainly worth the effort to find and reach them during the winter months when they're transformed into huge ice sculptures.

Sand Formations

Dune Sculptures Wind, sand, snow, and ice combined formed these interesting structures on the vast, rolling dunes of Silver Lake State Park, near Mears Michigan. Arriving at the top of the first dune, we readied ourselves for the long hike to Lake Michigan -it appears much closer than it really is. We then noticed mother nature's handiwork on the tops of the dunes. As the snow fell, and the wind blew, layers of snow and sand piled up over a foot tall in places. Then, some of the snow melted getting the sand wet, and the wet sand froze in some areas. The wind continued to blow away the loose sand, but the frozen sand stayed in place creating these formations. Sand Formations We didn't expect to see such patterns and formations, but they were a welcomed addition to our normally interesting hike through the dunes and forests of Silver Lake State Park. On this day, we had the entire park to ourselves, we didn't see another person all day; I suppose most people prefer the beach and dunes in the summer months. Our hike here usually includes a visit to some interdunal ponds, small bodies of water collecting between sets of dunes. These areas are vastly different than their surroundings, and they are home to many different plants and animals not found in the other areas of the park. Conifer forests often border these ponds, creating homes for birds and other wildlife. Interdunal Pond Now iced over, these small ponds blend in to their surroundings much more than in the warmer months. The conifer forests, however, were buzzing with birds gathering seeds in the cold winter air. They were such a different environment than the areas surrounding - like islands of life in the desert. The temperature was much warmer in these areas too, sheltered by the tall dunes on all sides, and buffered by the jack pine trees. This was a nice break from the cold wind found everywhere else in the park.

Waves of Sand

Expansive Dunes One of the most interesting areas of sand dunes along the eastern Lake Michigan lie within Silver Lake State Park near Mears, Michigan. Over 3,000 acres of rolling sand dune set between Lake Michigan and a smaller inland lake, Silver Lake. In addition to a huge expanse of bare, rolling sand dunes, there are countless interdunal ponds, grass prairies, and stands of conifer trees. Visitors can experience all these environments in a single hike. The hike, however, isn't going to be easy. The climb from the parking area is a steep walk up a loose sand dune, through a forest that is in the process of being buried by the ever-moving dunes. Once on top, the expanse of the park comes into view. Close to 1/2 mile of rolling sand separates you from the first stand of conifer trees, and they're not even half way to Lake Michigan. Taking Over the Forest Appearing more like an African desert than a Great Lakes field of dunes, Silver Lake State Park doesn't disappoint those who make the trek over the entire range of dunes to the lake. On this visit, we encountered something unusual on the dunes - patterns and waves of sand carved by the wind. While wind created patterns are nothing special here, these creations were unlike most. Following high winds, freezing temperatures, and snowfall, the sand and snow built up in thin layers, then, warmer weather began to melt some of the ice and snow. During this process, the layers of snow melted into water, wetting the sand which froze again. More winds eroded the sand that wasn't frozen, and these special formations appeared. Delicate Shapes on the Dune Some of these formations appeared like paper, thin layers of frozen sand, bent or stacked on top of one another. Others looked like turned vases, while others looked like a miniature canyon from the Western United States. I'll post many more photos of the interesting formations in the days to come.

A Winter Morning at Little Sable Point

Morning at Little Sable Point Following a long, early morning drive, we arrived at Silver Lake State Park, just south of Ludington, Michigan and began our hike. It wouldn't be a trip to this area without a visit to the Little Sable Point Light. The 107 foot tall brick tower was constructed in 1874, and has survived many cold winters on the shore of Lake Michigan. The lighthouse is open for tours during the warm months of the year, but today, we were the only two people in sight - the entire day. It seems, nobody enjoys the beach in the winter. Little Sable Point Lighthouse Ice has not yet formed along the shore of this area of Lake Michigan, usually this forms a bit later in the winter. Snow, however, was all around us, but it seems the sand retains heat a bit better than the surrounding surfaces, allowing the snow to melt from the dunes. Sitting directly in the sand of the beach, this lighthouse is one of the few on the southern shore of Lake Michigan not on a long pier marking a river or port. The lighthouse still has a third order Fresnel lens, and it's still operational - one of only 16 on the Great Lakes (70 in the United States).

Exploring the Dunes

The Path to the Top The high winds and cold temperatures reminded us that winter is approaching. While standing on top of the fore dunes, we felt the full brunt of the weather, but just over the ridge the winds were blocked, and temperatures were much more tolerable. On windy days, the beach all but disappears, so it's a perfect time to explore the secondary dunes, and the nearby woods. Most visitors are attracted to Lake Michigan and the beaches along the shore, but there are so many other aspects of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that can't be found anywhere else in the area. These are the places I like to explore. To The Woods Certain areas of the park show a perfect dune progression from beach to forest; West Beach is one example. But the progression can be seen to some extent at all the beaches. It's these unusual areas that attract me, the woods that seem to begin at the foot of a grassy dune, almost as if they were planted by hand, purposefully. Why are there single conifer trees in the middle of a Marram grass meadow? These landmarks can be seen from quite a distance, and are often the target of our hikes. I've explored the dunes for many years, most weekends each year, and I still find new things to explore. What's also interesting is the change that takes place over time to places I visit, things are rarely the same twice.

Morning Hike on the Fore Dunes

High Atop the Dunes

A morning hike along the tops of the fore dunes was a great way to start Thanksgiving weekend. Despite the cold temperatures and very windy conditions, we enjoyed the time away from people shopping in earnest for black Friday bargains - they can browse the aisles while we browse the treetops and meandering trails.

The fore dunes are the first line of dunes from the shore. Over the past few decades, these have taken a hit by erosion. Much of the beach below is now underwater, making it difficult to walk on the beach during days with high waves. This is a natural process, that has taken place since the dunes were built by winds, in fact, it's the same process that created the dunes. The dunes change by the day in some places, other places remain untouched for centuries. These are the places where trees take hold and form conifer forests or oak savannas. The winds will probably bury them in time too.

The Foredune

Looking closely at the beach below, we saw two other people on the beach. They are barely visible in the photo above, just emerging from the trees along the shore. I find very few people on the shore in cold weather. I'm often the only person in view for miles around when I visit this place in the winter, and I enjoy the solitude. On calm days, the quiet creates an eerie environment where you feel completely alone, yet you're only a few miles from a busy city, and 40 miles across Lake Michigan to the third largest metropolitan city in America.

We're lucky to have this area set aside for us so close to the bustling cities.

Colorful Litter

Colorful Surroundings

At certain times of the day, sunlight does not enter the depths of the canyons. This provides an interesting contrast between the mono-chromatic rocks and the sunlit, colorful fall leaves. The newly fallen leaves litter the canyon floor, providing even more color to the autumn display.

Fallen Color

The shallow streams of the canyons help to gather fallen leaves, creating a carpet of color on the trail.

Hiking the Colorful Canyon

Every way you turn, the park is filled with color. The trees, the canyon floor, and even the rocks that form the canyon walls. As you progress through the park, the sun changes the angle of the light, and the same canyon takes on a completely different look.

Canyon Pool

LaSalle Canyon Pool
Most large waterfalls create a pool underneath themselves, due to erosion of the falling water.  This very small waterfall in LaSalle Canyon has a rather large pool beneath, sparking questions as to how it was formed. Was the waterfall much more active at one time? Was the main waterfall in the canyon over this spot at one time in the past? Or did some other force of erosion create the pool?

Either way, this tranquil body of water is the perfect spot to rest after a hike into the canyon. In Autumn, the water is surrounded by colorful leaves, and also turns colorful with many fallen leaves floating in the pool.

Path to LaSalle CanyonAs one enters the blind canyon, the series of small waterfalls comes into view. Hikers must walk behind the main waterfall at the back of the canyon, and curve around to the other side to continue their journey to nearby Tonty Canyon.

I enjoy the winter season most of all at Starved Rock State Park. The waterfalls often freeze, creating beautiful ice sculptures some over 80 feet in height. Visiting the park in the warmer months gives me the opportunity to see where the deeper waters are in the streams and natural pools.  Viewing the frozen waterfalls often involves walking close to them, and I need to remember just how deep the water may be at the bottom of the falls. Breaking through the ice into a foot of water is one thing, but breaking through the ice into 4 feet of water makes for an uncomfortable 3 mile hike back to the car.

Fall in LaSalle Canyon

Blind Canyon

One of the longer hikes at Starved Rock is to LaSalle Canyon, a blind canyon where visitors must hike behind the waterfall to continue on the trail. The water cascades over an overhang carved thousands of years ago by running water. Generally just a soft trickle of water, at times when rain is plentiful, the waterfall can increase in flow.

Winter is one of the best times to visit this canyon. The falls turn to ice and create a wall in the center of the overhang.  Hiking behind the ice falls is spectacular.

LaSalle Canyon

While not the deepest or longest canyon in the park, LaSalle Canyon is certainly worth the hike. The multicolored St. Peter sandstone walls, green leaves and moss create an environment more suited to southern islands. In fact, even in winter, lichen, moss, and ferns often stay green, and I've seen dozens of insects crawling and flying in the snow covered canyons.

Hiking LaSalle Canyon

Once off the main overhang of rock, the water flows on the canyon floor, down a few gentle drops, and finally into a round pool which eventually flows out to the Illinois River. This serene pool is the perfect location for a short rest, or even a backpack lunch.

Autumn in the Canyon

Fall Path

In a matter of moments, it seems, the weather has gone from hot and sunny, to cool and windy - a sure sign of Fall. And with Fall comes colorful landscapes, at least in some places. It seems this year's fall color is selective, vivid is some areas, while lacking in others.

As we walked through the canyons of Starved Rock State Park, we encountered pockets of color peppered around the park. Generally, the fall color happens all around at the same time, depending upon the type of tree, but this year, some maple trees were colorful, while others remained green.

The colorful leaves offer a beautiful contrast against the pale rock-walled canyons.

Autum Trail

A positive thing about the sporadic color changing is the possibility of color later in the month - a longer period of fall color.

Harvest Time

Yellow Dent Corn

Nothing beats a long walk in the country on a sunny day, and at this time of year the crops are ready for harvest. Fields of yellow dent corn dry in the early Fall sun, while their brown leaves crackle in the wind. This is often the only sound heard on the rural roads of LaPorte County, Indiana.

On this day, we heard machinery too - farmers harvesting the bean crop just across the road. A few semi trucks waited their turn for the reaper to fill up and unload the beans into their trucks.

Harvest Time

As I walk past these farms, I wonder if the farmers themselves are harvesting using their own equipment, or rented equipment, or, are they using a harvesting service that does everything for them.  I'm sure it depends upon the farm, but a huge amount of equipment is needed to plant, harvest, and maintain a farm these days. How could anyone afford it all?

Soon, the Yellow Dent corn will reach the perfect stage for harvest as well - it's the black layer, and this is when the corn is mature enough to harvest, and contains the least amount of moisture. If it's dry enough, it can be stored in silos until needed, if it's not, it can be dried before storage.

Probably by next week, the walk down the rural roads will be a lot different. The tall corn that blocked the view of the horizon will be gone, and the only sounds we'll hear will be the birds eating what the combine missed.

Open Spaces

Hiking Deeper Into the Landscape

Stepping just a few meters from the beach, visitors experience an entirely new landscape. Rolling dunes, conifer forests, grassy meadows, and oak savanna all within a short hike from each other. We followed the path along the ridge of the dunes, with gentle slopes to a grassy meadow on one side, and steep drops to the forest on the other. I would estimate this "bowl" to be about 1/4 mile across - a bit larger than it seems at first.

What's interesting is the fact that there are so many more of these rolling hills and valleys just beyond the next dune; the landscape stretches for a very long way, and you can hike most of it along the established trails.

These paths seem more interesting to me because of the varying landscape.  Further inland, the more established dunes are covered in forest, blocking the distant views of Lake Michigan and the other rolling dunes.

Open Spaces

We often look in the distance for lone objects such as trees or shrubs standing in the hills, and attempt to find them using the trail system.  More often than not, we can get close, then look back to see the spot where we were standing originally.  It's always a much greater distance than it seemed.

Then, to find our way back using another path takes us in a different direction. There's no better way to start the weekend than to get lost in the dunes.

Morning Hike Along the Grassy Dunes

Morning Vantage Point

A sunny and warm first day of October, so we took advantage of the weather, and headed up the grassy dunes along the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan. We're familiar with these trails, but haven't been on them in a few months - which is unusual for us. Signs of Fall were all around us, but mostly the area was still green, with plenty of wildflowers displaying their blooms before the first frost.

We could see the skyline of Chicago as we reached the higher points of the trail. We were alone, the only three people within sight, looking at the skyline some 40 miles across the lake where millions of people were starting their day amid car horns, trains, and the other noises of the big city. We took a deep breath and continued our hike in the tall, quiet Marram grass, where all we encountered were insects buzzing from bloom to bloom.

Rolling Dunes

It seems once Fall is here, people don't bother coming out to the beaches and paths adjacent.  That's perfect for me, I can walk through nature without interruption, and experience things most others read about in those tall buildings across the lake.

Morning On The Dunes

I wonder if they even notice the sun casting interesting shadows on the ground near them, or if their closely stacked apartments even receive sunlight. Well, millions of people missed what I saw on the first day of October, and what's even more sad, they missed what I experienced.

The Solar Eclipse

Eclipse With Sun Spots

The solar eclipse of 2017 reached 87% in the Chicago area. The morning began partly cloudy, but as noon approached, the clouds became dense, and blocked the sun completely.

Right around 1PM, the clouds broke, and the sun was visible allowing us to watch the peak of the eclipse.

The photo above shows the sun as the moon was moving away from it. Looking closely, you can see a nice group of sunspots to the right of the moon.

Eclipse at 87%

With the cloud cover we experienced, this was the most the sun was blocked by the moon. Still an impressive view for us here in the upper Midwest.


The light clouds actually made the eclipsed sun appear very similar to the moon on a cold, Fall evening.  While still bright, the light from the sun appeared a bit odd, more diffused than normal.

The next eclipse nearby will arrive in just a few years.

The Potholes of Falls Creek Gorge


Deep in rural Warren County, Indiana, lies a hidden gorge with a remarkable sandstone canyon riddled with potholes. This part of the stream is actually called The Potholes, and it lives up to its name. Over thousands of years, flowing water and loose boulders carved the soft sandstone creek bed into round pockets or potholes. Boulders caught in the current of the water moved in small circles when trapped in a depression. This action caused the depression to get larger and larger into the current creek bed.

The water in most parts of the creek is about six inches deep, however, dozens of potholes hold two or three feet of water. Walking around this creek is difficult, as you may need to step into a three foot deep pothole to get around.  Plenty of rain caused the creek to rise, and we tried to keep dry from the knees up, so it was impossible for us to walk the length of the canyon, and had to double back once from the downstream side, and again from upstream.

The walk through the creek was a bit difficult due to the narrow ledges between deep potholes. If one does not watch, a slip into a pothole may cause a fall or injury, but overall, if you expect a challenging walk, and watch, the walk is great fun.

Exploring the Potholes

Colors, shadows, and reflections play off one-another, creating what is described as one of the most beautiful places to visit in western Indiana.  It does not disappoint.

On our way out, we ran into three local teenagers in swimsuits, heading down to the potholes. That is truly the way to experience the potholes - each one is round and smooth, about two to three feet wide and deep - built like small, individual whirlpool baths!

Falls Creek Downstream

If you're lucky enough to find your way to this hidden gem, you'll find a parking area large enough for three or four cars, that's it.  The Nature Conservancy describes the gorge as, "loved to death" over the past few years, so a small parking lot may help insure a low number of visitors.

Punch Bowl From Above

In the Punch Bowl

Past the waterfall and challenging narrows of Trail 3, a short turn-off to a blind canyon appears.  This leads to the famous Punch Bowl, a canyon with a small waterfall that flows into a little, round pool. The waterfall was barely flowing this time, but it's still an interesting canyon to explore.

From above, one can see how narrow the short canyon is, and get a sense of scale compared to the larger canyons of Trail 3.

Colorful Reflection

Even without a rush of water falling into the Punch Bowl, the view from inside the canyon is beautiful. The water on the creek bed reflects the colors of the sky, trees, rock, and moss, creating an interesting "abstract painting" on the canyon floor. With every step, the view and colors change - especially on a day when clouds obscure the sun for a short period.

The Narrowing of Trail 3

Trail 3 Canyon
Following the climb up the waterfall, trail 3 narrows considerably, and the stream flows a bit faster due to this narrowing. There are two ways to navigate through this area, and in summer, people seem to stay on the canyon floor and walk through the flowing creek.  There are some grooves and potholes that make the hike a bit tricky in spots, but overall, it's a simple walk.

The Canyon Narrows

The second way is to follow the small steps carved into the canyon wall.  These were obviously carved by those wishing to keep their feet dry, and were probably not intended for those with backpacks.  The steps barely fit your shoe, but there are also some hand holds carved into the rock to help hikers keep their balance. The narrow path on the wall is about 8 feet above the canyon floor, so not too high, but care must still be taken as one slip could result in an injury.

The High Road or Low Road

In the photo above, most people are taking the route through the creek bed. Judging by the look on their faces as I walked up the wall, I think in this case, many people didn't realize there was another option.

The only problem with the high path is when another hiker is heading the other way.  There are very few places to step aside to pass, so people must simply look ahead before they climb up.

Negotiating Trail 3

While this portion of trail 3 is a bit challenging, it's not beyond the ability of most hikers - providing they don't mind wet feet.

Toward the Light

The Dark Canyon

After passing Wedge Rock, the trail turns, widens a bit, then deepens toward the next turn, where hikers must walk up the running stream into a narrow, more challenging channel. The canyon walls are shaded from the sun by the dense canopy of leaves above, creating high contrast patches of light and shadow. The light is very dramatic, and often bright green from the trees above.

Heading toward the light, up the creek bed brings you to a small cascade of water you must walk through. Standing on rocks or logs helps keep your feet dry.

Up the Creek

During periods of rainfall, this portion of the trail can have much more running water. While I've never seen it rushing over the entire surface, I have seen it several inches deep on this incline, flowing down as hikers attempt to walk up. Expect to get your feet wet if you visit trail 3.

Toward the Light

The logs and rocks only provide dry walking area for a while, then one must jump off and look for the shallowest parts of the stream to walk through.  Unless of course, you wear water shoes, which would work well here.

Once past this area, the canyon narrows and funnels hikers into a picturesque channel where there are two options:  Get your feet wet and walk through the stream, or stay dry and climb the narrow path carved into the canyon wall.