I’ve known this place since I was a young lad of five or six, maybe even before then. When I took up the motorcycle hobby, some 35 years later, I discovered that Starved Rock State Park was a favorite stop for bikers, especially those who live along the Interstate 80 corridor in Illinois. And so it seems as though everybody knows about Starved Rock—so why write about it—yet even today I know motorcyclists who have never been there. So for the benefit of those alleged few, let’s take a ride.
I rode there last fall—Sunday, November 1, to be exact. It had been a particularly mild day, the kind where a leather vest and hoodie still provided sufficient warmth, so I suited up accordingly and headed out for my afternoon ride. At that point, I hadn’t even been certain where I was going, but before long I was making my way toward Utica, Illinois.
From my home base in Plainfield, there are three common ways to get to Starved Rock: fast, scenic, and somewhere in-between. The fastest route is via Interstate highways—in my case I-55 down to I-80, where the speed limit is 70, and then straight west to the Highway 178/Utica exit. You miss a lot of cool stuff by going that route, but if time is of the essence, it’s nice to have this option.
The in-between route will keep you off the Interstates, and give you some scenery, but it’s still a rather straight shot. From my neck of the woods, the objective is to get to Yorkville. From the intersection of Illinois Highways 47 and 71, head southwest on 71 toward Ottawa. Enjoy the scenery and be mindful of the few small towns you will encounter along the way, some of which are known to be speed traps. Once you get to Ottawa, you have two options—stay on 71 through Ottawa and beyond, enjoying a few twisties along the way and entering Starved Rock State Park from the south, or turn west onto Highway 6 and take that until you reach Illinois 178 and turn left, toward Utica, eventually entering the state park from the north.
The scenic route, my personal favorite, is to take Illinois Highway 6 west until it intersects Highway 71 in Ottawa. Illinois Highway 6, from roughly Morris to Ottawa, is relatively scenic and includes several pleasant, sweeping curves along the way. Once you reach Ottawa, you have the same two choices that I mentioned earlier, stay on 6 or take 71.
Me, I say why should I have to choose? Therefore I tend to take one route going into the park and the other coming out. The order I choose usually depends on the time of day, but we should talk about the differences. If you take 71 heading west toward the park, you will travel through downtown Ottawa, which is not exactly a booming metropolis, but is still much larger than a small town. Once past Ottawa, you will encounter a stretch of technical riding, something rather rare in northern Illinois. Expect a few tight, blind curves and elevation changes. They’ll be over before you know it, but give this road the respect it deserves. I have encountered deer, wild turkeys, incompetent drivers and large trucks along this road. Trust me, I know.
I had an interesting experience along that curvy stretch of 71 about ten or twelve years ago, when I was leading a group of ten bikes home from a run out to Bishop Hill. As I leaned into the first curve, I felt this sharp, stinging sensation on the upper right corner of my forehead, followed by another, and another, and another. Apparently that corner of my open-face helmet had snagged a wasp, which was making its displeasure known by attempting to perforate that corner of my forehead. So there I was, trying to remain calm as I navigated those twisties with my right hand and slapped with my left until I got rid of my unwelcome hitchhiker. My maneuvers may not have looked too graceful, but I managed to stay on the road and get rid of the wasp, so I think I did okay.
If you take 6, you’ll encounter a few sweeping curves and a fair amount of farm fields. You will also find an excellent Cajun restaurant called Ron’s Cajun Connection, right before you reach Utica. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but if it’s open, there will likely be a line to get in. It’s that good.
Let’s talk a little bit about the park itself. This is one of the most popular state parks in the area, if not the most popular, so the odds of ever finding it deserted on any day of the week, at least during riding season, are slim indeed. But it is well-attended for a reason. This place is beautiful! Situated along the south bank of the Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park offers an assortment of hiking trails, a variety of camping accommodations, a nice hotel/lodge, a pretty cool visitor’s center, gift shop, etc. As state parks go, the restaurant at the lodge is pretty good. Check out their Sunday brunch offering.
The centerpiece of this park, in my opinion, is its namesake, Starved Rock. It’s the stuff of Native American legend, which describes a tribe of Illiniwek who were engaged in battle and trapped upon the butte until they starved to death. Whether that story is true or not, Starved Rock is a beautiful place, offering scenic views of the Illinois River and the surrounding countryside. The ascent to Starved Rock now involves a series of wooden staircases. Back in the 1960’s, when I first went there, we climbed steps carved into the stone itself. And if you look through the current wooden staircase in certain places, you can still see what’s left of those stone steps… childhood memories for me.
Hungry? In Utica, besides Cajun Connection, check out Duffy’s Tavern, offering friendly faces and good sandwiches, or Canalport, a bit of a step up, offering the best homemade bar chips in the area, I think. There are other options, but these are the ones I know personally.
On the Ottawa side, check out Hank’s Farm, a restaurant and gift shop outside of town on Illinois 71. During riding season, check out the free-roaming chickens, peacocks, etc. on the grounds. They also do a decent Sunday brunch.
For whatever it’s worth, my current leather vest came from Stonehead Leather and I got my leather jacket from Mix’s Trading Post. Both of these Utica business establishments are well-respected by the biker community and both have earned my endorsement as well.
Surely there is more to be seen in this neck of the woods. What I offer you here is but a taste.
Until next time…