Category: Canyon

A Grand Little Grand Canyon


There is a widespread belief that Starved Rock State Park has the best canyons in Illlinois.  In addition to being wrong, this belief is usually held by people not acquainted with the Shawnee Hills.  I am fast becoming acquainted, and enjoying it immensely.  Speaking of immense, the Little Grand Canyon is the longest trail I’ve hiked in the Shawnee National Forest.  Let’s talk about that.

(Yes, that was a reference to Good Mythical Morning.)


Little Grand Canyon is a box canyon, so named because it’s flat on the sides and flat on bottom.  The length of the trail varies between 2.9 and 3.6 miles, depending on what source you use.  It’s a long trail with >300 feet of elevation change both down and back.  That’s difficult in Illinois terms, if not really difficult anywhere else in the US.  Little Grand Canyon is worth the hike, however.  For instance, in the photo above the dark stems are Beechdrops (Epifagus virginianus), an unusual parasite of beeches that never produces leaves.  Furthermore, the small paired round leaves growing below it are Partridge Berry (Mitchellia repens), an uncommon plant in Illinois.  These two are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to life here.


A Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) drank moisture from a moist boulder.


Yellow Passion Flower (Passiflora lutea)  trailed over the slope of the canyon. This lifer plant is a relative of the tropical Passion Flower vines commonly grown in gardens.


The entry is a very round, shaded, wet trench of slick rock.  Little Grand Canyon is on my ever-growing list of places you should never hike alone, for several reasons.


Life throughout the canyon was fascinating.  It’s a large area, and we found much in it…


In dry cracks in the sandstone, Cave Crickets hid.  These are also colloquially called “Sprickets” for their long legs and generally unnerving appearance, resembling a spider/cricket hybrid.  However, they don’t bite and are generally non-hostile.


Wetter crevices in the surrounding area, and the use of a flashlight, turned up a few Long-tailed Salamanders (Eurycea longicaudata), a lifer for me. Long-tailed Salamanders are “cave salamanders”- considered one of an informal group of salamanders whom prefer dark damp crevices and cave entrances.  The other informal group Long-taileds belong to, the “brook salamanders”, refers to the fact that they also can be found under stones along streams.


Long-tailed Salamanders, whatever their name is, proved to be amazingly elusive.  I had always believed that salamanders were slow-moving creatures, and in comparison to lizards, they are.  The speed of sound is slower than the speed of light, but both outpace a man.  It’s the same here.  I also have some moral issues with catching salamanders- unlike reptiles, which have scales, amphibians have skin that is very easily damaged.  Handling amphibians is not recommended.


A Gray Treefrog (Hyla sp.) perched along the edge of the bluffs, in a little niche.


Walking Ferns (Asplenium rhizophyllum) grew in a mossier section.  This is a species of fern I hadn’t seen in Illinois before.  They grow small plantlets at the tips of every leaf, which root into the moss to grow new plants which then grow leaves with plantlets on the end, and so on.


Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) hid in mossy niches and cracks down low near the base.  There were plenty of these in a wide variety of color forms.


In sheltered spots, clubmosses grew, my first for IL.  Clubmosses look like large mosses, but they have a different anatomy which includes a vascular system.  They prefer wet acidic rocky, high-quality natural areas- which most of Illinois isn’t, but Little Grand Canyon is, in parts.


On the canyon floor, Southern Leopard Frogs (Rana spenocephala) hopped about along the various pools.  The rocky creekbed along the canyon only remained in the form of small pockets of water, each holding a unique group of fish, frogs and other animals and plants.  No two pools had the same species composition- depth, shade, substrate, and proximity to the walls of the canyon varied greatly.  The diversity of microhabitats here is impressive.  Microhabitats are small patches of varied terrain, soil type, moisture, light, etc. within one major habitat.  Knowing microhabitats is usually more important in finding a species than just knowing general habitats.


Crayfish hid under rocks along the streambed and waved their claws menacingly whenever their rocks were disturbed.


There were over a dozen clearly distinct fish species in the pools, including this Orangethroat Darter (Etheostoma spectable).  Orangethroat Darter is a fairly common species of rocky creeks in the Midwest, but this is my first time finding one in Illinois.  Darters, which mostly like unpolluted rocky creeks, generally dislike Illinois, which is full of polluted muddy creeks except on its edges.  Darters get their name from the way they move- they rest on the bottom among rocks and swim rapidly from rock to rock, before settling again.  All Darter fish are found in North America only, where two hundred and thirteen species thrive, many restricted to only one or two river drainages.  The Ozarks and the Cumberland Plateau are especially noted for this, with almost every river in those areas having its own unique species of darter.  This led to one of the first major conservation battles back in the day, Snail Darter vs. Tellico Dam. See link for details.


Unusual rock formations in the bluffs indicate Little Grand Canyon’s ecological past and present usage by animals.  This area’s cracks and crevices play a vital role for snakes and other creatures that need to overwinter underground.   At one point, Little Grand Canyon was known as Rattlesnake Den for its large population of Timber Rattlesnakes.  These were overcollected and/or killed here and throughout the state, leading to a severely diminished population statewide.  Timber Rattlesnakes are now State-threatened in Illinois, and while they are not present in large numbers anywhere in this state, a few  secret, protected hibernation den sites still persist.


In addition to venomous snakes (Copperheads persist in fairly decent numbers throughout the Shawnee Hills, including this site), Little Grand Canyon’s  steep, slick rock cliffs are the other reason this place shouldn’t be hiked alone.  People have died from falling over the edge of the cliffs here.  It’s amazing, but not the safest place in the world.


The tree in the center, along with other plants surrounding it, were notably darker than everything else around it.  I have no idea why this is.   Perhaps some sort of fungus?  If so, it’s affecting all of the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the tree… I should investigate this.


We climbed back up the canyon, past an area rich in plants and also in poor lighting- hence the lack of photos from our way out of the canyon.


Well above a waterfall, I flipped two rocks.  One yielded this tiny crayfish, ~150 feet above the valley floor.  I wish there was a guide to Crayfish of Illinois- I haven’t found one yet.  I might have to make one… that’d be a project.


At the top, a Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)  sat on a wooden fence.  What a surprise.  The fence was at the top of one of the finer overlooks in Illinois.  It’s a solid No. 6 behind Fults Hill Prairie, Inspiration Point,  Grandview Drive, Meredosia Hill Prairie, and Pere Marquette State Park.  I will someday come up with a list of the best scenic overlooks in Illinois. This will be on it.

After this overlook, the trail undulates up and down a ridge for a mile back to the parking lot.  If I hadn’t been spoiled by the trail I’d just hiked, the upland forest here might have been enjoyable.  As it was, I was a bit too tired and running a bit late to notice.  I would recommend taking this path in reverse order, starting out going west (left) and going in a clockwise loop back. However, no matter how you walk it, Little Grand Canyon is one of the finest places to visit in Illinois and currently holds the title of best canyon I’ve ever visited in Illinois.  If you’d like Starved Rock with a tenth of the people, a slightly longer trail,  a bigger, wilder canyon, and far more diverse flora and fauna, visit Little Grand Canyon… with a friend or two.


Ebird Checklist (It’s back!):

Colorado 2017, Part 5- Walden Pond (Boulder, Colorado)/Estes Park!

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3- Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)


A lot of what we were doing in Colorado was NOT birding or hiking, mostly because at a certain point we ran out of energy in the high altitude.  However, I did manage to persuade my family into some incidental stops along the way to other places.  One of those was Legion Park in Boulder, Colorado, where you could look out over a nearby lake with Western Grebes:


Unfortunately, said Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) was extremely far away.  I obtained a record shot, but that was as close as I was able to get.  I was also a month late to see the mating dance of the Western Grebe, but I have a video link here that can show it.  Someday I’ll come back out here and see this, I hope.

Thankfully, Soapweed Yuccas (Yucca glauca), the default yucca species  in Eastern Colorado, were in bloom directly ahead of me.  Yuccas are often thought of as desert plants, but a number of them live in the Southeast as well as the Southwest.  This is one of the few species found in the Great Plains itself, and probably the only one north of Kansas.


I was then dropped off at Walden Ponds, Boulder’s #1 birding hotspot on Ebird, to explore.  This place is essentially a series of ponds- a welcome sight, no doubt, in semidesert shortgrass prairie, but not particularly exciting for someone from a land with more water.


Still, about five minutes in, an American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) appeared.


American Avocets are large shorebirds, with upturned bills that they use to strain small organisms out of the water.   It’s quite enjoyable to watch them feed, as it is with all shorebirds.


Striding through the water quickly, the Avocet flew back and forth every so often, never seeming satisfied with a spot.  Unfortunately, its continual motion made for a hard animal to photograph.  After several attempts, I sat there watching it and some Spotted Sandpipers for a bit, until I decided to look about and see what else might be present.


A young Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) begged for food from an adult nearby.  I’ve never photographed this before!  Warbling Vireos can look quite different depending on where you are.


Crested Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) is both covered in spikes AND poisonous.  As a result, nothing eats it and it becomes something of a weed.


Western Wood-Pewees called from nearby trees, relations of the Eastern Wood-Pewee found in my backyard.  Nearly-indistinguishable except by call, Western Wood-Pewees (Contopus sordidulus) here apparently enjoy posing for the camera while they sit and wait for flies.


They are flycatchers, after all, so after this one was done being photographed, it flew off and caught a fly, then landed further away from me.


A female Bullock’s Oriole flew past, just as it was time to go.  I ran back to the car, figuring that at least I got one lifer out of the day, and eager to go looking for Yellow-headed Blackbirds nearby.


We did find some blackbirds, but they were Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).  The Yellow-headed Blackbird remains unseen by me, which annoys me as they’re rather hard to find in Illinois- the closest breeding sites are two and a half hours away.  Furthermore, they’re endangered in Illinois, as they only breed in marshes.  As for the Great-tailed Grackle, they are considerably larger in all aspects than the regular Grackle (the plain black bird with a black bill that’s almost certainly in your backyard).  They range throughout the West into Iowa and Missouri, almost to Illinois but not quite.  I’d imagine there might be a few even in Illinois, possibly near some remote cow farm in Forgottonia.  They were extremely common once we got into Kansas, and remained so all the way through Colorado until we got into the mountains.


Speaking of the mountains, our last day in Colorado was spent driving up the highway into Estes Park, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park.  We did this mostly for shopping, but look at the view!  I had hoped for a Mountain Bluebird on the drive, my other “big miss” from the trip.  Ironically, both Mountain Bluebirds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds are species that appear in Illinois on a regular basis, just usually in the far north of the state.


Among the many tourist oriented shops in Estes Park was a place selling fossils.  It was part museum, and part gift store, and all in all a lot of fun, even if I don’t know very much about fossils.  One fact I do know about fossils is that they are quite expensive, as seen above.


One of the nice features of Estes Park, that distinguishes the town from your average sprawling outdoor mall, is the Big Thompson River flowing through it.  The town of Estes Park has taken great care to give the river some room and make it a feature of the town, instead of an impediment to more shopping areas.


The river was high and incredibly cold, but not flooding.   Past flash floods along the Big Thompson River, in 1976 and 2013, have killed several people upriver of the town and caused damage to several highway bridges and the buildings along the edge of the river in town.


Even in the middle of what is, in fact, quite a nice shopping area that I’m probably slamming too much in this blogpost, wildlife still makes its appearance.  This Common Raven (Corvus corax) is an uncommon sight for me, if not rare here.  That giant bill is one of the main features to distinguish it from a crow, though the body size and wedge-shaped tail also help.  Ravens are one of the smartest of all birds, and they even engage in some forms of creative play, like sliding down snowbanks or using sticks to play with each other.  They can also remember the faces of people who wronged them in some way.  More on that here.  At any rare, I quite admire ravens.


Another favorite of mine is the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), a tiny little bird that dives into rapids for food.  I mean that literally.   This bird dives into 33°F water, through churning, flood-stage rivers, pulling out small insect larvae and fish to eat.


In order to see underwater,  dippers use a nictitating membrane, visible as the white thing on the eye above.  Essentially, it’s an extra eyelid that act as googles for the bird.  Most birds have a nictitating membrane, but dippers, diving ducks, grebes, cormorants and loons, among other species, use theirs underwater as goggles.  To see how a Dipper swims underwater, watch the video below (I’m enjoying putting videos in this post!)

We drove down the canyon of the Big Thompson River further, spotting a lifer Bighorn Sheep on the way out.  Unfortunately, our glimpse was too brief for a photo.  We ended up back on the shortgrass praries once we were out of the canyon, and on those we will finish this trip next post.


Ebird Checklists

Legion Park:

Walden Ponds:

Sombrero Marsh:

Estes Park:

Big Thompson Canyon:








Colorado 2017, Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park / Rafting!

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3-  Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)



A day or two after Mount Evans, we decided to scale back and enjoy a more relaxed state park, Golden Gate Canyon State Park.  Prior to this, at another couple of locations, we found the orchids.  I’m not saying where those are, for fear of poachers.


However, there were still a ton of plants at a few spots in Golden Gate Canyon we visited. One of the best was Western Wallflower (Erysimum asperum), which isn’t uncommon, but the ones here were exquisite.  I believe the flowers of this species are larger and the plants are shorter than the other species of Western Wallflower (Erysimum capiatatum), which is native to Illinois.


The roads into Golden Gate Canyon were stunning mountain roads, and thankfully well paved and maintained.  We pulled off at a picnic area beside one to have lunch.


A bubbling creek besides us made for quite a nice picnic spot!


After finishing an apple and some PB+J sandwiches, I went across the road to view some cliffside flowers, including a yellow one which I think is a Potentilla species.


Canada Violets (Viola canadensis) bloomed among the picnic tables in the hundreds, and many more bloomed throughout the region.  Ironically, back home this is a state-endangered wildflower only found along the Wisconsin border areas of Illinois.


A little Blue butterfly landed on my mothers’s shoe for a minute or so, before taking off again.


Some sort of daisy bloomed in a dry area off to the side, above the creek.  What is it?


So did this little white mustard, and I have no idea what either species is. Thoughts?


Along the banks of the creek itself, a few dozen Pretty Shooting-Star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) bloomed along the creek.  I love these little plants, and am looking forwards to tracking down all three species in Illinois next spring.  Unfortunately, we don’t have this species here!


Golden Banner (Thermopsis montana) grew throughout the area, its large yellow flowers illuminating many a path or roadside.


We went up a nearby hiking trail, which went up through a narrow valley containing the aforementioned little stream, amid the groves of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides).


Several dozen plants of Pretty Shooting-Star grew along the path, living up to their name.


A Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) flew up alongside the path, its face only a little red.  It then vanished into  the brush out of sight, and I went back to the varied plant community here, including this little charmer which I think is an Astragalus species.


(Caution, the following 3 photos are of Snakes and Spiders)


Just up the path, a lifer Wandering Gartersnake (Thamnophis elegans) crawled along.  This was the only lifer herp (reptile/amphibian) of the trip.


A Crab Spider sat on the flowers of  Richardson’s Geranium (Geranium richardsonii)  These little ambush predators wait on flowers for pollinators to arrive, and then eat them.  Usually Crab Spiders try to pick flowers of the same color as their body, though…


Over the stream across from the Crab Spider and Geranium, another Wandering Gartersnake sat basking in the sun.  These, like all Garter Snakes, are in fact mildly venomous, but not enough so to harm a person.  Ordinarily, I have no problem catching Gartersnakes, which are not prone to biting even when handled.  Since I was hiking with Mom, I refrained.


Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa) grew further up the slope, past the Quaking Aspen forests on the lower end of the trail.   Open barrens began to form on the sides of the trail.


We also began to pull away from the creek as we went up higher, into dryer terrain.


The Miner’s Candle (Cryptantha virgata) bloomed along the turnaround point for us, a two-foot-tall spike of hairy leaves and white flowers that attracted many local wasps.


After turning around, we went over to Idaho Springs to go rafting on Clear Creek, in 33 degree F water.  We wore wetsuits, and it was still a little chilly, but we all had a good time.


Dad and I, sitting in the front of the raft, got soaked by the oncoming waves from Class II-III rapids (Easy-to-moderate rapids, basically)  It was my first time ever whitewater rafting, and it was also my first time seeing an American Dipper, which I saw between two of the rapids along the bank of the creek.  More on that amazing little bird sometime later.  In the meantime, we will take another break to show off my semi-completed goal list for this year.. as of August 1.  What finished that goal, and pushed me over the edge, will be shown. I’ll give you a hint- it’s an orange orchid.


Ebird Checklists:

Golden Gate Canyon

Idaho Springs











Colorado 2017, Part 2- Arrival and Eldorado Canyon


Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3-  Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)


Remember when I said that my Colorado trip would come out this winter? I lied.  Sorry, but not really.  I had the time of my life there.  Our first stop was at Eldorado Canyon State Park, and that was amazing.  Well, most of it was.  The road into and out of Eldorado Canyon is the second worst road I’ve ever been on.  The first, aptly-named Forgotten Road in Fulton County, Illinois, only  beats it by virtue of the fact that it was flooded at the time.  Eldorado Canyon’s main road was barely wide enough for two cars on an inconsistent basis, and it was entirely composed of potholes.


Now, I know what you’re thinking- “I’m from ____, and you should see OUR potholes!”  Trust me, I am a pothole (and lemonade) connoisseur.  I have been on many roads with terrible potholes.  However, I’ve yet to go on a road that is ENTIRELY surfaced in potholes.   In Eldorado Canyon, where one ended, the next began.   Add to that fact the fact that this is a dirt road, with lots of traffic,  going above a rapidly-flowing stream.  The potholes here were so bad that my dad’s back was strained and hurt temporarily.  (He’s fine now.)  I just throw that detail in to emphasize that this road is ROUGH.  The sections shown above were the easiest part, and they had people walking all along them, people who usually had dogs.  That’s a side note, by the way.  Everyone has dogs out in this part of Colorado, it seems, and they take their dogs everywhere.


But, we’re not here to discuss dogs and dirt roads…  There are birds out in Colorado (surprise!) and I hadn’t seen them.  Above are some Broad-tailed Hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus).  They weren’t the first lifer birds of the trip, however, as I saw Western Kingbirds in Missouri.  Then, I saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Swainson’s Hawk, Great-tailed Grackle,   White-winged Dove, and Lark Bunting in Kansas, followed by a Black-billed Magpie in Lafayette, Colorado.  So, I was already at eight for the trip, and I got ten more here in Eldorado Canyon, listed at the end.  I had thirty for the trip, but eighteen the first three days of the trip.


It was difficult to bird, however, as the sheer drop-offs made it impossible to back up and see into the trees from different angles.  I’m also used to birding decidous trees, and conifers make fora  far different experience.   As a result, I contented myself with this view of Eldorado Canyon’s entrance.  As you can imagine, that wasn’t hard to do!


The cute little Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus) decided to pose along the path, waiting for handouts.  We didn’t feed it, and it vanished back into the shrubbery.


Possibly, the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) overhead made it vanish.  Golden Eagles nest on the nearby peaks, and after my experiences with them back in February, which you can read on my old blog here, I was hoping for a better look at one.  However, they remained far up in the sky, and I nearly walked off the cliff trying to get photos.  If you can’t tell, I’m from the flat plains of Illinois- I don’t have much experience with cliffs!


At this point,  my brother who hates the outdoors decided he wanted to hike up a difficult trail to the ruins of an old hotel.  I’m fairly sure if he hadn’t sugested it, it wouldn’t have happened, but it did, and we went.    The trail went back and forth, climbing higher and higher with rocky piles and cliffside meadows of flowers between every bend in the trail.  Early on, we found Sedum lanceolatum, one of mayn flowers blooming along the trail.


The canyon as a canyon became more visible as we went up.


Bladderpods (Physaria sp.) came next along the trail.  I’m not sure what species this is, but the inflated seedpods are fascinating and new to me.


Here’s what I presume to be the same species of bladderpod  in flower.


What the heck?  I think it’s some kind of mite that was scrambling around on the rocks, but I’m not sure and I don’t want it to get too close.


Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii)’ s huge flowers covered a small part of the meadows.


Our view changed as we went up and up.


The family hiked ahead while I looked at some nearby Penstemon on the cliff.


Rock Climbers use this canyon a lot, and I took photos of some far off in the distance.


Just to be clear how far off they were, the photo before this one was of the top of the second peak on the right.  Yup, that’s a long climb.


A Gray-headed Junco (Junco hyemalis caniceps) called from the top of a nearby tree.  At this point, we had climbed high enough that the climate was somewhat different.  The forest was a trifle moister, I think because the mountain peaks catch more rain than the valleys.


It’s no rainforest, and the area was still arid, but this high up in the mountains, there’s definitely more precipitation per year than the arid shortgrass plains down below.  Of course, looking out over the area between Boulder and Denver, there’s also a better view:




On the edge of the path, some kind of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) grew.  Given the nearby mossy, shaded forest,  this was somewhat surprising to me.


Also up this high, alongside the trees, the birds had changed.  Down in the valley, Black-capped Chickadees lived, but up here in the dry pine stands on the edges of the canyon, lifer Mountain Chickadees (Poecile gambeli) foraged:


Western Wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum) bloomed in the ruins of an old hotel.


Perhaps the best find was several Western Tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana), a brilliantly colored bird only rivaled by one other bird in Colorado (to be seen in a later post!).  These birds are like a little fire in the forest. Related to cardinals, these yellow, black and red birds forage in small flocks, appearing out of the trees every so often.  Oddly, they only develop their red heads from eating certain bugs.  Evidently, the specimen below has eaten well:




I also found this strange beetle, which I believe is attempting to resemble tree bark.


We made our way back down to the bottom of the canyon, loosing nearly 1000 feet of elevation as we did so.  That was a bit hard on Illinois legs.  We spent the rest of the day resting, for our next day’s adventure.  Still, considering what I’ve shown above is only a fraction of what we saw, I can’t wait to go back and see it again!


Ebird Checklist: