Be A Tourist In Your Own City – Architecture Boat Tour (Wendella Boats)

One of our favorite things to do with friends who come in for a visit, is to take them into the city for an architecture boat tour.  It is a combination of being on the water, catching some rays and great views, and soaking up a little history of our big city.  There are many companies to choose from and different types of tours to fit your needs.  I chose Wendella Boats based on recommendations from friends, specifically for the Lake & River Tour.

Wendella offers 3 types of tours and 10 different cruises.  The tours vary in length (45, 75, or 90 minutes) and subject.  You can take a condensed river, full river, or lake and river combo tour.  The cruises also vary in length and activity.  Get romantic on a sunset cruise, catch the Wednesday and/or Saturday light show on the fireworks cruise, or sample some libations on the wine and cheese or whiskey tasting cruises.  They even have special event cruises for St. Patrick’s Day and the 4th of July.  I would imagine those book up quickly.

Prices are different for each type of boat ride you are taking.  The Lake & River Tour costs $39.00 and they offer multiple dates/times to choose from.  Sorry, I couldn’t find any discount codes that worked.  However, they offer discounts for college students, Military personnel, Chicago First Responders, and Veterans and Reservists (all with a valid ID).

The boat itself is large and there is plenty of seating to choose from.  I have sat in the front, back, and along the sides (I told you we take a lot of friends on this adventure!).  You can hear the tour guide from every angle, so you don’t have to worry about being first in line to board.

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The tour guides are very knowledgeable, not only about the architecture, but also about the history of the river and the city of Chicago.  You begin your trip by heading down the river, away from the lake.  I am not as knowledgeable as the tour guides, so I will simply share with you some of my favorite buildings and/or details on the façade.

This first picture is looking back up the river after we passed the Merchandise Mart:

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This photo is of the decorative masks that are part of the façade of the Civic Opera House (home to the Lyric Opera):

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The story behind the top of the Carbide and Carbon building is that it was meant to look like the top of a champagne bottle:

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The new sleek, shiny style architecture doesn’t really do it for me.  I love the look of the classic older buildings.  Like the Wrigley Building:

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And of course, it wouldn’t be a Chicago architecture tour without the iconic Sears Tower:

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At this point, the boat turns around and heads back up the river and covers buildings with better views from that direction.  At the end of the river, the boat enters the Chicago Harbor Lock.  The lock was originally built as a component in reversing the flow of the river back in the 1930s.  Now, its main function is to prevent the river from flooding.  Once in the lock, the boat sits idle while the water level rises up to Lake Michigan.  You have to go through this process again, in reverse, on your way back.

Once on the lake, the tour takes you around Navy Pier and then a short distance north of that.  The views, on a good day, are spectacular.

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Then the boat turns around and takes you south.  Not far enough to hit the museums, but you still get a clear view of the campus and the south end of the city.

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Tours are offered year-round (weather permitting) if you would prefer to pass on the city in the summer heat.  I don’t know if you can bring food on the boat, but they do offer a full-service bar with snacks you can purchase.  They also offer a climate-controlled lounge on the main level in case of rain or cooler temps.

So next time you have friends visiting from out of town, or you just want to have a “staycation” in the city, make some time for one of these boat tours.  You might even learn something new about the city!

Volunteer – Race Day with a Twist

The weather is starting to warm up which means race season is in full bloom as well.  Now, we all know that these events happen year-round, however, the Spring and Summer months seem to be the high time for these competitions.  5K, 10K, Half-Marathon, Marathon, Triathalons, Iron Man, the list goes on (and on).  Some races exist as fundraisers for causes (breast cancer, lukemia/lymphoma, etc.) and some as fundraisers for your local park districts.  Some races are competitive, and some are just for fun like the bubble run or color run.  My point here is, there is bound to be a race or competition near you sometime in the near future.  And they are always looking for volunteers.

Last year, I wrote about a mini triathalon in my area that I volunteered for.  One of the things I pointed out was that, a husband/wife couple (and close friends) volunteer every year and work the same station together.  I also worked a station with another husband/wife couple (and close friends).  It is an easy activity that you can do together while also supporting a cause and cheering on any neighbors who are participating.

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The “with a twist” that I am referring to above is, that, I volunteered for a race that my SO participated in.   So, while we were not technically doing this activity together, I was still there to see him and cheer him on at that start of the race and then I had something to do while he is running.  I also got to see him again after the race.

This year I volunteered for the Quarryman Challenge in Lemont.  This unique race hosts a 5K and a 10 mile run though the streets of Lemont.  The HILLY streets of Lemont.

What makes this particular run “unique” is the end game.  They serve free beer and pizza to all of the finishers!  This is one of my SO’s favorite runs simply for this treat.  Others would agree as they had almost 700 runners this year.

Beer vendors

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The other “unique” aspect is the prize for the top runners.  They do not hand out the standard medal.  Lemont was known, back in the day, for its quarries and the production of dolomite (a version of limestone).  Each winner (3rd place and up) gets a chunk of rock from the quarry with an engraved plate.

So, look up some races or other events near you this summer and volunteer together.  It is a great feeling to support your community and neighbors.  And who doesn’t like a free t-shirt?

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Shawnee National Forest – Part III: Where to Stay

I wrote about some hiking in the Shawnee National Forest a few months ago.  You can find those blog posts here and here.  Now that Spring has arrived (let’s hope there are no more rogue blizzards like the one we just had last weekend), you should really think about heading down there for a few days to enjoy the beauty of this area.  But, you will need a place to stay.

My SO and I were invited, this past November, to join friends of ours for a weekend get-away in Southern Illinois.  A little hiking, and a winery or two were on the agenda.  Our friends had already been down there once before and she came across this wonderful Inn in Makanda, IL.  Simply named Makanda Inn and Cottages, this bed and breakfast is located right across from Giant City State Park.

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The Makanda Inn opened as a Bed & Breakfast with just the suites in 2009 and the cottages were completed in 2012.  Loraine and Malcolm Leigh have been managing the property (they also live there) since 2015.  You couldn’t meet a nicer, more sociable couple.

The Inn has 4 spacious suite-style rooms in the main cabin.  King size beds are standard in all of their bedrooms.  Each of these rooms is artfully decorated in dark, rich colors.  Stone showers and vanities made from blocks of wood add to the rustic décor.  We slept like rocks.  Then again, we were super tired from hiking each day.  Although “cocktail hour” at the end of the day helped with that as well.  They also offer two small cabins and one larger cabin if you wanted to have some space.  The two smaller cabins have a kitchenette area with a 2-burner, electric stove top and microwave (but not a traditional stove), and the larger cabin has a full kitchen area with a full-size stove/oven and a large microwave.  The larger cabin is ideal for those looking to spend more than a couple of days (or even a week or two).

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The Makanda Inn has a spacious great room on the main floor.  Couches and tables and chairs are available for all of the guests (in the main cabin or the cottages) to settle in at the end of a long day with a cocktail or two (or more if you are in our group).  You are welcome to bring your own cooler of beverages with you.  Or, if you are feeling something different, Malcolm tends bar from 4:00-9:00 pm each night for your drinking pleasure.  Anything from their bar must be purchased and, I speak from experience, he makes a mean Painkiller.

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The one thing that sets them apart, and the main reason I will be going back, is that they serve up an incredible breakfast.  I love food and enjoy eating a really good meal and Loraine and Malcolm do not disappoint.  This meal is included only if you stay in the main cabin.  You can purchase this as an extra if you stay in one of the cottages, but you need to reserve your spot ahead of time.  Additionally, while Malcolm does not tend bar at this time, Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s are available to purchase if you want to start your day off right.

This was not your typical buffet-style scrambled eggs and bacon.  The first morning, we started with a small bowl of moon drop grapes.  I had never heard of these before, but they were delicious.  Then, we were told we were having cinnamon roll waffles with a cream cheese glaze.  The waffle took up the whole plate!  And, the plating was Top Chef worthy.  Photo credit for this one goes to Loraine Leigh.

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Day 2 was a pork sausage and scrambled egg burrito with homemade guacamole and salsa (and a dollop of cream cheese) along with some fried plantains.  This was accompanied by a small plate of pineapple and golden kiwi.

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Day 3 started with a blueberry yogurt parfait followed by a plate of French toast, scrambled eggs, and sausages.

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They are not playing games here.  Extra points for presentation.  Malcolm and Loraine are serious about enjoying your stay with them.  And, if they weather is on the cooler side, you might get to see Malcolm light the fireplace with a blowtorch . . . (this was a highlight for my SO)

Weekends book fast!  Maybe think about making this a part of your summer “staycation” and go down there during the week.   Either way, get down there and enjoy the beautiful weather and even more beautiful scenery.  And tell them Karen sent you!!

 

Flight Club

Flight Club, which opened in May 2018, is not your neighborhood bar to go and throw darts for the night.  It is two-story bar and restaurant that caters exclusively to playing darts.  It is a concept they call “social darts” and it is fast becoming a must-do for small groups and/or date nights.

Social darts starts with the actual playing area called an “oche” (rhymes with hockey).  Each oche can hold up to 20 people.  Not seat, hold.  It can maybe seat 8-10.  It has the dart board, space for food and drink, and three throwing lines (rookie, regular, and pro).

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Everything is high-tech.  The boards are actually cork but they have instant scoring and technology to track your throws and to show instant replays (generally shown when someone wins or “checks out”).  There is an easy-to-use interface to choose your game and input the names of your players.  And it doesn’t matter what order you put them in, the order of throwers changes with each game.  Also, be prepared to take a selfie with you player name.  And it is not being taken from an attractive angle either.

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The cost to play is $15-$22 for 30 minutes and $30-$40 for 60 minutes.  The difference depends on if you are coming in during peak times.  They recommend making a reservation if you have 6 or more in your party.  Right now, they have 5 different games to choose from.  We kept it simple and played the 180 game a couple of times.  Everyone starts with 180 points and each throw brings that number down depending on where your darts land.  And you have to get to zero without going over.  We then played one fun game of Snakes and Ladders (their version of the children’s board game Chutes and Ladders)

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I enjoy throwing darts, however, I am wildly inconsistent.  Every once in awhile I will get lucky and actually hit the number I was aiming for.  In our final game of the night we played a round of 180. One of our players, Diane, had checked out but three of us still had a turn in this round.  The other two guys busted and I got lucky and hit my number on my first throw and checked out as well.  So, then it went into a tie-breaker where Diane and I went head-to-head with only 60 points to play down from.  She went first and on her first throw she nailed a triple 20 and checked out.  WHO DOES THAT?  Obviously, not me.  True story.

Flight Club also functions as a restaurant if you would prefer to eat before or after playing darts.  But you can also order food to be brought to your oche.  We tried the mini poke tacos, al pastor skewers, and two flatbread pizzas (chicken sausage and four cheese) from the sharables menu.  It was all very good.

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Shareables

I’m sure versions of this concept will be opening up in other cities and suburbs but, until it does, try to work this one into your schedule the next time you are in the city.  (You Tube video courtesy of Flight Club)

WNDR Museum

The WNDR Museum opened in September 2018 as a “pop-up” (temporary) exhibit but its popularity here in Chicago has earned it a permanent location in the West Loop.  It is described on its website as an “experiential” museum meaning it is “involved in or based on experience and observation”.  This could not be more true.  Lights, sounds, and mirrors all combine to provide a platform where science meets art.

Full disclosure, my SO for the day was my favorite oldest child.  He has wanted to check out this museum since it opened, and I wanted to write about it, so he jumped at the chance to let me pay for him 😊 The ironic thing about our pairing is that, this is a very Instagram-friendly activity and you couldn’t find two people more averse to having their picture taken than the two of us.

Some of the exhibits in the museum were hands-on interactive, like this light bulb wall:

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Don’t be fooled into thinking this place is just for kids.  There were exhibits and activities for all ages.  They have an optical illusion room that is still mind-boggling to me when I look at the pictures.  We were only standing a couple of feet away from each other!

Optical Illusion room

Let’s not forget about the science part of it.  Each exhibit had an educational aspect to it, some more appealing than others depending on your interest.

Clouds

Be careful though.  There is a 100% chance that the child in you will come out at some point.  My 23 year-old and I got into a balloon fight with an 8 year old (we totally won, just sayin’).

Balloons

By far our favorite exhibit was the floor that lit up when you walked, or danced, across it.  The video below doesn’t do it justice and we honestly could have spent an hour watching the colors dance.  It was so pretty.

In an effort to maintain its presence in Chicago, the museum will close periodically to refresh its exhibits.  One such update will take place the entire month of April 2019.  This doesn’t mean it will be completely new each time it reopens.  They will continue to evaluate which experiences people respond to the most and keep those while replacing less popular ones.  One crowd favorite that will most likely make the cut each time is the infinity mirror room by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.  My pictures did not even do this one justice.  It absolutely needs to be experienced.

Tickets for the museum are $32 per person.  You have to schedule your entry as this helps avoid a traffic jam once you are in there.  You should also expect to spend at least an hour there.  There is also no onsite parking and street parking is very limited.

One last picture before you go, this exhibit was made with STRAWS.  Using plastic without destroying the planet.

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Chicago Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra

Not from Chicago?  Google “orchestra near me” for your local concerts.

I will be totally honest with you, spending a Sunday afternoon listening to a symphony orchestra play classical music is not top on my list.  I was not raised with an appreciation of the Fine Arts, but I find myself open to experiencing them more as I get older.  We attended a concert this past Sunday because our friend, Amy, was asked to sub in with the CMSO for this performance.  So, it gave us an opportunity to see her play, and it provided me with an activity somewhat out of my comfort zone to share with you.

The CMSO was founded in 1921 and currently performs their concerts at the Gottlieb Concert Hall in the Joy Faith Knapp Music Center in Chicago.  The orchestra’s current musical director and conductor is Russell Vinick.

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The concert on Sunday, February 17 was called “Coming and Going” and was described as “An American’s impression of a visit to Paris and a Czech composer’s salute to his time in America”.  It featured the music of Desby, Gershwin, and Dvorak.

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Tickets were only $18 and the concert lasted about 2 hours (including an intermission).  My SO said there was a good amount of food available during the intermission as well.  The next performance takes place on May 19 and features the music of Strauss and Beethoven.

Oh, and I can’t finish this story without a picture of our friend Amy playing the trumpet in this concert.

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Day Drinking – Koval Distillery

(Not from Chicago?  Google “distillery tour near me”)

Not every distillery tour is the same.  The process is very similar, but the result is very different from one brand to another.  Plus, this was a great way to spend a cold, snowy afternoon.

Established in 2008, Koval is the first distillery within the Chicago city limits since the Prohibition era.  The tour takes place in a small storefront in the Ravenswood neighborhood with the actual production facility about a mile up the road.  One of the things I learned on the tour is that Koval is the largest organic distillery in Illinois (maybe the US?  I was trying to pay attention and take notes at the same time).  One aspect of organic distilling is the use of organic barley.  This is more expensive, however, they are also using local farmers as their suppliers.  Another quality that makes the whiskey organic is the use of virgin oak casks.  They purchase all of their barrels built and charred from scratch.  This prevents the spirit from coming into contact with any non-organic material.  You would think this would result in a surplus of barrels, however, they can be sold for re-use.  Besides other distilleries (that don’t require virgin casks), they also sell them to breweries who produce bourbon-barrel aged ales.  Additionally, the average consumer can purchase a used one for their home décor needs for the small price of $150.00.

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While walking us through the distillation process, we learned that Koval’s signature style is to only use the “heart”, or the middle process of the distillation, in their spirits.  The full distillation process produces what are known as the “head”, “heart”, and “tails”.  I could not even begin to describe these stages or at what point these are cut.  This link explains it perfectly and in simple terms.

Equipment

Now, what would a distillery tour be without a tasting or two (or three)?  Whiskey is not the only spirit produced at Koval.  They also bottle and sell gins, brandys, and other flavored liqueurs.  Our first tasting was of their single barrel bourbon whiskey.  110 proof.  Boom.  Now I’ve got that warm toasty feeling inside.  The second tasting was of their new cranberry gin liqueur.  I do not like gin, but I tried it anyway.  The cranberry flavor was definitely present, but it did not overpower the gin itself.  Our third, and final, tasting was a personal choice.  I chose the peach brandy.  I regret my choice only because I heard, after the fact, that the ginger liqueur was a big hit.  This is their second best seller after the single barrel bourbon  whiskey (the regular version, not the 110 proof).

Tasters

Liqueurs

The tour, should you decide to take it, is only $10 per person.  You can also find this activity on Groupon.  This one is limited to Sundays at either 2:00 pm or 4:00 pm.  They have an option for a group of two ($19) or four ($35).  The bonus is that you get to leave with a souvenir shot glass.

CHEERS!

Point Blank Shooting Range (Hodgkins)

This company has multiple locations in Illinois and other states as well.

The first thing I want to mention is that I do not own a gun.  I don’t have a desire to own one.  I do not have a FOID (Firearm Owners Identification) card.  I have just always wanted to learn to shoot a gun.  Knowledge is power – or so they say.

When I mentioned this to my cousin Chris, he immediately offered to go with us to a shooting range and to provide us with some basic safety training.  Chris has had his FOID card for 22 years.  He worked in a gun shop for 5 years.  He owns multiple guns and brought them all over for us to learn about.  So, he knows his sh*t.  Some of the key elements he taught us were how to properly hold a gun (and where to point it) when you first pick it up, how to load/unload the magazine (look at me talking shop here!), and most importantly, how to turn the safety on/off.

The handguns that Chris showed us were (clockwise from the top right): Springfield Armory model 1911 custom built .45 caliber, Colt Python. 357 caliber 6″ barrel, H&K model USP9  9mm caliber, Glock gen4 model 19  9mm caliber, Smith&Wesson model 22-a  .22long rifle cal., and a Sig Sauer model p239 .40 cal

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He also had a couple of rifles to show us (top to bottom): Daniel Defense model DDM4V7  5.56 NATO caliber and a Sig Sauer model MPX with red dot sight  9mm caliber.

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He’s a pretty cool guy to know.

Once we got to the shooting range, I was able to get in with my driver’s license as long as I was entering with someone who has a FOID card.  This location did not require that I be trained by someone on their staff, although they do offer that (and other classes) if you don’t have someone like I did to show you the basics.

Pricing varies by location.  The Hodgkins range charges $19.99 per hour for one shooting bay.  They allow two people in each bay, but you need to pay $7.99 for the second shooter.  They also have a date night package (seriously) on Friday nights for two shooters for only $16.99.  I guess the couple that shoots together stays together, right?

And then we got our Charlies Angels on.  I was nervous from the start because the guns we trained on were not loaded (naturally).  Was it going to be loud?  Was there going to be a recoil?  Yes and yes.  But I had an excellent teacher and he was right next to me the whole time.  He told me that, with the first round that I shot, I just needed to get used to it.  He had me aim for the X in the middle of the target’s chest.  Apparently, all I heard was “head shots”.  BAD.  ASS.

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Total honesty here – I was actually aiming for the X 😊

Every time we hung up or took down the paper target I could not stop picturing one of my favorite movie moments from Lethal Weapon.  Especially the scene with Mel Gibson starting at the 0:50 mark.  (YouTube video courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment).

Besides the human outline, they had many targets to choose from.  We didn’t use these, but you have to be a pretty good shot to play Battleship I would think.

Targets

To the disappointment of my cousin, I won’t be rushing out to get my FOID card anytime soon.  I didn’t hate it, it was just not for me.  My SO enjoyed it, however, and is planning on going again soon.  Here is a video of my SO shooting a gun and a rifle:

Ragnarock Axe Throwing

Can I “axe” you a question?  Do you have an “axe” to grind?  Do you have the “chops” to take on some target practice?

Axe throwing is trending as the latest date night/girls night/team building activity.  It is just what it sounds like, but with games.  My SO and I found a Groupon (naturally) for an axe throwing location in Chicago, however,  they are popping up all over the suburbs as well.

At Ragnarock Axe Throwing, you get a 90-minute session that includes training and some throwing competitions in a game-like setting.  The size of your group depends on how many people sign up in each time slot but they cap it off at 24 (split between two throwing bays).  Each bay has an “Axepert” (get it?) to instruct you in the proper way to stand, hold, and eventually, throw the 1.5 lb axe.

Our group had 9 people in it and each bay has two throwing spots so this does move along fairly quickly.  After the safety training portion, they take two people at a time to do some practice throws.  The hardest thing for me was getting it to stick.  I was basically on target with each throw, but I don’t think I was throwing it hard enough.  I need to go in angrier next time.

Once everyone was comfortable with how to hit the target, we were split up (within our own group), into two smaller groups.  The first game we played was TIMBER.  This is the axe throwing version of horse.  You went head-to-head with someone from the other team and, after two throws, whoever had less points got a letter.  The bullseye has number values within each ring.  Next, we played “21” where each team had to get enough point to total 21.  Exactly.  So getting that last number was challenging.

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After the last game (a version of “hangman”) we moved into the double-elimination head-to-head tournament with our small group.  Of course, they paired my SO and I against each other in the first round.  My shining moment was getting a bullseye in this round to move him into the losers bracket.  Making it count when it matters!

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It was also a requirement that you come up with a “punny” name for the competition.  As you can see from my name tag I was Mrs. Axehole.  My SO was just plain Axehole.

An extra bonus is that this location allows you to bring food and drink into the space.  Alcohol, however, is not permitted.  For some reason the city of Chicago doesn’t believe that drinking and axe throwing are a good combination.

This was also quite the core workout.  I was sore the next day.  But it was worth it.  So grab your significant other, and maybe some friends, and go get your lumberjack on!

Shawnee National Forest – Part II Ferne Clyff Waterfall Trail and Cave in the Rock

 

The waterfall trail (#5 on the map) is a ½ mile long trail in the Ferne Clyffe State Park.  The park itself covers 2,430 acres and contains 18 trails of varying degrees of difficulty.  The waterfall trail is rustic but not difficult.  By rustic I mean it is not paved or really even flat, but easy to navigate.

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This time of year, the waterfall is typically dry, however, the day before our hike, southern Illinois got an unseasonal couple of inches of snow.  I was hoping, with the warmer temperature that day, we might see a small one with the melting snow.  Sadly, no, but we got some other great views.  During our hike, the sun was shining and the melting snow from the trees made it feel like we were walking through a rain forest.

The precipitation also provided a beautiful snow-covered landscape for our hike.

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At the end of the trail, during a wetter season, you can see the waterfall cascading over the top of a giant rock formation.

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During our weekend trip, we also found our way to the Cave in Rock State Park.  Specifically, to see the cave in the rock.  Technically, this scenic point is just over the border into Kentucky.  So now I can say I have been to Kentucky.  Although there are other trails nearby, this geological wonder is a popular destination even for non-hikers.  I wouldn’t even call this one a hike.  At the base of a fairly short staircase, you can see the mouth of the cave to the left.

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The cave itself is not very deep and there is nothing particularly creepy about it.  No bats or hibernating animals to worry about.

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My favorite picture was taken upon leaving.  The view coming back out was of the sun shining down on the Ohio river.  Spectacular.

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There are so many hiking trails and points of interest in the Shawnee National Forest.  I plan to spend another long weekend down there exploring more of them!