I through hiked the Rock Island Trail on April 2nd and 3rd of 2012. Here in central Illinois, like much of the country, we had unseasonably warm April weather. I was on vacation, so I decided to through hike the Rock Island Trail. To through hike the big boys you have to start somewhere so I figured that a three day and two night hike on a flat trail was a good place to start. I packed my 75 liter High Sierra "Appalachian Trail" backpack to the brim and prepared to start. The weather was overcast each day and in the temperature was in the low 80's by mid afternoons, so it was a sweaty slog . I started in Alta at approx. 2 p.m. where my wife and daughters dropped me off. The Alta to Princeville section of the trail is where you will see the most people on the trail. You see the most people near the cities of Alta and Dunlap. The trail traffic thins out as you proceed north until you approach Princeville where you will begin to see a few more people, but not nearly as many as near Alta and Dunlap. Hiking the Rock Island Trail is like hiking through a tunnel of trees with it's canopy of branches and leaves above enclosing the trail. In most places you are walking along on a raised earthen bed with a smooth rock surface. There are also places of open hiking so be prepared to handle the sun, but with my through hike being in early spring the low angle of the sun kept me mostly in the shade.
I had to be in Princeville by 7 p.m. for a meeting so I got to it. I hiked the ten miles from Alta to Princeville by 5 p.m. I initially began my hike with a two liter camel back of water. I did not bring anything for water purification, thinking that the two liters would get me the ten miles to Princeville. That proved to be a mistake. I ran out of water two and a half miles from Princeville. Without any water purification methods, I walked the last two and a half miles thirsty. There were many areas of standing stagnant water along the trail that could have been used in an emergency, and there were a few small clear running streams that I could have refilled at had I take some type of water purification.
I also forgot to take my hiking poles and after about two hours of hiking my hands had begun to get swollen so I called my wife and had her come to Princeville with my hiking poles and to eat dinner. My wife brought our daughters and we ate dinner at an authentic Mexican restaurant named "Los Jimadores", it was awesome! There is also a Casey's General Store gas station, and a small grocery store in town to get essentials from.
After dinner I attended my meeting and I was back on the trail in the dark by 9 p.m. Walking on the trail after dark is posted as being prohibited but I had to go about another mile to get to where I had permission to camp. So I hiked during the well moonlit night. The moon was so bright that I did not even need to use a light, even with the leaf canopy above. When I got to my camping spot I pitched my tent and slept like a baby to the sound of a moderate breeze and a few coyotes off in the distance.
I broke camp the next morning and hit the trail for day two. I was refreshed from a good nights sleep and eager to go. Almost as soon as I started hiking I had a very large deer run across the trail about ten yards in front of me, it was very cool! As I hiked along I through the morning I could feel that I was beginning to get blisters on the pads of my feet. (Quick point, do not use "Dr. Scholl's" insoles to hike with, they are great for casual use but not for long hikes. Dr. Scholl's absorb and hold too much moisture from sweat and they have a porous cloth surface which causes your sweaty socks to stick the top surface of the insole. This is what causes blisters to form, friction. I now use "Superfeet" which do not absorb moisture and have a much slicker top surface that allows for your socks to slide across them without causing friction.) Anyway, I stopped at one of the many benches and picnic benches along the length of the trail to address my forming blisters. As I sat down and took off my boots and socks. This is where I experienced my first act of trail magic. As I was attempting to apply moleskin around my blisters a kindly sixty plus year old man stopped by while riding his bike on the trail. He asked me where I was headed, having seen my forty five pound 75 liter backpack sitting beside me. I told him that I was going to attempt to through hike the trail if my feet allowed me to do so. He began to dig in his small saddle bag of supplies to see if he had anything to offer me for my feet. I politely told him that I had everything I needed but he continued to look for anything that he could offer me. When he finally had to accept that he had nothing to offer me, he reached in his pocket and handed me something telling me that this might help me when I arrived in the upcoming town of Wyoming. I took what he gave me and saw that it was a small wad of one dollar bills. I attempted to give it back to him stating that I had brought money for the trip. He told me to buy something for my blisters when I got to Wyoming. I insisted that he take his money back but he refused. He got on his bike and began to ride away telling me that I could not catch him on his bike so I had to keep the money. As he rode away he yelled back for me to buy something for my blisters when I got to town. I counted the money and he had given me nine dollars. I was touched by this act of unselfish kindness. So, I patched my feet as best as I could and hobbled the last two miles to the town of Wyoming. Once in Wyoming, I found a Dollar General where I used that nine dollars to buy more moleskin, a roll of duct tape, and something to drink. After patching up my blistered feet with the moleskin and wrapping duct tape around my newly patched blisters, I was off again and walking much better thanks to the trail magic of a kind man. In Wyoming you will also find a Casey's General Store, a small pharmacy, a veternarians office if you are hiking with your dog, and a small diner.
One thing I will mention at this point is this, the Rock Island Trail needs to post directions in Dunlap, Princeville, and Wyoming, where the trail enters each town and then stops. Having directions posted upon entering each town on how to find where the trail picks up again would really help. Thankfully I work in the area and I knew where to go in Dunlap and Princeville to pick up the trail again, but when I got to Wyoming I literally had no idea. So I asked the town policeman who gave me almost no help. He just pointed and told me that I could not miss it. He was not being rude, he just did not know how to explain to me how to get back to the trail. I walked in the general direction of his point and to my surprise sitting in a tree in the middle of town and only fifteen feet above ground was a turkey vulture. I began to wonder about the town of Wyoming. I walked on and moments later I finally saw the trail. Sadly, I had to walk through someone's side yard to get back on the trail since I was not at the restart point of the trail, but I was back on the trail nonetheless.
Once I was back on the trail in Wyoming and heading north out of town, I was quickly back to my three miles an hour stride and eating up trail on my moleskin and duct taped feet. It wasn't long before I was at the Spoon River bridge crossing. The bridge at the Spoon River is an old rail road bridge that has been refitted for hikers. Just off the trail at each end of the bridge are footpaths worn into the hillside from countless animals, hikers, campers, nature lovers, and fishermen. These paths lead down to a large open flat area near the river, from the bottom the bridge is about forty five feet above. This is where I should have camped as it was starting to get very windy and it looked like rain was eminent. But since it was such a public area I decided to move on to find a more secluded area to camp, that proved to be a poor decision. I should have stayed down in the valley out of the wind, but high enough to no have to worry about river swell if it rained. Deciding to move on, I figured that I could hike along and find a farm house where I could get permission to camp overnight on their property. Sadly, I was wrong. As darkness began to creep in at about 6 p.m., remember it is spring and cloudy, I had to find a spot to camp. I knew that this meant camping without having the permission of the owner, and I did not like it at all. I searched the next three miles but could not find anything along the trail flat enought except for being on a farmers unplowed field, and I was not about to do something that disrespectful. I finally settled for a patch of grass off a field that was a hillside. I know, putting a tent on a hillside is as smart as smoking in a fireworks factory, but I could not disrespect a farmer by putting my tent on his field without permission even though it had not been plowed or tilled this spring. Needless to say, I did not sleep well. First, the winds blew my tent around all night long with winds that were a constant 25-35 mph. Secondly, I my Thermarest mattress continually slid down to the end of the tent since the tent was on a hillside. And lastly, I had dreams about a farmer coming out and being upset that I was on his property without permission. Let me tell you, I was glad when morning arrived.
I broke camp on the third morning and headed towards the City of Toulon. I was happy to be back on the trail again, even on my duct taped repaired feet. I hiked about three miles that morning and I arrived in Toulon, the end of the trail. I called my wife and had her bring the kids to Toulon where we had lunch and drove home.
During my tranquil through hike of the Rock Island Trail I saw many beautiful sites, I crossed several types of bridges, saw many different kinds of animals, saw many old farm properties; but in general I saw the beauty of undisturbed nature unrolling before me as I hiked along. I truly enjoyed the peace and solitude of the Rock Island Trail. Many lessons were learned and I cannot wait to do it again!