Trails: Tower Rock, River Route, and Pine Ridge Trails
Hike Location: Apple River Canyon State ParkGeographic Location: northwest of Stockton, IL (42.44761, -90.05221)Length: 2.9 milesDifficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)Last Hiked: May 2019Overview: A trio of trails exploring the highs and lows of Apple River Canyon.Park Information: Route Map:
Directions to the trailhead: From Stockton, take US 20 west 2.3 miles to Canyon Road and turn right on Canyon Rd. Drive Canyon Rd. north 6.3 miles to a small parking lot on the left or a larger parking lot on the right. These parking lots are reached just before you cross the Apple River. Park in either of these two lots.
The hike: Established in 1932 via land purchase, Apple River Canyon State Park protects 1907 acres around its namesake canyon. Like many landforms in this region, the canyon has ties to the last ice age, when it was carved by water flowing out from melting glaciers. The Apple River is actually an example of a glacially reversed watercourse: it flowed east into the Pecatonica River until the glacier-induced water flow created its present-day course that flows southwest into the Mississippi River. Before the park existed, the river’s waters were put to industrial use, and a town called Millville was located in the canyon. Millville was founded in the 1820’s at the Apple River crossing on the stagecoach road that connected Peoria and Galena, an important center for northern Illinois’ lead mining industry. Later a sawmill was built in Millville, and up to 330 people lived in this canyon. Millville’s decline started in 1854 when the Illinois Central Railroad bypassed the town, and a flood in 1892 destroyed all of the town’s buildings. Today only an interpretive sign near the trailhead for this hike reminds us of this land’s industrial days. The park today features a 49-site campground and some picnic areas, but the park’s main attractions remain the canyon and the river. Apple River is a popular fishing destination, and the river is stocked for trout during the cooler months. For hikers, the park offers 5 trails, each of which is less than 1.5 miles in length. Three of the five trails start from the two adjacent parking lots described in the Directions to the trailhead, and hiking these three trails forms the 2.9 mile hike described here.

Trailhead at west parking lot

The River Route and Tower Rock Trails start from the smaller parking lot on the west side of the road. These two trails begin on a common entrance trail that climbs 4 stone steps before ascending a wide single-track dirt trail on a steep grade. At 0.1 miles, you reach a trail intersection at the top of the hill. The River Route and Tower Rock Trails part ways here, as indicated by a very faded concrete sign that sits on the ground. This hike will go both ways eventually, and for no particular reason I chose to turn left and hike the Tower Rock Trail first.

Faded concrete sign at trail intersection

The Tower Rock Trail traces a north-south course along the east rim of Apple River Canyon. The wide single-track dirt trail stays in a narrow strip of forest with the sheer rock-walled canyon dropping to the right and a farm field on private property to the left. Some nice maple trees live on the canyon rim, and this hike would be an above average fall leaf peeping hike.

Hiking the Tower Rock Trail

Just shy of 0.5 miles, you descend some wooden steps as you pass through one of the canyon’s side ravines. At 0.7 miles, the trail abruptly ends at a sign that says “Trail Ends” located at the park’s south boundary. Tower Rock stands a few hundred feet past this sign, but it is located on private property. To add to the disappointment, you will not even be able to see Tower Rock if the trees have leaves when you visit. A path continues past the sign onto private property, but continuing past the sign onto private property is trespassing and therefore illegal.

End of Tower Rock Trail

Retrace your steps 0.6 miles to the trail intersection where the common entrance trail goes right. Angle left to begin the River Route Trail, the park’s best and most popular trail. Almost immediately you reach a wooden platform that overlooks the canyon. Like your view of Tower Rock, leaves on trees will largely obstruct the canyon view from this platform during the warmer months.

Observation platform on River Route

The trail curves sharply left at the platform and begins its descent into the canyon. This descent uses steep and narrow trail, and a thunderstorm that passed over this area less than an hour before my hike made it very slippery and treacherous. This section is by far the hardest part of the hike, so take care here.

Hiking along the Apple River

At 1.4 miles, you reach the Apple River’s east bank at the canyon’s bottom. The rest of the River Route Trail is a flat pleasant course through the sunny grassy area along the river in the midst of the canyon. This part of Apple River Canyon is undeveloped, and nowhere else in the park can you get the bottom-up views of the canyon that this trail offers. Be careful of places where the river has eroded part of the trail or carried away the dirt from under the trail.

End of River Route Trail

1.7 miles into the hike, the River Route Trail ends where the steep canyon wall on the left pinches flush against the river. Turn around here and retrace your steps to the parking area at 2.2 miles having finished the most scenic part of the hike. A third trail, the Pine Ridge Trail, starts at the larger parking lot east of the park road. The Pine Ridge Trail does not offer the scenic canyon views of the first two trails, but it offers a pleasant forest walk and the opportunity to add some more distance to this hike.

Trailhead for Pine Ridge Trail

From the signed trailhead, the Pine Ridge Trail climbs on a moderate grade via single-track dirt trail. Numerous benches offer opportunities to sit and rest if needed. 2.3 miles into the hike, you reach a complicated intersection with options going hard left, soft left, and right. The option going hard left leads directly back to the parking area, while the other two options form the loop portion of the Pine Ridge Trail. Take the trail going soft left to hike the loop clockwise. Soon partially obstructed views of the Apple River’s South Fork appear through the trees to the left, but there are no shear rock walls here like the ones you saw on the River Route Trail. At 2.4 miles, the trail curves right to leave the river and begin heading for the canyon rim. As you approach the canyon rim, you learn why this trail is called the Pine Ridge Trail: a 1930’s era pine planting creates a soft cushion of pine needles under your feet.

Hiking through the pines on the ridge

Another farm field comes into view on private property to the left before the trail curves right to begin a moderate/steep descent back into the canyon. The park road comes into view ahead and to the left just before you close the loop. Turn left and walk downhill back to the parking area to complete the hike. If you want to do more hiking, two more short trails, the Sunset Trail and the Primrose Trail, explore other parts of the canyon, but they start at different parking lots from the one you are currently parked in.