Trail: Out and Back Trail
Hike Location: Kickapoo State Recreation AreaGeographic Location: west of Danville, IL (40.13872, -87.73552)Length: 6.4 milesDifficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)Last Hiked: May 2019Overview: A lollipop loop through fields and forest on the east side of the Vermilion River.Park Information: Route Map: Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In extreme eastern Illinois, take I-74 to US 150 (exit 210). Exit and go east on US 150. Take US 150 east 0.75 miles to the first traffic light, which is CR 1. Turn left on CR 1. Take CR 1 north 1.8 miles to Kickapoo Road and turn left on Kickapoo Rd. Drive Kickapoo Rd. west 2.5 miles to the state park office, which is located on the left. Park in the lot in front of the office.
The hike: The land of Kickapoo State Recreation Area has seen a lot of changes. Between 500 and 1500 A.D. a Kickapoo Indian village was located where the Middle and Salt Forks of the Vermilion River meet, hence the park’s name. A couple hundred years later, Indian Wars occurred south of Danville. In 1819, European settlers discovered salt springs near the park. Because salt was a valuable commodity on the frontier, this discovery led to an influx of European settlers. The salt springs supported the local economy until 1848, when salt production ceased. Shortly thereafter, the land became one of the first areas to be strip mined for coal. Early strip mining techniques devastated the natural landscape, and the scars of these mines are still visible today. The coal extraction left a wasteland of bare hills and polluted ponds, and in 1939 the State of Illinois purchased 1290 acres of scarred land from the United Electric Coal Company. Subsequent purchases of adjacent farmland created the current total of 2842 acres. The park today stands as a major recreation center, a sharp contrast to its state 70 years ago. The once polluted waters now sustain life and provide plenty of fishing opportunities. Two of these ponds even offer scuba diving, a rarity in a landlocked state like Illinois. The park’s other amenities include picnic areas, a stable and many miles of trails for horseback riding, and a 6.5 mile mountain bike trail system. The park also offers 16 miles of trails open to hiking. Many of the trails are 1 mile long or less, but a few options are longer. The Riverview Trail starts at the picnic area between the river and Clear Lake and offers an easy 2 mile stroll along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, which bisects the park on a north to south course. Two trails start at the park office: the Clear Lake and Out and Back Trails. Both trails make for nice hiking, but this hike features the 6.4 mile Out and Back Trail, the park’s longest trail.

Trailhead near park office

From the park office, walk north past the maintenance building and cross the main park road to arrive at a wooden sign announcing the beginnings of the Clear Lake and Out and Back Trails. Both trails are rated rugged due to their length, but the difficulty of the terrain makes these trails no more strenuous than average. Both trails start by heading right from the sign in a narrow strip of woods between the park road on the right and a steep hill to the left. The Out and Back Trail is marked with white blazes and white signs bearing the hiker symbol. Distance markers for the Out and Back Trail are posted every 0.25 miles, and the first of these wooden signs is reached while you are still adjacent to the park road.

4.75 mile marker on Out and Back Trail

The trail curves left to follow and then cross the paved access road for Emerald Pond. The Clear Lake and Out and Back Trails part ways here. The Clear Lake Trail continues to parallel the access road before heading downhill toward Inland Sea and Clear Lake, and adding it to this hike forms an 8.6 mile double loop. This description stays right to remain on the Out and Back Trail. At 0.4 miles, the Out and Back Trail crosses the access road and intersects the dirt/gravel entrance road for the group camp. The camp road is gated, so vehicles are unlikely to be encountered. Note that a small parking lot just outside the gate could serve as an alternate starting point for the Out and Back Trail. Turn left on the camp road, which in another 0.1 miles arrives at the primitive group camp. Where a sign that says “restrooms” points right, stay left. At 0.75 miles, you exit the rear of the group camp on a two-track dirt trail.

Hiking through old farm field

0.9 miles into the hike, the trail enters an abandoned farm field and makes the first of many intersections with the horse and mountain bike trails. All of these intersections are well-marked with several signs. If you have not seen a trail marker for a few minutes, you probably made a wrong turn. The trail climbs gently through the hot and sunny field, which teems with life of the insect and bird varieties. Pass a wastewater area on the left; the smell was not horrific on my visit. At 1.2 miles, the trail passes through a fence and curves left, continuing in a narrow strip of trees that once separated two farm fields.

Hiking along a wooded ravine

The trail now heads west toward the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River and very slowly loses elevation. This section of trail passes through some nice forest that features lots of oak and maple trees with a few sycamore trees, and it is my favorite part of this hike. Soon the first steep ravine comes into view on the left. At 1.8 miles, come to a bench overlooking this ravine. This bench is the only bench on this hike, and therefore it makes a good place to rest. Just past 2 miles, the trail intersects a gravel road, where you need to turn left. This point marks the beginning of a major trail reroute. When I first hiked here in 2004, the Out and Back Trail exited this road to the left and crossed the river on an old concrete and steel bridge, but the bridge was demolished in 2006. A short optional loop still exits left here, but the main Out and Back Trail heads northwest on the gravel road.

Start of main loop

At 2.2 miles, you reach the start of the main loop. For reasons to be seen later, I recommend hiking the loop clockwise. The reroute is not signed as well as the route you have hiked so far, but to hike the loop clockwise you need to angle left to leave the gravel road and begin a mowed-grass trail. If you reach some picnic tables beside a pond called Stump Pond, you are hiking the loop counterclockwise and need to backtrack a few hundred feet.

Stump Pond

The mowed-grass trail descends moderately to enter the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River’s floodplain. The grass was a few inches high on my visit, but the trail was easily discernible and passable. Where a spur trail exits left to reach the river, stay right to remain on the main loop. The trail makes a winding right-curving arc through a prairie. The river on the left is not visible when trees have leaves, but some steep bluffs towering just beyond the river can be seen all year.

Wetland at end of gravel road

At 3.4 miles, the trail comes out beside a wetland in an area that had recently been planted with tall, thick prairie grass on my visit. To continue, you need to turn right and wade through the grass to reach a gravel road. This turn is why you want to hike this loop clockwise: it would be very hard to find if you were hiking down the road. The rest of the loop follows the old gravel road as it heads gradually up and out of the old strip mine. Near 4 miles, you pass some picnic tables beside Stump Pond to your left just before closing the loop. Retrace your steps 2.2 miles to return to the park office and complete the hike. While you are here, consider adding on the Clear Lake Trail or the Riverview Trail if you have the time and energy to do so.