For those who think central Illinois is one big corn field, Sand Ridge State Forest will come as a very pleasant surprise. The forest is an island in a sea of agriculture. Just minutes southwest of Peoria, this 7,200-acre, the largest of Illinois' State Forests, boasts sweeping expanses of native oak-hickory, extensive plantations of pine, sprawling open fields, grasslands, and completely unique sand prairies. For a refreshing, invigorating taste of unspoiled nature and an opportunity to experience truly unique environment, Sand Ridge State Forest is ideal. The area is the result of a prehistoric dry period when more desert-like conditions existed. Today it remains one of the few places in Illinois that supports an intriguing variety of plants and animals more associated with the southwest than the midwest. Those include badger, silvery bladderpod, pocket gopher and prickly pear cactus to name a few. The raw, undeveloped expanses of hardwood and pine blanketing the panoramic vistas contain miles of outstanding hiking, backpacking, snowmobiling, and horseback riding opportunities. Hunting of deer, turkey, pheasant, quail, dove, and squirrel is permitted. There is a hand trap shooting facility and an archery range. For the dedicated outdoors person this is truly an island of great opportunity to see how diverse Illinois is. For the day visitor, the forest offers picnic facilities and the chance for fascinating experience with nature in the Henry Allen Gleason Nature Preserve. You can enjoy the pristine sand prairie in a protected area closed to vehicles, domestic animals and hunting. A bird watcher's paradise, Sand Ridge State Forest also is an important nesting area for a great variety of neo-tropical migratory birds, such as ovenbird, indigo bunting, veery and scarlet tanager.
I would only go here if I lived close to the area and needed to get in shape for hiking something else. I hiked about an 8 mile loop with a friend and there wasn't really any features or nice views. There were some tiny prickly pear cactus, and the trail was all sand which was different for Illinois. I really don't recommend it for hiking and backpacking unless you know that its not going to be very exciting. Definitely seems more suited to horseback riding and snowmobiling and we were constantly dodging horse manure. The backcountry sites were good, and there was actually a ton of fire wood that had been chainsawed so we hardly had to look for wood. There was some farm machinery in one of the fields that was roaring away until after midninght, sounded like a generator or something, and it was really loud, drowning out the forest sounds that we came all the way from Chicago to take in. The area around is fun to drive around. Pretty wild flowers and some interesting bodies of water. Probably will never go back considering some of the other beautiful parks this state has to offer. The trail map doesn't even have one "feature" labeled, there's not one notable thing about the area, just red trail brown trail blue trail etc. THERE IS NO NATURAL WATER SOURCE AT ALL so you have to pack in all of your water. It's a giant sand deposit from a glacier so doesn't hold any water. Unless you stay at the car camping lot there is a pump there which was awesome to dowse ourselves in after the hot monotonous hike. So, in my opinion, probably one of the most boring hikes I've been on and I'm pretty easy to please.
Hiked a 5 mile loop with my family today (red diamond trail). Great spring hike. Enough hills to make it interesting and very sandy on the trails as others have mentioned. Back Country Campsites (BCS) looked interesting. We'll be back again to try some of the other trails.
A friend and I camped here this past weekend.
The state forest has two kinds of camping areas:
1) Regular camping : designated areas (large areas) where you can drive up, get out, pitch a tent and cook some food. They had restrooms and trashcans and two of these camping sites that we drove in to check out seemed very clean. There was almost no debris from other campers left behind.
2) Back Country camping sites (BCS): These are sites that you will have to hike to in order to reach them. The closest of these BCS were a mile away from where we had parked. We took the Brown trail off of Cactus road. The trails are very well marked and easy to find and navigate to. We hiked and explored three of the BCS on our trail before deciding on the one we liked best. The thing I liked about these were that each of the BCS was unique (one had a clear view of the sky, another had slabs of logs to sit on around the campfire, the third had very thick vegetation around it).
They all had a slab of concrete to light your campfire in (minimizing the possibility of starting a wildfire). Firewood was not stocked at these sites (kind of expected that) so we rummaged through our surrounding area to gather wood (wasn’t too difficult to find) that fed our fire well into the night.
These back country sites are well spaced and that gives you a feeling of being all by yourself (I hate it when other campers get too noisy) at these sites.
Some of the trails can get quite sandy so be sure to wear good hiking boots to prevent sand from getting into your shoes and be prepared to put in some extra effort into your hike (walking in sand can tire you easily).
All in all, we loved the availability of back country camp sites and enjoyed our camping thoroughly.
Hidden gem of a park. Several loop trail systems from 5-14 miles. There are also many miles of fire lanes. Much sand is here. Apparently there are badgers living in the park. We have yet to encounter one. Loads of whitetail deer and other critters. Deer hunting and game fields so check the park for info regarding trial closures and huntign seasons.