I’m overdue for this post, but that’s okay. Good things, those who wait, all that jazz.
So, if you are anywhere near the University of Illinois at Champaign, you probably already know about this place. If you happen to be visiting or haven’t heard of it, well you’re in luck. Spring is coming – slow, this is true, but it is coming – and spring is the start of the season for visiting Allerton. This is also the time of year that the wildflowers, especially the bluebells, are at their best. Give it three or four more weeks and the forest will look like it was plucked straight out of Grimm’s Fairytales. Whether or not the wolves came with it… well. I won’t tell you I haven’t had a couple scares in this place.
What’s so special about Allerton? I mean, we have the new biking and running path that, even though it only goes to St. Joseph so far, it is plenty pleasant. We have Salt Fork and, if you are up for the trip, Shawnee down south (DO NOT forget your tick repellent). There are plenty of smallish forests around to go hiking in. Yes, Allerton is only a short drive from Champaign and the surrounding areas. Yes, Monticello, the nearby town, is about as cute as a postcard. And has a Hardee’s, for you die hard fans. Yes, the main house is gorgeous and the formal gardens lovely. But none of these are the reasons you want to go to Allerton Park.
The reasons, my friends, are the things you find in the woods. Like 16 foot tall statues. Yes. In the woods. On the trails. Now, you don’t really have to walk far in order to see some of Robert Allerton’s vision, if you aren’t into hikes longer than a stroll through the garden (no judging here; I’ve had a bad back too long for that nonsense). The Fu Dog Court is just off the main parking lot. Park nearest the entrance and walk toward the road. You’ll see a path to the right, usually hemmed in by thick, trained vines, that leads to the fu dogs.
However, if you are up for the walk, you want to park on the right side of the lot (when facing in) and start on the path leading off it. It will sweep up past the main house (tours are a special thing and that is a whole other post). You can walk down to the back of the house and the reflecting pool, but, you are following me, so we are going to turn right and keep going. You’ll come to the formal gardens and they really are lovely. Either walk left, into the Great Meadow area and head straight for the forest or go into the formal gardens before turning right and taking a wander through these lovely, walled areas. Once you reach the sunken garden, you will see the forest beyond waiting, lovely and dark. On really bright days, this effect is particularly magical and has the effect of a fairytale come to life.
This path is wide and shaded. If you are a runner, it is quite low impact, but watch out because, further up ahead, the trail has been laid with rather large rocks and, if you don’t watch your step, you can twist an ankle. There is a very low incident of pet waste on the trail; most people clean up after them or at least make sure they go off the trail. Don’t let your dog get too far off the trail; there are venomous snakes, wasps, and cattails among the many risks. Also, some of these areas are protected, so just stick to the path and you’ll want to follow this straight trail for a good quarter mile, at least. Why? Because centaurs are awesome, that’s why.
This trail happens to be home to many of the larger statues in Allerton. The Death of the Last Centaur is first and he is visible during the ups and downs of the trail. Incidentally, this trail is also good for some light hill work 😉 Now, it is my understanding that a couple of statues that were removed many years ago have been returned to this path, so I can’t speak for them, but you can see the centaur from the narrow road that goes out to the final statue on this particular trail. You can also catch glimpses of the pillars that stand down another trail that crosses the centaur’s pedestal. You will miss the stairs leading up to the centaur, but you probably aren’t a weird runner like me and won’t care about that.
At the centaur, you have three choices, not including turning to go back the way you came. You can turn left and go down the stairs and take the long loop of trail that can either lead you back to the house or take you wandering along the river for a couple miles. You can turn right and take that trail back up to the road and the smaller house that sits up there. For this story, we are going to go straight, though. This is where, presumably, you are going to find the replaced statues. I haven’t been out yet this season and they were replaced after my last trip. You will go down and, during the spring, this trail sometimes gets flooded out. Don’t worry; when the river goes back to its normal place, the flooding will leave behind a wave of bluebells so thick it looks fake. This stage does not last nearly long enough. If you can, visit often and take lots of pictures. Mine are all on my last phone, so I can’t post them, but the links below have plenty.
You will, after about a mile and a half, come to another cross road. I might be exaggerating the distance a bit; with two huskies, this part of the walk can get exhausting. There are maps posted at the centaur and at this crossroads. Turn right and head up the hill. You should already be seeing the Sunsinger, rising up like something out of a book, greeting the day with open arms. Also, no pants. But, ya know. Classical Greek type art has a propensity for nudity. Here’s your fair warning.
If you get tired of hanging out with the Sunsinger, don’t want to take the road back, and still have some real hike left in you, then, when you are leaving, take the same trail you followed up, back to the crossroads. When you get to the map, keep going straight on. This path is the second option from the centaur at the other end and you can follow it to the trail that loops back up to him or you can take it all the way back to the main house. Usually, I turn and take the same trail I took away from the centaur, but, again, huskies.
These woods are my favorite of all time. The statues, the gardens, the way it is all laid out, it inspires me every single time I go there. Which is why the following story should not keep you from going. Especially since I cannot prove it wasn’t someone playing a bad joke.
This was years and years ago. I was between Texas and Britain, waiting on our dogs to fulfill the Pet Passport Scheme requirements (six months of waiting after a rabies shot). I did not have the dogs with me; my big guy, Demon, was a Rottweiler and he was not a runner (unless you had hamburger) and our smaller dog, Luna, stayed with him all the time. It was far too hot for them anyway. I went running in Allerton, completing five miles along the loops and ending it at the centaur. I paused to stretch and either called my best friend or she called me, memory fails me on that. As I was talking to her and stretching, I started hearing walking in the woods. Oooo, right? I looked around and didn’t see anything, but that was not the spooky part. Every time I started talking, I heard laughter. Like, high pitched, weird giggling. This was a sunny day, but, at that point, I was feeling a little less than happy being out there alone. I looked around, saw no one. Heard more laughter. At that point, I got my sweaty tail out of there. It is entirely possible I ran back to the sunken garden and spooked myself good a proper when I caught sight of a broken tree trunk in the forest that looked, no kidding, like a man in a black cloak or sheet standing in the trees. But I admit nothing. I never heard anything of that sort every again. The grounds are haunted, there are stories about a ghost, but it is mostly seen around the main house. This was a bit different and could well have been dumb teenagers that were having a laugh. Having seen plenty of horror movies and being a woman who knows better, I did not go looking too hard to find out, but I should have been able to see anyone walking around me that close and I saw no-one. I’ve been spooked at Allerton a few other times, but that was the worst. I did not run there again for a while or go back when it was too hot for my dogs to go as well.
For the hikers, there are over 14 miles of trails through the park. Hunting is only in fall and there are always signs up to warn you about dates and times. Dogs are welcome – I wouldn’t take them when the hunters are out, even with bright jackets on – please leash them. This is me being nice. Seriously, if I see you with your dog unleashed in the park, I am going to give you exactly what you deserve. The trademark redhead rage lecture. Leash your dog. For the runners. For the children that are a little wild and less cautious than they should be. For those of us with dogs that are not good meeting other dogs. For the people (also including a certain redhead) who have been attacked (twice) by off lead dogs and now carry mace with them due to panic attacks. Seriously.
Just a little side note here, something you may or may not know. As someone who has spent a lifetime around horses, dogs, cats, and various other animals, including taking care of other people’s fur babies. You want to know how many ‘wonderfully trained’ off lead dogs go missing each year? Want to guess how many are returned? How much do you love your dog? Hopefully enough to deserve them. You might think off lead is their natural state and it was. Back before there were cars, Craig’s List, and dog fighting. Even if you can trust your dog, you can’t always trust other people. Some people hate dogs. And some of those people do really, really horrible things like putting rat poison (or nails, glass, or a multitude of other terrifying things) in hamburger and hide it in dog traffic type areas. Other people steal unleashed dogs and sell them or take them to train their fight dogs. Always be aware and protect your animals; that is the contract you signed when you took them in. Fulfill it to the best of your ability. A leashed dog is a safe dog. Yes I am crazy over protective and trust other people about as far as I can kick them. But I have seen some really screwed up things happen to animals. I love it when I can prevent reoccurrences and will never stop screaming about pet safety.
Go out to Allerton. Enjoy the natural beauty there, enjoy the magic of the statues and the gardens. If you get bored of the main side, just a little inside tip. There is another parking lot on the other side of the river and more trails. Instead of going out the main entrance, turn to cross the bridge. Watch close, you can miss the parking log if you are going too fast. Personally, I always end up on the statue hike, but that’s me 😉 Links below will take you to the Wikipedia and the website so you can learn more about this fascinating little jewel hidden in the Illinois cornfields, including the history and why a man would drop a ton of art (guessing on weight here, lol) in the middle of the woods. See you soon!