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Get on board for the Eagle Trolley tour at Starved Rock State Park

American Bald Eagles roost near Starved Rock State Park
Karen Breslin

While most people can’t wait for this interminable winter to end, some folks are actually looking forward to January and February of 2015—or even 2016!

Such is the case at the iconic Starved Rock Lodge in Utica, Illinois where many visitors were recently spotted queuing up at the front desk to reserve winter weekend rooms well in advance!

You might think they’re stone-cold crazy, but the ambiance at Starved Rock DOES make it a bit easier to actually embrace the deep freeze. Whether it’s hiking up to the namesake rock to watch the wintering bald eagles or relaxing in the well-appointed Great Hall, Starved Rock has a little something for everyone.

History buffs have long been lured by the stories surrounding the canyons and bluffs at the 2,630-acre state park. Legend has it that the name “Starved Rock” came about as the result of Native-American infighting during the turbulent 1760s, when the Illiniwek tribe were faced with the unenviable prospect of certain death by ambush below or starvation at the top of the rock.

Then, as now, the view from the top of the rock is breathtaking as it offers a sweeping panorama of the Illinois River and the craggy sandstone formations that provide a refreshing break from the state’s mostly prairie-flat landscape.

Just to the north of Starved Rock is the Illinois Lock and Dam system. It was constructed between 1926 and 1934 as part of the Illinois Waterway System. Designed to facilitate barge traffic from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, it helped to boost business in and around the river.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, the locks’ unfrozen waters are now drawing a new breed of visitors to the area as hundreds of American Bald Eagles spend the winter around there. They have been lured by the prospect of catching fish that become disoriented traveling through the locks and make an easy mark for these majestic birds of prey.

These big birds have proven to be a boon to tourism in the area as many people are braving the frigid temperatures and flocking to the area to see the eagles. Edna Daugherty, director of activities at Starved Rock said that birds have been drawing visitors from Chicago as well as Rockford, Peoria and Springfield.

Some intrepid eagle watchers simply hike up Starved Rock, head over to the locks or hunker down along Dee Bennett Road, while many others opt to leave the driving, details and dossiers to the Eagle Trolley Tour. These tours run out of Starved Rock every Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

A sumptuous Sunday brunch or hearty lunch in the historic lodge is included with the cost of the trolley tour, which allows visitors to fuel their minds as well.

Such was the case on a cold, yet sunny Sunday morning when an affable and informative guide named Ava took a group out in search of eagles. A stop at the Starved Rock Lock and Dam observation deck provides the opportunity to observe the eagles in various stages of activity.

After the initial excitement of seeing the eagles in action, visitors are ushered into the building to see a movie and learn more about the bald eagles' habits and behavior patterns.

Ava claimed it was a great day to see eagles as more birds were spotted along Dee Bennett Road. A few scrawny coyotes were also seen scurrying about and added credence to the fact that this has been a very rough winter for everyone.

Rough winter or not, the Eagle Trolley Tours are highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the birds or simply soaking up the area’s beautiful scenery and fascinating history. But you’d better hurry if you want to catch the eagles this year. The trolley tours end on February 26 and the birds head back north as soon as the weather breaks.

Visit more information about the trolley tours or booking a room at the Lodge for a future cold-weather getaway!

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