I have dreams of one day going on a long bike tour or bikepacking trip. Finding the time to take a trip is one thing that holds me back, but I also wonder if I have the appropriate gear and physical capability. I decided to give myself a small test by riding further than I ever have before on a bike camp.
All my previous bike camp trips have been five to ten-mile rides; this trip was a little over 40 miles. I learned that I do need to be in better shape before I tackle a longer trip. I also learned that, although my gear is not ‘ultra-light’ or high end, it worked out just fine. It was a great trip and built up my confidence.
Buffalo Rock State Park is near the I&M Canal and Illinois River. There is no camping within the park, instead, Buffalo Rock camping sites are just off the towpath. I have only camped along the I&M Canal towpath once before near McKinley Woods.
Buffalo Rock State Park
(This section is a review I wrote for The Dyrt website)
Just down the street from Starved Rock State Park and Matthiessen State Park is the much smaller (and less crowded) Buffalo Rock State Park. It has some trails, camping, a playground and other facilities, and is right next to the I & M Canal Tow Path.
At a leisurely pace, it only took me a couple of hours to walk all the trails. They are nice well-kept trails. Most of the surface is gravel but some parts are just dirt. The trail is wide and mowed at least two feet on either side. I’m not sure if bikes are allowed; I did see bike tracks and did not see any sign that indicated they were not allowed. Very little elevation changes and none that were steep. There are a couple of overlooks that offer beautiful views of Illinois River.
The campsites are directly off of the towpath. The furthest site (the group site) is three miles from the ranger station. There are four sites in total. One of the sites is kinda small but big enough for a single tent and two campers. The largest site is the group site which is the only site with a picnic table and shelter. The shelter needed some work but overall was in decent condition. It as a fireplace that was pretty neat. Each site has a fire ring with grill. I did feel a little exposed being right off the trail. I was nervous leaving all my gear behind when I went for a hike. Nobody messed with my stuff though and everyone I saw was very friendly. I did have a visitor around two in the morning my second night. He was looking for a place to rest for a few hours and left at day break. The sites are only accessible by walking or biking.
The park has a playground, restroom (with running water), and drinking fountains with spouts. The water tasted funny but it was nice having a source to refill my bottles. Also, there are buffalo and that’s pretty cool.
Food & Gear
My biggest concern on this trip was food and water. I don’t have a filtration system, so I usually pack in all my water. Water weighs a lot (how much?) which is not a problem on shorter trips. Besides the weight, it also takes up space. I decided not to take my trailer because I was warned that the trail gets a little sketchy past a certain point. Plus, I didn’t want the extra drag. Thankfully the park has a water source. I brought 4 liters of water then refilled two of them the second day. I made a mistake by only planning for enough water to drink; I did not consider how much I would need to cook with. I was forced to ration a little bit, but never to the point that I was dehydrated.
I didn’t bring any coolers, so my food had to be selected carefully. My first meal was ramen noodles and tuna. It was surprisingly good as well as cheap and lightweight. It provided me with exactly what I needed after a long ride: carbs and protein. My next meal was my first attempt at a homemade camping meal. I dehydrated some mixed veggies, spinach, and mushrooms. I mixed in some rice, pre-cooked chicken, and some spices. It worked out great except maybe a little too much spinach. Breakfast both days was instant oatmeal with powdered milk.
I brought two freeze-dried camping meals: Alpine Aire Spicy Sausage and Mountain House Lasagna. The Spicy Sausage was ok. It had peppers in it and I don’t like peppers. Also, there was very little meat. The lasagna was great. It was cheesy and had plenty of meat as well as chunks of tomato. I have yet to have a Mountain House meal that I didn’t like.
Besides bringing meals that were lightweight I trimmed down the amount of gear. I love my bike trailer, but it does create some drag and it encourages me to carry extra items. I laid all my gear out and tried to decide what the essential items were. The process was easier than I thought. Obviously, it would be better if I had high-end ultra-light gear specifically a tent and sleeping bag. It worked out, though. I was able to fit everything I needed on my bike and I even included one luxury item, a chair. It proved that I don’t really need much to camp.
I&M Canal Tow Path
I have spent a lot of time on the towpath, mostly between Joliet and Morris. Not only was this trip the farthest I have ridden to camp, but it also was the furthest I have been on the towpath. Even though a co-worker warned me that the trail gets rough to the west I was still surprised at the disrepair it is in. I guess I have been spoiled by how nice the eastern section of the trail is. Seneca was my half-way point and the point at which the trail declined in quality. Parts of the trail were more akin to a mountain bike trail than a towpath. Other parts of the trail simply did not exist; it was just grass. I can’t complain too much. It’s nice having a trail at all. And I did get a gravel bike with the intent to handle different kinds of terrain. I just find it surprising how 20 miles of a trail is kept pristine and 20 miles is not. It’s not like it isn’t being used, I saw plenty of folks riding west of Seneca. It makes me wonder how the budget decisions are made at IDNR.