Launch new year with Winter Wildlife Trolley Tour

Starved Rock guided tours bring you close to bald eagles and buffalo

Photo provided by Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center

Every winter, a small stretch of the Illinois River between Starved Rock State Park and the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center becomes a seasonal nesting point for beautiful bald eagles.

These majestic creatures, with wingspans upwards of 8 feet in length, pay Starved Rock a visit every year when more northerly states’ rivers and lakes begin to freeze. During their wintering season, which runs anywhere between December and March, you’ll often spot the eagles circling above broken ice, trying to find their next meal, or roosting among the island’s tallest trees – but one of the best ways to spot them is on a Winter Wildlife Trolley Tour.

The Illinois Audubon Society’s Plum Island Sanctuary, located at the base of the Starved Rock Lock, commonly is used by eagles as a wintering site. The island’s seclusion and sturdy trees, as well as proximity to a historically non-iced-over section of the river, make Plum Island particularly desirable real estate for these feathered fliers. The tour also will take you to nearby Buffalo Rock State Park, where you can see the park’s three majestic resident bison. Their pen and grazing area conveniently are located just past the park’s main parking lot, giving you easy access to spot these towering titans of the prairie.

A Bald Eagle soars over the west side of Princeton on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024.

Offered at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday, the trolley trip will depart from the front of Starved Rock Lodge, and includes a sack lunch. The tour first will take you to Buffalo Rock State Park to view the bison, then you’ll travel to the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center observation deck to see if the group can glimpse a few of the famed bald eagles nesting above the lock and dam. Following this stop, you’ll pass a few other popular eagle-perching spots.

The whole tour will be narrated with history and legends of the region, creating an entertaining and educational trip you’ll be sure to remember for years to come. Each ticket includes a sack lunch as you board the trolley. The meal features your choice of a turkey or veggie wrap, a bag of chips, granola bar, piece of fruit and bottle of water. Guests are encouraged to bring their own binoculars. Capacity for the trolley tours is limited; call 815-220-7386 to make reservations.

Looking to hit the trails? A similar guided winter hiking tour is offered by the lodge. On this informative trek, a knowledgeable trail guide will take you to some of the most scenic locales and lesser-known eagle-watching points in the park. In proper conditions, you even may see a few of Starved Rock’s famed frozen waterfalls along your hike.

Tours will start at 10 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday in the Starved Rock Lodge hotel lobby, where you’ll meet your expert trail guide and fellow hikers. You’ll be given a Starved Rock backpack with a snack, bottled water and a voucher for a small hot chocolate or coffee from the cafe, to be used upon your return.

Participants are encouraged to dress appropriately for the weather, including proper footwear, such as Yaktrax. Capacity for the popular hikes is limited; call 815-220-7386 to make reservations. A special Martin Luther King Jr. Day guided hike will be held Jan. 15, taking hikers to some of the park’s most popular scenic overlooks.

Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center can be found at 1 Lodge Lane in Oglesby.