Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy life to check out these images! To capture these photos, I have put in hours of research, pre-production, field work, and post-production. Each image was carefully taken to try and capture the story and beauty of this park.
Rock Cut State Park
This is a place to tell you a bit of my personal story that lives behind these images. Many of the thoughts were recorded the day of the shoot with a field journal.
Photography, friends, and the outdoors. Does it get much better than that?
Only three days before this shoot, I was talking to one of my closest friends about traveling west for a project. He immediately jutted in expressing that he wanted to get away and camp. With only a handful of days left available before moving to DC, I said, “Let’s make it happen”. We scouted locations (we had to stay close as I was leaving for Colorado in several days) and came across Rock Cut State Park. I had driven by Rock Cut on my way back from Minnesota the previous week and noticed that it was the largest park in northern Illinois. We agreed on the location, and I went to go book the campsite. This is when I discovered that Reserve America (campsite online booking website) had a “three day in advance” policy. In other words, we couldn’t book a site ahead of time since we were leaving in only two days. Nevertheless, we packed up and headed out around 6 am.
Luckily, when we got there, they had plenty of available sites. We found our spot and set up camp at possibly a personal best speed and made sure we had all 6 fans ready to go for the scorching hot night ahead of us. Then, we scouted locations and settled on the Willow Creek trail. After driving by the trailhead approximately 6,000 times, we parked the car and set off on our first hike. For the first 30 minutes, I’m sure Ben (my friend) was frustrated because I stopped every other second for some pictures. On top of that, being that it was heavily forested, I was shooting at very low shutter speeds. This meant that I used a tripod for every shot. I’m not sure if he was biting his tongue or it genuinely didn’t bother him…
We started to follow random trails off of the main one, well, because what fun is the regular path? (We still stayed on designated trails… we think) About an hour to an hour and a half in, I was attempting a long exposure of the creek rushing through a unique industrial area. It was at this point I stepped in a small divot in the creek, leading to water rushing into my boots. Important lesson: waterproof boots only work when you are standing in less than a foot of water. For the rest of the day, both my feet were soggy - not pleasant. As 2 miles turned into 3, then 4, then 5,6,7, and finally 8, we realized we were no longer on the Willow Creek trail. Matter of fact, we had hiked all the way to the end of the park by the interstate. So, we turned around and made our way back for a very late lunch.
After enjoying some gourmet Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches, Ritz sandwich crackers, and Extra Toasty Cheez-Its (way better than original), we decided to hike around Pierce Lake. We knew this was risky because the 0% chance of rain turned into a 90% chance of storms. However, every time we checked the radar, it changed, thus leading to our decision to go hike. Thankfully, we ended our hike just in time. But instead of going back to the site, we thought it would be a cool opportunity to capture the storm front moving in. Although none of the photos turned out how I wanted them to be, it was a very memorable experience. To get one particular shot, we drove up to the boat launch, backed up the car, opened the back end, and started shooting. The two other cars in the lot I’m certain thought we were crazy. Even more embarrassing, there wasn’t a single shot I was content with. The next spot did end up leading to a unique shot which was nice.
The famous saying “the storm before the calm” couldn’t have been more true this night. While on our way back to the tent, we spotted the sun, and only the sun, shining amongst the massive storm clouds. We then raced to a spot we knew we could capture this incredible sunset and holy cow. Never in my life have I seen a sunset like this one. The storm clouds were ocean blue, which transitioned into purple, then orange, then red, and finally the blazing sun. There was only a matter of minutes to capture every shot I wanted. Which the pressure was even greater since I wasn’t happy with a single photo from the entire day. So, naturally, I was running around the area with telephoto and wide-angle lenses on two separate cameras, setting one up for a long-exposure while I used the other to capture specific parts of the beautiful sunset. I recall Ben sitting in the car laughing at me literally sprinting between cameras. After 20 or so minutes, I set up for one final shot and Ben came to accompany me. The moment was so serene. I’m genuinely unable to describe in words the beauty of what our eyes were seeing. That moment is why I do what I do - not for the actual photograph, but for the experience of trying to capture the perfect moment.
That “perfect moment” was immediately ruined when we arrived to a wonderful flooded tent. In our speedy set-up, we had forgotten to fully close one of the windows… Coupled with an old tent (one that we have now re-sprayed with water-proofing), half of the tent was underwater. So, we grabbed a couple of towels, dried up what we could, and tried forgetting that we could not use the luxury of electricity which we paid for. Believe it or not, that was the best night of sleep I had in a long time. I’m not sure if it was the peaceful possibility of being electrocuted in my sleep or the slow, but powerful, waterboarding the tent was putting me through, but whatever it was, it helped me sleep real hard.
We woke up fully refreshed at 5 am, grabbed some granola bars, and set off to capture a stunning sunrise over the lake. It checked all the landscape boxes: golden hour, fog, and water. The only thing missing was mountains, which unfortunately are not abundant in Illinois. After sunrise, we hiked around trying to get some more cool shots, but we ultimately decided to pack up camp around 9 am. While taking the tent down, we discovered that Rock Cut State Park had to be the slug capital of the country. That’s right, slugs. There were hundreds of them all over the tent. Never in my life had I experienced something like that. All in all, we poorly shoved the wet tent into the car and stopped at McDonald’s for some breakfast.
Getting to share what you love most with people you care about is one of the greatest experiences one can have. The great outdoors has a way of connecting people in the same way art does. We experience true bliss and tranquility in the wilderness - something that is so hard to find these days. And for me, it’s the memories of camping with one of my closest friends that I will remember, not the photos I take.
A Park's Journey: The Story of Rock Cut State Park
Seemingly secluded from the rest of the world, Rock Cut State Park is one of Illinois’ gems. The 3,092-acre park holds an abundance of exploration for nature lovers and families.
In the middle of the 17th century, the Miami-speaking natives inhabited the land after being forced out of the southern tip of Lake Michigan by the Iroquois. By 1800, the Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Ottawa nations extended into this region. Compared to many other areas in the state, this land was occupied by a high number of different indigenous peoples. 32 years later, after the historic Black Hawk War, the tribes ceded their land to the United States Government. Now open for immigration from the west, “Scots” around Argyle” settled in the area. Canadians and New Yorkers from Harlem also sought comfort in the area. It was because of this migration that the communities around Rock Cut State Park stand as they are - notably, the Harlemers. Although they moved out of the region around 1859 due to the Kenosha-Rockford rail line, Harlem Township still borders the park. Additionally, Argyle stands as an unincorporated community that borders the park. The same rail line that forced out the Harlem settlers is no longer in use, but remnants can still be seen along the Willow Creek Spillway. That rail is also the reason the park is named “Rock Cut”. Back when construction was in full force, the rail company had to blow out rock to place the rail, creating a “cut” in the rock.
Representative Pierce, of Rockford, Illinois, sent a land acquisition proposition to the state in 1955. 2 years later on October 25th, the state park was officially established. The premiere and largest lake on the property was rightfully named after Representative Pierce.
The largest state park in northern Illinois is home to 268 campsites, a 40-mile network of trails for visitors to hike and run on, 23 miles of mountain biking, and 14 miles of equestrian trails. There are numerous paths that are paved as well, a great option for those who are looking for flat ground. This park is a great location to fully immerse oneself into the outdoors. When exploring on the Willow Creek Trail, one of the most popular, it is very rare to come across others. This creates a sense of isolation from the rest of the busy world. Another unique part of Rock Cut is the fact that it has trail networks. This means that one can venture off at almost any part of the park and return almost anywhere. The park is able to do this through a series of sub-trails. This means that they may not be noted as a specific trailhead, but can be accessed by the largely marked trails on the map.
At Rock Cut, there are a plethora of different activities for all age ranges and abilities. There is no question that one will make many memories while visiting Rock Cut State Park.