Not far from the charming town of Galena, in the northwest corner of Illinois, is a preserve of prairie and forest overlooking the Mississippi River. It's a peaceful place, filled only with the sounds of Mother Nature and the occasional rumble of a train as it makes its way along the shores of Big Muddy below.
This preserve is more than just a walk through the wildflowers, however. Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve is a place of historical, archaeological, and ecological significance.
In 1900 an amateur archaeologist, William Baker Nickerson, documented 51 mounds that were created nearly a millennium before his exploration. His papers were buried in the Illinois State Museum, but after University of Illinois State Archaeologist Phil Millhouse found them in 2006 he located all of them, and found 31 on Casper Bluff. Visitors can see 21 of the mounds at ground level, including the last known remaining thunderbird effigy in Illinois.
The Aiken Mound Group, named for the nearest town, is thought to date back to between A.D. 700 and A.D. 1000 when the Effigy Mound peoples populated the Driftless Area. This landscape of rolling hills, bluffs, valleys, karsts, caves, and sinkholes escaped the glaciers that flattened the rest of the Midwest.
The site is now preserved because landowners Dave and Pat Casper knew the significance of the mounds and wanted to protect the land from further development. They joined forces with the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation and in 2008 the property was designated a Land & Water Reserve, permanently safeguarding the bluff for future generations.
The result of creating this reserve is more than just the preservation of human history; it's also an 85 acre refuge for wildlife. The red-headed wood pecker, barn owl, wood duck, blue winged warbler, and eastern bluebird call it home, and migrating American white pelicans visit, making it a popular bird-watching spot. Bald eagles and herons are also frequently sighted.
You can visit Casper Bluff year round from dawn to dusk. It's free, and you can take a self-guided tour of the 2.25 miles of trails.