Located off Illinois Route 78, Johnson-Sauk Trail is 6 miles south of Interstate 80 and 5 miles north of Kewanee. Originally known as the Henry County Conservation Area, a local newspaper invited the public to suggest names when the conservation area was going to be changed to a state park. Two names were popular with the public. One would name the park after State Senator Frank P. Johnson, a tireless advocate on behalf of the park, while the second suggested Sauk Trail as a fitting name, for the Indian tribes most associated with the park when Europeans began settling the area.
The two most popular choices were combined to form the park's official name. Today, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area features 1,365 acres and abundant recreation opportunities.
Park hours are May 1 - November 1 from sunrise - 10 PM; November 1 - May 1 from sunrise - sunset. Lakeshore Loop Road is a day use area that is open May 1 - November 1 from sunrise - sunset.
Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area is located in a part of Illinois that was a vast, shallow sea millions of years ago. Two glaciers covered this part of Illinois, the last being the Wisconsinian Glacier, which shaped the land as we know it today.
The state park is located on the southern edge of what once was the Great Willow Swamp, a marsh area covering the low-lying areas between the Mississippi, Rock and Green rivers, and is believed to have contained one of the most concentrated and varied wildlife populations in the central part of North America.
Attracting large numbers of both market and sport hunters, the area was considered a sportsman's paradise. The marsh eventually was drained for agricultural purposes.
The abundance of wild game and furbearing animals was what attracted Native Americans -- the area's first inhabitants -- to this part of Illinois. Although mound-building tribes were the first Native Americans to settle this part of the state, tribes of Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Kaskaskia, Peoria and Piankashaw later established villages in the area.
Winnebago Indians used the Sauk Trail and regularly camped at or near the park. The Sauk tribe moved from Wisconsin to the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi rivers and joined the Fox Indians to form a confederation. These tribes frequently sent hunting parties to this part of the marsh.
French trappers and traders were the first Europeans to pass through this area. The land encompassing Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area was part of the Great Northwest Territory claimed by France. Following the French and Indian War, the land was ceded to Great Britain in 1765, becoming part of the colony of Virginia. The land later was part of the Northwest Territory and Illinois Territory before Illinois gained statehood.
Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area features a varied terrain, with rolling hills covered with a mix of hardwoods and pines in the south half of the park, and a flatter landscape with wildlife plantings and grasslands making up the northern half of the park.
The park's centerpiece is a 58-acre lake that offers fishing and boating, as well as nearly 2.5 miles of shoreline to explore.
After studying a number of sites, 369 acres of land known as Whiting's Woods were purchased and construction of a lake began in 1949. Work halted soon after, when engineers encountered unfavorable soil conditions, and resumed in the summer of 1955 after advanced methods of dam construction were developed.
The park also has Sauk Trail Pond, a scenic 3-acre pond near the park's round barn that provides fishing opportunities in a more restful setting.
From spring through fall, visitors will find a wide array of woodland and prairie wildflowers, including bluebells, Dutchman's breeches, trillium, prairie anemone, yarrow, field daisies, vervain and goldenrod. While fewer than 1,000 natural areas exist in Illinois, one of them is located in Johnson-Sauk Trail. The area contains a population of skunk cabbage, an early bloomer that sometimes blossoms in the snow, which is rare for this part of the state.
White-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, opossums and rabbits are among the myriad wildlife found in the park. Birders have ample opportunities to catch sight of chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches and hundreds of other avian visitors.