Starved Rock officials stress caution after second fall in a week

Basswood Canyon in Starved Rock State Park, where an 8-year-old boy fell while hiking on Sunday in a restricted area.

Two falls in less than a week at Starved Rock State Park should serve as reminder to follow warning signs on hiking trails, authorities said Tuesday.

Although the trails in the park are marked with signs and in some places barricades, it doesn't always deter visitors from roaming into dangerous areas, said Stacey Solano, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"Starved Rock is a beautiful park, and we want people to enjoy it," she said. "But safety is our top priority. We do have signs warning people to stay on the marked trails. Unfortunately many times, in general, accidents happen when you go off the marked trail."

On Sunday, an 8-year-old Cary boy was hiking with his parents in a restricted area when he slipped and fell about 25 feet into a canyon, authorities said.

Last week, a 23-year-old Elmhurst man ventured over a guard rail at Starved Rock and fell 30 feet, breaking his neck.

The number of serious and fatal falls at national parks has been steadily declining, said Michael Ghiglieri, an ecologist and wilderness guide who researches the topic. Still, deaths occur every year at the most popular natural wonders in North America, and they often make headlines. This summer has been no exception.

Last month, a 19-year-old woman climbed over a guard rail and fell to her death at Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada. In July, three hikers scaled a barricade and fell down a waterfall at Yosemite National Park. They are presumed dead.

While most tourists follow the rules, some visitors cannot resist the temptation to veer off the trails to get a better view, said Ghiglieri, who has written about fatal falls and close calls at the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park.

"Some are going to say, 'I wonder what it looks like from the edge,'" said Ghiglieri. "The marked trail is almost like a magnet for people to go look over the edge to see more."

Starved Rock, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago, draws about 2 million visitors each year, Solano said. In the past three years, there have been four serious falls, she said.

"Thrill-seekers are always looking for that better shot if they have a camera," she said. "We've done our best to make the park as safe as possible, but there is some responsibility on the visitors."

There are at most four conservation police officers patrolling Starved Rock, which includes more than just the 12 miles of hiking trails. The park is known for its sandstone bluffs cut out by the Illinois River and 18 marked canyons carved by waterfalls.

The trails are paved or covered with boardwalks, though many visitors choose a more challenging route, stepping off the trails and risking a $120 fine, said Illinois conservation police Officer Scott Travi. Signs at each trail head warn against leaving the trails or attempting to scale the rock walls.

Signs and even fences don't seem to provide a deterrent.

"I had one guy with his family who was well off the trail, and it was well marked. ... And I asked him, 'Did you see the signs?' And he said, 'Yes, but I chose to ignore them,'" Travi said.

"It is human nature to walk up to the edge of something and look over."

Mechelle Yeager was at the park Tuesday with her husband and toddler daughter. She recalled climbing off the trails while visiting the park with friends as a teen.

"I can see how it would be tempting," said Yeager. "Now, there are a lot of signs telling you not to climb. And I'm older. I'd never do it."

Conservation police are investigating what happened to the 8-year-old Sunday afternoon. No citations have been issued.

On Tuesday, the boy was at the Children's Hospital of Illinois in Peoria, officials there said. His mother declined to release updated information on the boy, who authorities said was in critical condition Sunday.

Visitors were climbing the canyon again even as rescue workers and conservation officers were leaving the scene of the boy's fall, said Utica fire Lt. Ben Brown.

"You could hear the helicopter flying overhead, and conservation police were yelling at them to get down," Brown said.

Tribune reporter Carlos Sadovi contributed.