HeartLands Conservancy, southern Illinois’s largest conservation nonprofit, launched the scavenger hunt-inspired Jingle Hike Challenge in 2016. The goal was to bring awareness to the breathtaking beauty of Illinois’s natural landscapes and to get people out in nature, exploring the region and discovering hidden gems.
It works like this: Jingle bells with big red bows are placed on trees in 12 different parks throughout southwestern Illinois. Participants are given clues to find the bells, and once they do, they take a selfie with it as evidence they were there.
Anyone can share their pictures on social media with the hashtag #JingleHike, but what enters searchers in the competition is an individualized code. Participants use a QR code, select which park they are at, and then enter their information to receive credit for finding the bell.
Mary Vandervord, president and CEO of HeartLands Conservancy, describes the bells like a gift tag with a large bow and a bell, visible enough that participants can see the ribbon from behind the tree.
When participants register for the event, they receive a brochure with information about 12 different parks and hints about where to find the bell in each park. Participants can also get bonus points for guessing the type of tree in which the bell is hung. This can be challenging when the trees are bare, so the brochures include hints about the trees.
Vandervord remembers that in its first year, the Jingle Hike Challenge drew 50 participants. By 2022, it had grown to over 500 registered participants, with many more tagging along with friends or family. Vandervord expects even more people to take part this year.
HeartLands offers multiple hikes and events throughout the year, but there were very few offerings in the winter, leaving this time period wide open for a unique outdoor offering. HeartLands also believed it was important to create an event that motivated people to move regularly during peak holiday season.
And so, the Jingle Hike Challenge was born. In the years since, the event has taken on a life of its own, building community and kicking off traditions that continue to spread holiday cheer.
Some families dress up in holiday attire for each hike, some pack a brunch and make it an annual Thanksgiving outing, others make it a Black Friday tradition. A few people even bike to the different locations. Vanderford said that one year, a participant asked for extra maps because they wanted to propose on one of the hikes.
Dan Trapp has participated in the Jingle Hike Challenge every year, but for the past couple of years, his teenage daughter has purchased his registration for his birthday and done the hikes with him. “It’s been a treat to go to all these parks with her. These are parks in our area we didn’t necessarily know about.” He claims they don’t do very well identifying the trees, but they always find the ribbon.
Trapp recalls the 2021 Challenge, when they brought his niece and nephew along. They had such a good time that they spent another couple hours walking around the park after they had found the ribbon. “The kids got a great kick out of it,” he said. “It was an excuse to get out and enjoy the parks, especially during a time of year when we are spending more time indoors. Forcing us outdoors is actually really nice.”
Lisa Zamfir of Belleville, Illinois, has also participated in the Challenge every year. “We really look forward to it. I don’t know that there is any annual outdoor event I look forward to more. It’s easier to have someone say, ‘These are the places you need to go,’ and it adds a sense of adventure and discovery when you go to a place you haven’t been. It becomes more of a full-day event, where you get exercise, fresh air, a feeling of accomplishment. And you have fun.”
Zamfir feels the event has gotten even better over the years. She says HeartLands has increasingly provided more information about elevation and where to park. If the bell is placed in a larger area, they provide more detailed hints, which helps in sending participants off in the right direction
Denisha Martin, communications manager for HeartLands, says accessibility is prioritized when providing information about the Challenge locations. The organization recognizes that some people can’t always go to every park, so it includes information in the brochures about which parks are handicap accessible and the type of trail, whether it be gravel, asphalt, hard-packed dirt, etc. As a result, it has had several families with children in wheelchairs participate in the event, bringing nature to people who may not be aware of all the accessible outdoor experiences in the region.
In the past few years, event organizers have seen the Challenge develop a life of its own. Participants end up making friends when they keep running into each at the various parks, and people pair up together and start connecting. For Martin, this is what is most impactful about the event: People are building a community around the parks and trails.
Martin observes this within her own organization, too. She says that early in the season, everyone goes out and picks a specific tree, giving the HeartLand’s staff an opportunity to explore places they may not be familiar with. They share with each other, and then they also get to see the joy and interest the community has shown.
“Seeing how [the Challenge] has grown in people’s lives, what brings the most joy is when we get responses that people are excited to visit a park they didn’t even know about. This brings it all together — conservation, economic impact, and community,” she said.
And it’s not just people that already love the Jingle Hike Challenge who are impacted. Craig Ventimiglia stumbled across one of the bell trees when he was out hiking with his German shepherd, Arlo. They were looking through trees and saw a red thing in the distance. They found another one at Cahokia Mounds State Park the next year, and this time it was early enough that he was able to register under Arlo’s name. Now, he always submits photos of the trees and his dog.
Ventimiglia says “[it’s] kinda neat, because I found some trails and places to go that were right under my nose. I’m out all the time but driving by.” Now, he and Arlo regularly revisit the different parks they discovered during the Challenge. Arlo always likes getting out on a trail, and according to Ventimiglia, “He seemed to figure out that when we found the tree, he would go stand by it. I use a ball to get him to pose.”
Event organizers work with a large number of sponsors to provide prizes for participants. Because the Jingle Hike Challenge isn’t about who finds all the bells first, any participant who located six or more trees during the challenge window is eligible for a prize. Vandervord says that their sponsors offer a wide range of prizes that fits the crowd, with enough for almost everyone to receive something.
Registration for the 2023 Jingle Hike Challenge opened on October 2, but you can still register through mid-December. The Challenge is open from Thanksgiving Day to New Year’s Day.
Once registered, all participants have to do is follow these rules (see our sidebar), get outside, and embark on a festive adventure combining nature‘s joy with the thrill of the holiday season.
30 Days of Fun
The Jingle Hike Challenge starts on Thanksgiving Day and goes until New Year’s Day. Registration is currently open. The rules are simple:
- Visit as many of the parks as you can and find the trees with the jingle bells.
- Take a photo of yourself with the tree tag.
- Submit your photo using the QR code on the tag or brochure. Each bell you find and submit = one entry. The more bells you find, the better your odds will be of winning a prize.
- Correctly identify the tree species (e.g. red oak) to get a bonus entry.
More information will be provided in your registration packet. You can can register for the 2023 event at heartlandsconservancy.org/jingle-hike-challenge/.
Author: Missy Phegley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: In the Jingle Hike Challenge, selfies prove you were there. (HeartLands Conservancy)