When the temperatures start to rise in Illinois, no one wants to be stuck in a hot, sweaty city. Fortunately, you don’t have to be – The Prairie State has over 70 state parks that offer the perfect excuse to escape the crowds and get back to nature. Over 44 million visitors frequent the park network each year, but choose your park wisely, and you’ll never have to jostle for elbow space. Whether you want to hike, bike, fish, or simply relax, Illinois’ system of state parks offers endless opportunities for fun and recreation. The only problem you face is choosing which one to visit. To help you out, we’ve dug through the data and rounded up the 10 best state parks in Illinois. Without further ado, here they are.
10. Pere Marquette State Park
If you like nature, you’re going to love Pere Marquette State Park. Offering stunning views over the Illinois River and its backwaters, it’s a treasure trove of bluffs, waterfalls, and wildlife. The best time for wildlife spotters to visit is between January and February, during which time the park is flooded with legions of wintering bald eagles. But there’s no real bad time to visit, with activities like horseback riding, camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, and boating offering year-round opportunities for fun and recreation. While you’re there, don’t miss a visit to Pere Marquette’s Visitor Center, which boasts a 3-D map of the park and a wealth of information and exhibits about the history, wildlife, and geology of the area. If you plan on extending your stay, there are several campsites in the vicinity. If you’d rather enjoy the experience with a touch of luxury, the Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center offers superb accommodation in 50 guest room and 20 stone guest cabin rooms. Regardless of where you stay and what you do, this park is a must-do.
9. Kankakee River State Park
If you’re in the vicinity of Bourbonnais, don’t miss a visit to the glorious Kankakee River State Park. Spread over 4,000 acres, the park is an unspoiled wilderness filled with dense woodland and scenic bluffs. The wildlife spotting opportunities are immense, with everything from deer and ducks to coyotes and raccoons calling the park home. Smallmouth bass, channel catfish, Walleye, and Northern pike populate the streams and rivers, making it a great place for fishing. Depending on the season, there are also plenty of opportunities to enjoy some cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, picnicking, hunting, and hiking.
8. Mississippi Palisades State Park
Spread over 2,500 acres, the Mississippi Palisades State Park is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. There’s a vast network of trails to explore, a beach that’s excellent for swimming and relaxing, boat launch ramps, and some great fishing holes. While you’re there, be sure to check out the limestone caves and the beautiful rock formations that surround them.
7. Goose Lake Prairie State Park
If wildlife floats your boat, don’t miss a visit to Goose Lake Prairie State Park. Located within east traveling distance of Chicago, the park is the ideal place to spot native species like badger, cottontail rabbit, muskrat, deer, coyote, and red fox. Birdlife comes by way of kildeer, marsh hawks, great blue herons, and mallards. If you prefer flora over fauna, don’t miss the spectacular displays of goldenrod and violets in spring.
6. Apple River Canyon State Park
Illinois may be best known for its flat planes, but Apple River Canyon is a rugged gem, with a huge, varied landscape studded with ravines, limestone bluffs, streams, and more species of flora and fauna than you can count. Whether you choose to hike it, bike it, or horseback ride it, you’re guaranteed a blissful experience. It’s also an exceptional place for fishing, offering plenty of waterways teaming with trout, bass, and sunfish.
5. Matthiessen State Park
Matthiessen State Park is something of a well-kept secret. It shares the same beauty as nearby Starved Rock, but none of its tourists, making it the ideal destination for nature lovers who want to escape the crowds. Its landscape is rugged, offering enough of a challenge to keep experienced hikers happy but plenty of easier spots for everyone else to enjoy as well.
4. Giant City State Park
There’s nowhere quite like Giant City State Park. Nestled inside the Shawnee National Forest, it’s a haven for nature lovers. The towering boulders of sandstone with their robes of moss, flowering mint, and fern create a landscape like nothing you’ll have seen before. There’s no shortage of hiking trails to enjoy, with the Giant City Nature Trail proving particularly popular with visitors. If you’re looking for something more challenging, the sheer sandstone walls are great for rock climbing and rappelling.
3. Illinois Beach State Park
The Chicago Traveler recommends Illinois Beach State Park as one of the best state parks in Illinois for camping, but you don’t need a tent to experience the beauty of this gorgeous park. Located along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, it’s a great place to bike, hike, swim, fish, or simply relax, regardless of whether you’re planning to stay overnight or not. If you do decide to extend your stay over a couple of days, the campground offers 241 spots along with electricity access and shower facilities.
2. Cave-in-Rock State Park
Described by matadornetwork.com as a ‘must-see,” Cave-in-Rock State Park is located within the majestic Shawnee National Forest, a place bristling with woodland, rock formations, waterfalls, and breathtaking vistas. The park itself is noted for its incredible bluff overlooking the Ohio River, not to mention a 55-foot wide cave that makes an excellent site for exploring. There are also a few great fishing spots to enjoy, along with plenty of beautiful hiking trails to explore.
1. Starved Rock State Park
The number one state park in Illinois according to Trip Advisor is Starved Rock, one of the most beautiful destinations in the state and a must for anyone who wants to experience the true beauty of The Prairie State first hand. Crisscrossed with 13 miles of trails that lead through spectacular waterfalls and dramatic canyons, it’s a hiker’s dream. There are also some excellent spots for ice fishing come winter, and year-round opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and horseback riding. One day is never enough to appreciate the park in its entirety – fortunately, there’s a well-equipped campground with electricity, water, and showers, along with a lodge for those who prefer a bit more comfort.