Illinois is home to a rich topography of gorgeous, glacier-forged sandstone bluffs, waterfalls, canyons, and natural springs. Its unique geology is reason enough to visit, but everyone will find something to fall in love with at these state parks.
Native American history has played a part in much of Illinois due to its abundant hunting and fishing grounds, which still exist today. Clean springs and rivers still offer and support great fishing and wildlife in Illinois.
Tons of options for camping (and glamping) and outdoor recreation are offered within the following state parks, and are sure to appeal to just about everyone in your extended family.
Matthiessen State Park
Budding geologists and nature-lovers will find much to delight in within this park. The numerous unusual and beautiful sandstone rock formations are the most popular feature of Matthiessen State Park, and it is home to the largest anticline in Illinois. The mile-long main canyon, formed by ancient water erosion and colored by minerals, is a unique sight to behold. Hikers will enjoy the five miles of trails that traverse the many steep cliffs, deep canyons, streams, and waterfalls.
Cascade Falls features a gorgeous 45-foot waterfall, carrying spring-fed mineral water from the Upper Dells of the Deer Park Lake, to the Lower Dells of the Vermillion River. In addition, several mineral springs are a worthwhile sight at Matthiessen, attracting a large deer population for salt licks.
Along with hiking, visitors will find six miles of cross-country ski trails, nine miles of equestrian and mountain bike trails, a field archery range, geocaching, and a radio-controlled model airplane field. Dove, coyote, squirrel, and turkey hunting are offered seasonally. This is an excellent park for bird-watching, as Matthiessen offers a wide variety of habitats and plant life. Camping at the park appears to be limited to equestrian camping, but multiple accommodations exist within a few miles.
Starved Rock State Park
Arguably the most beautiful state park destination in Illinois, Starved Rock State Park features eighteen canyons of sandstone bluffs that were formed by ancient glacial meltwater. The vertical walls of the canyons allow for fantastic overlooks of waterfalls and natural springs, surrounded by a lush arrangement of cedar, oak, hickory, and pine trees. In the spring, waterfalls are found at the heads of all 18 canyons, as groundwater seeps through the sandstone.
Starved Rock’s namesake and pièce de résistance derive from an early NativeAmericann legend surrounding the 125-foot sandstone butte within the park. The rich ecosystem of this area has attracted and sustained mankind for at least 10,000 years. Starved Rock State Park’s cultural history can be identified all the way back to 8000 B.C., the history of which can be explored through visitor center exhibits and guided tours of the park.
An abundance of wildlife and plantlife inhabit Starved Rock State Park, which can be enjoyed along the thirteen miles of trails spanning the park. Bald Eagles are a major attraction in the winter months as they migrate from Canada and the Great Lakes for the unfrozen waters of Starved Rock’s Lock and Dam. In the spring and summer months, many varieties of wildflowers and plants bloom, sprout, and sustain wildlife. Flying squirrels can be spotted soaring from tree to tree, alongside Indigo Buntings, Vireos, and Yellowbellied Sapsuckers.
Starved Rock State Park hosts many guided tours and hikes, including full moon hikes, sunrise hikes, and haunted trail hikes. In addition to hiking, many fishing, boating, hunting, and camping opportunities are available throughout the park. The campground has 129 Class-A Premium campsites, all equipped with a cement pad for RV or camper, electric hook-ups, an area for two tents, and a picnic table and grated fire pit. Luxury lodging can be found within the Starved Rock lodge and cabins, in addition to fine dining.
Kankakee River State Park
There is a tremendous amount of history to this park, which is sure to add interest to your visit. Kankakee River State Park was once home to several large Native American tribes in the 1600-1700s, including the Miami, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa nations. The most extensive village was “Rock Village” or “Little Rock Village” inside the present-day park near the mouth of Rock Creek. In 1830, it was the site of the last great Indian Council.
Like the Native Americans, fishers and hunters will find much to enjoy and sustain themselves within this park. Roughly half of Kankakee River State Park’s 4000 acres are wetlands, including eleven miles along both sides of the Kankakee River. Great fishing can be found along this Federal Clean Streams registered river, including smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, and channel catfish.
There are two boat ramps for fishers, but the water can be shallow. A seasonal hunting program includes archery deer, waterfowl, and upland game. Firearm hunting is permitted for duck, pheasant, turkey, dove, rabbit, squirrel, fox, coyote and raccoon.
There are many other family-friendly activities within the confines of Kankakee River State Park. Hiking, biking and cross-country ski trails, in addition to horse and snowmobile trails can be explored seasonally. Geocaching, an archery range, dog-training sites, canoeing, and metal-detecting count among other popular activities.
There are more than 200 campsites within the Kankakee River State Park, including equestrian campgrounds (no water). 98 sites are limited in regard to electricity and showers. Another 110 sites with full electricity and showers are offered in another part of the park. Picnic sites, shelters, and two rental cabins are also located within the park.
Pere Marquette State Park
This is a great state park to visit for those interested in Native American history and nature, and for families with a variety of preferred camping styles. Pere Marquette State Park features 8,000 pristine acres of nature, including gorgeous views of the Illinois River from atop its bluffs.
A vast network of streams and rivers were formed in the area following the glacial period, creating rich topsoil that lent itself to a deciduous forest. Over the centuries, six Native American cultures made their home amongst this abundant topography, and several burial mounds have been identified within Pere Marquette State Park.
When European explorers first came to this site in the late 1600s, they were met with mural depictions of the Piasa Bird, a dragon-human creature, painted on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. A representation of the Piasa Bird can be seen today painted on bluffs about 20 miles away from the park.
Year-round recreational activities are held here, including horseback riding, fishing, hiking, hunting, boating, and camping. 80 campsites are available with electrical hookups, with a sanitary dump station, drinking water, and a shower building available on the grounds. The park offers two Rent-A-Camp cabins, a Youth Tent Camp Area, and a fantastic luxury lodge featuring 50 spacious guest rooms and 22 guest cabin rooms.
Among the lodge facilities are a cocktail lounge, gift shop, indoor swimming pool, whirlpool, saunas, game room and tennis court. An excellent brunch is also offered within the lodge, making this park a great choice for glampers and campers alike.
Have you visited any of these Illinois state parks? Did we miss any important ones? Leave us a comment below!