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Hidden gems at Illinois’ state parks

By Erica Abdnour of Concierge Preferred

Discover great outdoor sights at hidden gems among Illinois’ state parks and natural areas.

waterfall at starved rock state park illinois
Starved Rock State Park, Utica (Credit: Illinois Office of Tourism)

When warm weather comes to Illinois, it’s time to get outdoors and bask in nature. With 70  parks spread across the state—including nature preserves, wildlife areas, forests, and more—that attract up to 44 million visitors per year, Illinois’ system of state parks makes for a fabulous trip in any area of the state. Among beautiful foliage, waterfalls and other natural features, you can find activities ranging from hiking to biking to simply enjoying the scenery.

Some of the best activities at Illinois’ state parks are the hidden gems—the features that are off the beaten track or require a bit more exploration to fully enjoy. Here are some of the best hidden gems you can find in Illinois’ state parks.

Giant City Nature Trail at Giant City State Park, Makanda

Boasting some of the best wilderness trails in Illinois, Giant City State Park is home to Giant City Nature trail—a path formed over 12,000 years ago. Check out mesmerizing bluffs of sandstone and incredible geological formations while taking in the sights of towering trees and lush foliage. Partake in horseback riding, fishing, rappelling, and more as you experience this state park.

Where to stay: Spend a night or two in Giant City Lodge, which offers three types of cabins, a dining room, lounge, and an outdoor swimming pool.

Limestone Caves at Mississippi Palisades State Park, Savanna

Check out the incredible caves at Mississippi Palisades State Park and be awed by the formations created by nature. The limestone caves here are sinkholes that descend straight down into the earth, all surrounded by beautiful rock formations formed by erosion. Make sure to lay your eyes on Twin Sisters and Indian Head!

Mississippi Palisades State Park itself offers plenty of hiking trails, a swimming beach, and boat launch ramps, so no matter which activities suit your style, there is something for you in the park.

Where to stay: Before heading into the park, spend some time in Galena, which features charming B&Bs and other quaint accommodations.

Waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park, Utica

You might have seen Starved Rock State Park’s incredible waterfalls among the Most Instagrammable Spots in Illinois, but they’re even more magical in person. With waterfalls in 14 of the 18 canyons, the park is filled with these wonderful natural features. Check out the waterfalls at St. Louis. French, Wildcat, Ottawa, and Kaskaskia canyons. Bonus tip: In the winter, the waterfalls freeze, creating gorgeous natural ice sculptures that you need to see—or even climb!

Where to stay: Near Starved Rock State Park, you’ll find a variety of restaurants and bars like August Hill Winery, Duffy’s Tavern, and Joy & Eds, as well as charming places to stay such as Landers House in nearby Utica.

Beaches at Illinois Beach State Park, Zion

The city of Chicago is known for its miles of lakefront beaches, but the shores of Lake Michigan also make for a beautiful retreat at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. This beach is Illinois’ only remaining stretch of beach ridge shoreline. Spanning 6.5 miles (10.5km) along the lake, the beach offers gorgeous views amid 700 species of plants.

Where to stay: While you’re in Lake County, take a trip to enjoy the thrills of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee or explore the historic streets of Downtown Long Grove—both of which would make for a great place to spend a night.

Wildlife at Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Grundy County

Sometimes the best sightseeing is watching creatures in their natural habitat. For a peek at peaceful wildlife, look no further than Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, home to species including deer, coyote, red fox, cottontail rabbit, muskrat, beaver, and badger. A variety of birds and waterfowl also inhabit the area; keep your eye out for kildeer, marsh hawks, great blue herons, and mallards. Goose Lake is also a great spot to find flowers in bloom from spring to autumn, such as New England asters, goldenrod and violets.

Where to stay: Goose Lake is a suitable day trip from the city of Chicago—home to some interesting wildlife and bird-watching experiences of its own. But it’s also worth taking a trip down the Kankakee River to stay in the river town of Kankakee and check out interesting architecture such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s B. Harley Bradley House.

Pomona Natural Bridge at Shawnee National Forest, Pomona

Okay, okay, it’s not quite a state park, but Shawnee National Forest has its own hidden gem you won’t want to miss: a beginner-friendly hike along the Pomona Natural Bridge. At 90 feet (27m) long and 8 feet (2.5m) wide, the sandstone bridge formed naturally over millions of years of erosion by running water. You’d be wise to follow its lead and head downstream, where you’ll find a small cave that’s perfect for photo opportunities.

Where to stay: Located nearby is the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which makes the perfect reward after a day of hiking. Try your share of reds and whites from a variety of local wineries like Pomona Winery and Alto Vineyards. Many of the wineries also feature accommodations, such as Kite Hill Vineyards B&B & Winery.