Illinois State Parks Activities
Illinois offers some of the best camping sites in the United States! Whatever kind of camping experience you’re looking for, you’ll surely find it in The Prairie State.
Considered one of the best state parks in Illinois, sites at Starved Rock State Park are in high demand and always fully-booked. Campers can take in the magnificent view of 18 distant canyons formed by glacial melt waters and steam erosions. The fascinating rock formations found in the park also draw in visitors year after year.
Those who want a more modern camping experience will be pleased to know that Giant City State Park offers several cabins for rent although there are also primitive sites available.
For campers who prefer waterfront sites, Illinois Beach State park is perfect for you! This 4,160-acre park has hundreds of premium sites equipped with water, electricity, and showering facilities. Sites here are available on a first-come, first-served basis so be sure to come early to get your slot!
Castle Rock State Park also offers a unique camping experience with sites accessible only by boats or canoes. Camping here is truly an unforgettable experience!
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With over 73 state parks, Illinois is home to plenty of stunning hiking trails. At Starved Rock State Park, there are over 13 miles of trails that meander through rock formations, waterfalls, and the park’s incredible landscapes. Guided hikes are also available and visitors are recommended to go in the spring or after a heavy rainfall to fully experience the magnificence of the waterfalls.
Meanwhile, the 3-mile Rock Creek Loop at Kankakee River State Park is popular among visiting families. The trail offers hikers views of incredible limestone canyons and takes them through a thrilling suspension bridge across a river.
Trails found at Buffalo Rock State Park are also a crowd favorite. The first trail offers amazing views of the Illinois River while the other winds through towering trees and the lush woodland area. Keep an eye out for the pair of bison that have made the park their home!
Matthiessen State Park has five miles of well-kept and well-marked trails. Beginners can opt for the easier routes that will take them to the bluff tops while more experienced hikers can choose to go into the valley interiors. Be advised, though! The steep cliffs surrounding the canyons are dangerous so stay on the trails’ marked paths.
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Backpacking enthusiasts will love the 12-mile Red Cedar Hiking Trail at Giant City State Park. This route is a bit challenging so it’s perfect for more intermediate hikers or those wanting to take their skills to a whole new level.
Those who want an easier and more laidback adventure should check out the backpacking trails at Pere Marquette State Park, which meander through lush forests and towering bluffs. The wildlife found inside this park makes for the perfect backpacking experience. Don’t forget to bring a backpacking hatchet along to get that campfire going when you set up camp.
The Land of Lincoln is home to some of the most popular fishing holes in the United States. Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park offers anglers plenty of opportunities to reel in their catches and its campsites are ideal for those who are after an up-close fishing experience. The 13-mile long Rend Lake found inside the park is full with catfish, sunfish, and largemouth bass.
Rock Cut State Park is also a popular destination among anglers from all over the country. Within the park lies Pierce Lake, a great fishing hole for newbie anglers wishing to test their fishing skills. The lake’s waters are home to large populations of catfish, walleye, muskie, and more.
If you’re a fan of geocaching, Matthiessen State Park has plenty of caches for you to discover! Trudge through the amazing greenery of the park in search of these cleverly-concealed geocaches.
Avid hunters looking to pursue game may do so in the hunting areas at Wolf Creek State Park and at Eagle Creek State Park, which are both located in Shelby County. Both parks have an abundant deer population although be advised that hunters are required to obtain permits in advance through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ website.
Hunting may also be done at Pyramid State Park, the largest state park in Illinois. Huntable acres here total over 18,000 acres, making it perfect for hunting enthusiasts who are after a thrilling adventure.
On the other hand, those wanting to pursue smaller game like duck, pheasant, and rabbit may do so at Kankakee River State Park.
Day Use Areas
At Starved Rock State Park, there are plenty of developed picnic areas that feature tables, drinking water, and nearby restroom facilities. Pavilions and shelters are also available for larger groups.
Picnic sites at Giant City State Park are also extremely popular as they include fire grills, in addition to the usual tables and drinking water facilities. After your picnic, explore the giant sandstone rock structures that have made the park famous all over the United States.
Nature lovers will also enjoy picnicking at White Pines Forest State Park where they can relax and unwind at the shady picnic areas. Visitors can also take in their meals under the park’s towering white pines.
Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park has some of the best biking trails in Illinois! Some are single-track routes that wind through the dense woods while others are double-track trails that take bikers through incredible meadows. Those who want a scenic and laidback ride will surely love this park!
The more than 10 miles of single-track trails at Rock Cut State Park are also in high-demand. Enjoy great views of the north-central Illinois countryside as you ride.
Kankakee River State Park is the top boating destination in Illinois. The park has two boat ramps and is also a great spot for canoe and kayak enthusiasts. However, be advised that only the most skilled of boaters should take on the Kankakee River as its shallow and rocky waters can be somewhat of a challenge.
Boating is also a popular activity at Rock Cut State Park where docks and two launching ramps are found at Pierce Lake. This park is a favorite among anglers who bring along their watercraft to fish in deeper waters.
Birders flock to Illinois Beach State Park for its annual autumn Hawk Watch, which offers plenty of opportunities to spot Northern Harriers, Broad-winged Hawks, and Red-shouldered Hawks on their southbound migrations.
At Eldon Hazlet State Park, keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of species found within, which include geese, ducks, grebes, and more. The American White Pelican, the Bald Eagle, and the Osprey are also some of the birds that can be found around Carlyle Lake, which is the state’s largest reservoir and can be found within the park.
Horseshoe Lake State Park is also a prime Bird-watching spot, host to the Trumpeter Swan, the Long-tailed Duck, the Iceland Gull, and more. The lake is situated near the Mississippi River, which is a natural flight corridor and attracts many rare bird species. Take a look at our review of the best binoculars for birding.
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If you’re looking to keep cool during the summertime, then swimming spots in Illinois are made for you! At Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park, swim in the clearest waters found in The Prairie State. This man-made lake is 40-acres big and includes a built-in filtration system so those with sensitive skin won’t have to worry about triggering or exacerbating their allergies.
Illinois Beach State Park is also a popular swimming hole with its 6.5 miles of shoreline, beaches, wetlands, and sand dunes. This park tends to get crowded in the summer, though, so try to get there early!
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Rock Climbing and Mountaineering
Illinois is a top destination for climbing enthusiasts due to its many rock climbing opportunities! Giant City State Park with its massive sandstone cliffs are popular with skilled and experienced and daring climbers who wish to take on a challenge.
Mississippi Palisades State Park also has three routes that climbers can enjoy: Indian Head, Twin Sisters, and Sentinel Area. They vary in length and level of difficulty, making it the perfect spot for climbers of all types.
The outstanding climbing routes and breathtaking scenery at Ferne Clyffe State Park are unmatched. The park offers plenty of advanced and challenging routes, ideal for climbers looking for an experience like no other.
While there are plenty of horseback riding opportunities in Illinois, the 8.3-mile trail found at Kickapoo State Park is the best and the most scenic one. It takes equestrians past Clear Lake, which many consider to be “a peaceful oasis for horseback riding.”
Those who want to explore the caves and canyons found in Illinois should head over to Starved Rock State Park, where the Saint Louis Canyon Trail features a waterfall and leads into a stunning canyon. This subtle beauty of this trail will make for an unforgettable experience!
Another popular caving destination in The Prairie State is Cave-In-Rock State Park where the historic Cave-In-Rock can be found. This Ohio River landmark is renowned all over the country and should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. It was even featured in the 1962 John Ford Western film, How the West was Won.
Restaurants and Dining
State parks in Illinois are renowned not only for their incredible natural landscapes, but also for their great dining options! One of the best ones is Kaylors’, a family-style lodge and restaurant found in Cave-In-Rock State Park, which specializes in the regional favorite, catfish. Diners love to take their meals on the outside patio where outstanding views of the Ohio River and glimpses of a Bald Eagle are enjoyed.
Giant City Lodge at Giant City State Park is also an amazing gastronomic experience. The restaurant seats over 200 and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. With Southern favorites and local ingredients featured on the menu, you’re undoubtedly in for a treat!
Those looking for a winter adventure like no other should check out Starved Rock State Park where visitors can go ice climbing in the five different canyons found within. Those who want a more laidback excursion, however, can choose to take in the canyons’ frozen waterfalls instead.
Matthiessen State Park is another great winter destination in Illinois. Here, there are over 6 miles of cross-country ski trails and at least 5 miles of winter hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty.
Orienteering courses are found at White Pines Forest State Park, located in Ogle County. The trails here are well-marked and are great for those new to the hobby.