There are so many excellent (and exciting) reasons to visit Chicago in the state of Illinois, smack dab in the middle of America’s heartland. The “Windy City” located on the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan is known for its bold architecture, a sizzling hot blues scene, a flowing craft-brew culture, and an eclectic food scene. We haven’t even mentioned the renowned museums, galleries, theaters, the nightlife, the shopping, or the Lincoln Park Zoo and Shedd Aquarium. And last, (but in no way the least)—the sporting events.
There’s no doubt that the pulse of Chicago beats strong—for those wanting a bit of a break from the Windy City, there are plenty of options.
Consider recharging yourself at one of the many amazing state parks that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources oversees. The scenic parks are as exciting and varied as all of your activities in Chicago—let’s explore Illinois State Parks.
Map of State Parks Near Chicago IL
Here is a map of the Illinois state parks covered in this post:
List of State Parks Near Chicago, IL
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is tasked with preserving the state’s natural treasures and protecting its wildlife. Paying a visit to these scenic sites supports their development and protection. Let’s take a look at the state parks near Chicago and see what makes them fascinating places to visit.
1. Starved Rock State Park
Location: 2678 E 875th Rd, Oglesby, IL 61348
Carved by eons of glacial runoff, Starved Rock State Park is a geological wonder with steep sandstone canyons, several of which have seasonal waterfalls. The park is an hour and a half drive southwest of Chicago and worlds away from the hubbub.
Besides hiking, there is an excellent view from Lover’s Leap Overlook, and the sandstone canyons are simply stunning and a popular destination for photographers looking for picturesque outdoor scenes. There is no rock climbing because of the fragile nature of sandstone; however, ice climbing is encouraged.
Helpful tip: The waterfalls result from either heavy rainfall or melting snow; the best times to see the falls are in the spring, March through May.
2. Volo Bog State Natural Area
Location: 28478 Brandenburg Rd, Ingleside, IL 60041
If you have never seen a quaking bog, here’s your chance—Volo Bog State Natural Area is about an hour northwest of downtown Chicago. Initially, the bog was a deep 50-acre lake formed long ago when a gigantic residual chunk of glacier ice became embedded in the landscape. The lake, with poor drainage, minimal water movement, and decomposing plant life, makes the water acidic over time and forms matted layers; it becomes a bog—a quaking bog quakes and moves when you walk upon it.
The Volo Bog Interpretive Trail (walking only) has a series of floating boardwalks, docks, and paths leading through the different bog succession phases. Other treks in the park lead through a handful of diverse ecosystems: woodlands, savanna, marshes, and prairie restoration areas making the area an interesting visit (any time of the year). Cross-country skiing is encouraged here as long as you go with the traffic to avoid collisions.
As enticing as it might seem to step out onto the bog, hikers are strongly encouraged to stay on the paths; what looks like solid ground may only be several inches of material on top of several feet of muck and mud.
Helpful tip: The bog is home to a thriving bat population; they are attracted to the insects attracted to the wetland and ultimately make the area more comfortable for humans. If you want to learn more about the bat population and when it is best to see them in action, contact dnr.volobog@Illinois.gov for details.
3. Chain O’ Lakes State Park
Location: James Rd, Spring Grove, IL 60081
Head about 60 miles northwest of Chicago, and you are in the area of Illinois that is home to the highest concentration of lakes. The Chain O’ Lakes State Park is in the middle and is a series of 15 connected kettle lakes formed by calving ice blocks when glaciers retreated eons earlier. With 6,500 acres of water and 488 miles of shoreline, it’s no wonder boating, angling, and skiing are popular pastimes.
There are also camping, hiking, biking, picnicking, equestrian trails, birdwatching, and seasonal hunting opportunities.
Interesting Fact: The Chain O’ Lakes Park is easily one of the busiest inland recreational waterways per acre in the United States. Despite this distinction, it’s still possible to get away from it all.
4. Illinois Beach State Park
Location: 1 Lake Front Dr, Zion, IL 60099
Head an hour north along the Michigan shoreline, and you’ll run right into Illinois Beach State Park, the only remaining beach ridge shoreline in the state. For those of you who don’t know what a beach ridge is, it’s a wave-swept deposit of sand that makes a ridge that runs parallel to the shore.
The park’s most notable feature is the sandy beaches that stretch for 6.5 miles along the Lake Michigan shore. Besides providing a beach to spread out on and soak up the sun, the park is home to various ecological systems from dunes to wet prairies to marshlands and forests, each with unique flora and fauna.
The 4,160-acre park has two separate areas, the North Unit and the South Unit, with camping, hiking, swimming, boating, and fishing opportunities.
Interesting fact: The dunes alone are home to 650 species of plants, including wildflowers and native prickly pear cactus colonies (who would have guessed) in the dry areas.
5. Buffalo Rock State Park
Location: 1300 N 27th Rd, Ottawa, IL 61350
An hour and a half southwest of Chicago, you’ll find the compact Buffalo Rock State Park—it may be small, but it packs a mighty punch. The park is a bluff with a sheer and jagged sandstone dropoff with a magnificent panoramic view of the Illinois River. It’s named Buffalo Rock because it’s thought that the cliffs were used as a “blind canyon” Native Americans used to herd buffalo into for capture.
The park is simply stunning in any season and offers hiking, picnicking, and primitive camping. There are two shelters, one with a firepit, a baseball diamond, and a horseshoe pit.
Buffalo Rock is also home to a series of outdoor sculptures by artist Micheal Heizer. Effigy Tumuli features massive mounds of earth formed to represent five animals indigenous to the region. The sculptures, built in 1985, represent the Native American style of mound-building and are a tribute to Native American Tradition.
Interesting fact: Three American bison call the park home. The oldest buffalo is Pebbles, who is 16, Cocoa, she’s six, and her calf, Hope, was born on April 21, 2020.
6. Matthiessen State Park
Location: 2500 IL-178, Oglesby, IL 61348
Matthiessen State Park is in the same part of the state as Starved Rock State Park; it is about 15 minutes further south as the crow flies, making it an hour and 45 minutes southwest from the Windy City. Picking between two parks is difficult, each as visually beautiful as the other—it might be best to plan to see both.
The park is situated around the stream that helped form the Upper Dell and the Lower Dell, separated by a 45-foot drop called Cascade Falls. Dells are small canyons, generally part of a forest, and are formed by the action of a river or stream. These dells, made of eroded sandstone, are colorful and beautiful rock formations. Overhanging rocks, nooks, and peaceful ponds provide a home for unique and common plants and animals.
The dry sandy bluffs that tower over the dells provide fertile soil for a completely different ecosystem. Wildflowers flourish up here, and overhanging trees and shrubs filter dappled sunlight down into the hollows.
The Dells area of the park provides a tranquil spot for hiking, picnicking, and relaxation; word of caution, these trails can be challenging to navigate, especially during the spring and summer. The park has upper treks (rated easy) where you can hike, bike, and cross-country ski, and there are trails for horseback riding that lead to equestrian camping sites. The park is open to registered hunters at specific times and is closed to other activities; check the official site for details.
Interesting fact: The sandstone’s beautiful array of colors can be attributed to minerals in the groundwater.