The over 300 state parks in Illinois cover nearly 500,000 acres of land. These parks bring beauty and history to the area and give visitors a chance to explore nature.
The state parks are located throughout the state, from north of Chicago to the borders of Missouri. Choosing which parks to add to your itinerary can seem impossible with so many hills to climb, trails to hike, and canyons to traverse. To help you make the right decision, we’ve listed our top 6 state parks in Illinois that you should check out.
6 Beautiful State Parks in Illinois
1: Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock is the most popular of all state parks in Illinois. Every year, over 2 million people visit the grounds. The park is located in Utica and sits on the bank of the Illinois River.
The park’s geography was caused by the Kankakee Torrent, a great flood that swept over the area over 15,000 years ago. The flood created an area of hills and canyons, which contrasts the flatness of the rest of the state.
The name Starved Rock comes from local legends about the tribes that lived on the park’s grounds. The story claims two tribes inhabited the area: the Ottawa and the Illiniwek. After the Illiniwek tribe killed the Ottawa leader Pontiac, the tribe wanted revenge. The Ottawa tribe attacked the Illiniwek, forcing them to climb up a butte to escape. But, the Ottawa warriors stayed at the bottom of the hill to wait them out. The Illiniwek warriors were unable to descend the hill and starved to death.
Today, visitors can hike through the over 20 kilometres of trails at the park. There are also 18 canyons to explore, and some contain beautiful waterfalls. During the winter, ice skating, skiing, sledding, and other activities are allowed throughout the park.
2: Matthiesen State Park
Located in Oglesby, Illinois, Matthiesen State Park encompasses 1,700 acres of forests, canyons, and hills. The park was named after Frederick William Matthiessen, who originally owned nearly 200 acres of the park. Matthiessen’s heirs donated the land to the state of Illinois after his death in 1918.
Like many other state parks in Illinois, Matthiesen State Park is centred around the nearby water. A stream flows through the park and has carved through the sandstone to create stunning rock formations.
The park has 5 miles of hiking trails, with cycling and equestrian trails also available. One of the most popular locations in the park is Cascade Falls, a 14-metre-tall waterfall. Another favoured attraction, an eagle sanctuary, is located right next to the park.
3: Silver Springs State Park
Silver Springs State Park opened in the late 1960s and spans 1,350 acres. The prairies within the park are part of a restoration project to preserve and protect the local flora and fauna. Since 2002, Silver Springs has been one of the many state parks in Illinois to remove invasive species and allow local plants to thrive.
Silver Springs features the Fox River that flows through the area and two manmade lakes. Here, guests can fish and take boats on the water. Other activities at the park include pheasant and deer hunting, trap shooting, and archery. An 11 km equestrian trail and multiple hiking trails are also available.
4: Pere Marquette State Park
Near where the Mississippi and Illinois rivers meet, Pere Marquette State Park covers over 8,000 acres. It is the largest of all the state parks in Illinois. The park was named after Père Marquette, the first European to map the mouth of the Illinois River during his travels with his associate Louis Jolliet.
During the 1950s and 1960s, a portion of the park was used as an active missile site to protect the nearby city of St. Louis, Missouri during the Cold War. After the war, the area was repurposed and is now the Lover’s Leap Lookout.
Although many of the native fish species in the park have been beaten out by exotic and invasive species, one signature species of the park remains in strong numbers. American bald eagles have been thriving in the park since the 1990s. Hundreds of eagles can be seen in the park during the winter months.
There are many attractions at Pere Marquette State Park for visitors to enjoy. There are 19 kilometres of hiking trails across the grounds. In the summer, a horseriding stable operates and equestrian trails are available. Nearly 2,000 acres of the park serve as hunting grounds for deer, turkey, and other species, and there are several docks for boats to go on the rivers.
5: Fort Massac State Park
Founded in 1908, Fort Massac is the oldest of all the state parks in Illinois and has a long history. Before it became a state park, the area was a French settlement. The military fort on the grounds was built in 1757 during the French and Indian War.
In 1778, the American military marched through the area during the Revolutionary War with England. 25 years later, Lewis and Clark stopped at Fort Massac during their expedition to recruit volunteers and learn about the area.
The original Fort Massac was reconstructed on the park grounds in 2002 for guests to explore. Each Autumn, a reenactment is held at the fort to demonstrate what life was like for the settlers in the 18th century. Also featured at the park is a visitor centre where Native American artefacts and textiles are displayed.
6: Cave-In-Rock State Park
Cave-In-Rock State Park stretches over 204 acres in Cave-In-Rock, Illinois. The park was established in 1929.
Before it became a state park, the land was inhabited by Native Americans due to its proximity to the Ohio River. The area became widely used as a trade route in the 18th and 19th centuries. Merchants would float down the river through the area to marketplaces in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The most iconic part of the park is the 17-metre-wide cave. The cave was created by water and wind erosion and the devastating effects the New Madrid Earthquakes had on the area in 1811. The park was named after this incredible cave, and it has drawn visitors to the grounds since its opening day.
There are many State Parks in Illinois to Explore
Although Illinois may seem flat with little variation, the state parks are full of steep hills, deep canyons, and kilometres of trails to hike through. Making the trip to a state park is a great way to get outside, explore the local flora and fauna of the region, and learn about Illinois’ past.
State Parks in Illinois are fantastic places for families to spend a day out or couples to have quality time together. Some parks even host evening events like night hikes and owl watching, adding more reasons to visit these beautiful areas.
If you’re planning a trip to Illinois, check out our list of top things to do in Chicago.