Chicago is one of the beautiful cities in the world, not just because it has the prettiest downtown, it coexists with nature. Living on the shore of Lake Michigan and allowing the Chicago River flow-thru its downtown comfort Chicagoans with nature in the midst of the urban jungle. But then, walking in the actual jungle is always better than skyscrapers. Luckily, Chicago got that covered too. About 90 minutes from the city is worlds apart — miles of trails, waterfalls, canyons, and campgrounds — all in a decent day trip, welcome to Illinois’ most visited attraction – Starved Rock State Park.
Cool and strange rock formations along the Illinois River make the park stand out, attracting several visitors a day. Also, with free entrance and parking, it is easy to fill up early on weekends at this lush green park. Open all year round, Starved Rock State Park offers something for everyone from kayaking, fishing, camping, hiking, and ice-climbing. With marked trails and guarded rails where needed, it is safe to even visit with kids and dogs. That being said, let’s go hiking.
The first and foremost thing to do once entered the park is to visit the Visitor’s center. Ever smiling Park Rangers are very informative who take all the time to detail the conditions of trails and suggest the best ones based on the time we got. In addition, there is a beautiful museum which provides a glimpse of the history along with several wildlife exhibits. Lastly, a theatre too to show everything about the park in a picture-perfect way.
Trails in the Park are very well marked, and signs can be found all along the park, allowing us to enjoy every nook and corner. If preferred, there are ranger-guided tours as well. 13 miles of trails at Starved Rock State Park is hard to complete in a day trip but a mile along River Trail offers pretty overlooks and a mile back on Bluff Trail has stunning canyons.
A short hike from the Visitor’s center brings us to Starved Rock from which the park derives its name. The Legend goes that in a great battle, Illinois people took refuge on this great rock who later starved to death. And then due to its unique location, the park is soon recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Starved Rock lookout is easy to reach and offers good views of the Illinois River. Also, this can be the right place to spot pretty bald eagles in winter on Plum Island, across the river. Then, within a mile hike, Lovers Leap and Eagle Cliff Overlook offer cool views of Dam. The latter has several benches to sit and enjoy the views, leisurely.
On the way to Beehive overlook, a short detour takes us to the river which is a great place to enjoy the pretty view of Eagle Cliff standing from the edge of the river. Here, we can get beach vibes with sand and little waves. But absolutely no swimming. Sandstone point overlook, another popular one, is further along the river making it a little out of the reach when charming canyons are so close.
The stairway after the Beehive overlook opens up the world of canyons. The first of them is Wildcat Canyon. As the trail on the edge of the rock turns the corner, the world goes upside down. Surrounded by rocks with striking patterns that are formed by glacial water floods, this place is totally surreal. This is one of the canyons in the park where we can walk right underneath it and weather permitting, even behind it. It doesn’t end there. Back on the trail, the lookouts on either side offer beautiful bird’s eye view with elegant stripes on sandstone rocks — leading to the waterfalls.
Pontiac Canyon welcomes us while following the white dots — the path back to the visitor’s center on Bluff Trail. This canyon is pretty during the fall season with colors matching the vivid, steep and curvy valley. Whereas the alternate trail – Campanula interior canyon trail connecting Wildcat with French Canyon comfort with pure wilderness and solitude of woods along the creek.
No matter the trail – Bluff or Campanula, they both have quite an ending — French Canyon. One of the prettiest and must-visit canyons in the park. The short rugged trail at the edge of the rock teases the beauty of the canyon even before reaching it.
French Canyon is hard to reach and the path can be full of ice in winters. Once it can be reached thru its not-so-wide opening, it will be truly an amazing experience. Deeply eroded sandstone rock, nicely carved by glacier floods leaves the canyon with powerful patterns in various colors, straight out of another world. Paired with waterfalls right in the center of the canyon, make it double beautiful. It may not come as a surprise if the rest of the day passes by at this canyon.
Other canyons like St.Louis, Lasalle, and Ottawa canyons also have beautiful views. These canyons also have nearby parking spots which can make them fit in an extended weekend trip without much hiking.
As the views fill up our hearts, it might be a little overdue for the stomachs to fill in. That’s exactly when the nearby town, which is right across the river, steps in — Utica. A small town with pretty streets and classic eateries like Two Girls and a Cupcake and Skoog’s Pub offering something for everyone. These places open late and close a little too early, so breakfast and late dinners are not on the menu.
For an extended weekend trip, on-site Starved Rock Lodging offers comfortable lodge rooms to spacious cabins at a very reasonable price. If looking for more nature on the weekend, Matthiessen State Park can be the right add-on with untouched trails and waterfalls.
Have you been to any state parks recently? How is your experience? Let us know in the comments.
Not into camping? How about rewarding views that come after difficult hiking. Then this state park is full of them.
Cheers and Safe Travels!
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