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Updated March 2021
The midwest is more than prairie lands, cornfields, the city of Chicago, and Lake Michigan, and in today’s post, I’ll be sharing with you some of the best national parks and state parks to visit in Illinois.
Experiencing the midwest through its nature is one of the best ways to experience this part of the U.S. as there is an abundance of national parks and state parks to visit within Illinois, that maybe you didn’t know of before.
Being outdoors and visiting parks have been my way of traveling, as currently a lot of travel has been restricted, and it’s kind of been a gift in disguise.
I have been able to discover more of Illinois’ nature scene, vegetation, and even places that don’t look like the typical image of a midwestern state. And amid so much uncertainty and healing, being in nature has allowed for clarity and a bit of reflection. A break from the noise and fear projections – all while admiring nature and a change of scenery.
Whether you’re going to be visiting the Land of the Lincoln soon, or you are simply trying to find other parks and activities to explore within our state, keep reading to check out the best national parks and state parks to visit in Illinois.
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Located in Oglesby, Illinois ( about 1 hr. 40 minutes away from the city) is a beautiful park with 13 miles of trails and 18 canyons, beautiful waterfalls. It’s truly a really nice park to go to for a picnic, hike the trails, and even camp during the camping season. It’s definitely one of the most popular parks to visit, and for good reason.
Where to stay in Starved Rock
If you want to make it a long weekend trip, make sure to check out here for some really good hotel deals as well as here for some vacation rentals that can help you plan out better, compare prices, and whatever plans you have to make your trip of experiencing Starved Rock even more fun and enjoyable. From my research, you can stay in the town where Starved Rock is located (Oglesby) and be a few miles away. Perfect for an early morning hike without much of a big crowd!
Matthiessen State Park
Located just a few miles south of Starved Rock lies Matthiessen State Park, which is a beautifully stunning park with canyons, streams, prairies, and forest, rock formations, and more. The sight of a variety of vegetation and wildlife is the perfect backdrop for picnics, hiking, and appreciation for nature. If you visit between the months of July and August, you will be able to experience the beautiful fields of sunflowers at their splendor.
Where to stay near Matthiessen State Park
Taking advantage of the fact that both Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Park are pretty close, the lodging options are pretty varied in comparison to other parks on the list. There are many hotel options as well as vacation rental options that again, depending on your plans, you can select which lodging style matches that. If you want to make it a weekend of exploring both state parks, then you definitely have some good lodging options to do just that!
Shawnee National Forest
Most famously recognized as the Garden of the Gods, this beacon for nature lovers is located in southern Illinois, just between the Mississippi River and the Ohio Rivers in Herod, IL. It offers 403 miles of hiking, rolling hills, forests, lakes, creeks, open lands, and rugged bluffs. Jackson Falls, located within Shawnee National Forest, offers sandstone cliffs and boulders for climbing, and also just to admire. A place not talked about enough, but one worth making the trip for!
Where to stay near Shawnee National Forest
If you’re looking to make it a weekend getaway, but don’t know what options there are, then definitely consider looking here for some amazing vacation rentals options as well as here for some hotel options! The vacation rentals seem to be located closer to Shawnee National Forest, however, if you don’t mind staying 20-30 minutes away from the forest, you can stay at a hotel in nearby towns such as Goreville and Anna, IL.
Burden Falls Wilderness
Located within Shawnee National Forest, Burden Falls Wilderness offers more perfect walking trails to admire nature in, as well as equestrian trails. Interestingly enough, a walk through this space of greenery will also give you insight into the use of this land before it became a top hiking destination in Illinois. Visitors share that you can catch glimpses of old roads, cemeteries, homesteads, and fruit trees. Nature and history in plain sight, don’t miss it!
Where to stay near Burden Falls Wilderness
Looking for a place to stay near Burden Falls Wilderness can equate to a select few places, however, I found some options that could help jump-start your search. There are some vacation rentals available as well as hotel options, mostly outside of the town of Stonefront (where the park is located). However, because of its proximity to Shawnee National Forest, you could also consider looking at some of those options that I mentioned earlier, here and here. Also, if you’re feeling adventurous and the weather permits, this park offers camping sites as well as Shawnee National Forest, so if that’s more of your speed, then definitely click here for more info!
Giant City State Park
Offering a wide variety of natural sites from a variety of around 75 different tree varieties, flowering mints, and abundant vegetation, Giant City State Park in Makanda, IL. accommodates both campers and day visitors. Horseback riding, hiking the scenic trails, rock climbing and even fishing in designated areas are just a few of the activities that you can do at this park. While you’re there, don’t forget to visit “Giant City Streets” which are huge bluffs of sandstone that formed 12,000 years ago!
Where to stay near Giant City State Park
If you’re looking to make the trip out to Giant City State Park, you might want to consider staying over to take advantage of all that the park has to offer. Near Giant City State Park you can find a couple of hotels as well as vacation rentals, that are not so far away from the park. If you do research on your own, just look up hotels or lodging around Makanda, IL., or a few other surroundings places such as Cobden and Saratoga.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park
Quite unlike any of the parks listed, the Cahokia Mounds are ruins left by one of the world’s greatest cities to exist in North America, which dates back as early as 700 AD! It was the home of the native tribe, referred to as the Missippians or Mound Builders, and it is said to be the most sophisticated native civilization north of Mexico. It has even been said that Cahokia was larger than London was in AD 1250. The area itself has been preserved, and when you visit, you can see the mounds, which are man-made structures utilized within their civilization. This historic site is located in the southwestern point of Illinois touching Missouri (right across the Mississippi River and East St. Louis) in the town of Collinsville, Illinois. Make it a long weekend trip, and move across the Mississippi River into St. Louis for some STL style BBQ ribs, and top it off with a visit to Ted Drew’s for ice cream. You’re welcome.
Where to stay near Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park is definitely a bit further down from anyone traveling from northern Illinois, so if you visit this state park, you might as well make it a weekend trip. The beauty of being so close to the border with Missouri is that you have many lodging options to choose from. From these hotels to these vacation rentals. Cross over to St. Louis and add more to your itinerary if you’d like, which could also be fun with these amazing activities to do while you’re there.
Fabyan Forest Preserve
A little bit closer to Chicago in Geneva IL. is a park named after George and Nell Fabyan, the owners of the riverbank estate between 1908-1939 (now a museum). Fabyan Forests is a park today that offers a tranquil Japanese garden, a history tour of the grounds and museum, and a view of the 5 story Dutch windmill constructed in 1870. There, you can also find what used to be an old farmhouse built in the mid-1800s, redesigned by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, which can also be admired on your visit. A forest preserves unlike many, with history, design, and nature. While you’re there, stay for a bit and stroll the charming downtown area, and walk along the iconic Fox River that runs through the town of Geneva, and a few other small, charming towns.
Where to stay near Fabyan Forest Preserve
Fabyan Forest Preserve is located in Geneva, which is a popular destination that many people like to go visit for various reasons from shopping and dining, to walking along the Fox River, and has many lodging options. Simply taking a look at these vacation rentals (some of which are right on the water), you really have quite a few options to pick from and not only enjoy the beauty of Fabyan Forest Preserve, but also take advantage of all that Geneva has to offer.
Mississippi Palisades State Park
Located in the northwest region of Illinois in a town called Savanna, IL. is a park that offers stunning views of cliffs, rivers, caves, and ravines to those who visit. The palisades, meaning steep cliffs, are viewed from different points of the park, and beyond the cliffs, a beautiful lake. Summer is a great time to visit, but many recommend the fall as well, as you get to really see the beauty of the red/orange-tinged leaves all around. Due to erosion and other natural occurrences, rock formations such as Indian Head and Twin Sisters, are some of the most photographed rock formations of the park, so don’t miss them while you’re there!
Where to stay near Mississippi Palisades State Park
There are quite a few options in Savanna, IL (the name of the town in which the state is located) including a few vacation rentals like these and hotel options like these. The beauty of staying near the park is because many of the places to stay in are located super close to the Mississippi River, which is quite the sight to see as you wake up in the mornings. Check them out here!
Cache River Wetlands
Considered by many as Illinois’ “secret bayou”, Cache River Wetlands in Cypress, Illinois is a park that offers hiking trails including on floating boardwalks through the wetlands, kayaking, canoeing (which they have for rent), and learning more about this park at the Cache River Wetlands center, and how this part of Illinois resembles Louisiana, with it’s natural wildlife and vegetation of the area. Definitely, a place to check out, experience, and see what the wetlands look like, without even leaving Illinois. Make it a weekend trip, and stay in the cabins not too far from the park, and enjoy food and drinks at Cache River Basin Vineyard and Winery.
Where to stay near Cache River Wetlands
If you’re planning a longer stay near the Cache River Wetlands, make sure to check out these beautiful vacation rentals to plan your stay at some pretty amazing and close places near the Cache River Wetlands.
So which one is the next park on your list to visit? Was there one that surprised you, or a few that you’ve been to? This isn’t a cumulative list of all the best parks in Illinois, but it’s definitely a start for those who are wanting to see something a little different,
To more natural escapes that give us what we need, and more ✨?
Illinois National and State Parks FAQ
What are the national Parks in Illinois?
Illinois Beach State Park – Zion, IL.
Matthiessen State Park – Oglesby, IL.
Moraine Hills State Park – McHenry, IL.
Kankakee River State Park – Bourbonnais, IL.
Mississippi Palisades State Park – Savanna, IL.
Starved Rock State Park – Oglesby, IL.
Rock Cut State Park – Loves Park, IL.
James Pate Philip State Park – Bartlett, IL.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prarie – Wilmington, IL.
White Pines Forest State Park – Mt. Morris, IL.
Castle Rock State Park – Oregon, IL.
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve – Waukegan, IL.
Dixon Springs State Park – Golconda, IL.
Pere Marquette State Park – Grafton, IL.
What is the most popular State Park in Illinois?
Due to popular search results on Google, the most popular state park in Illinois has been Garden of the Gods AKA Shawnee National Forest for its breathtaking sandstone cliffs, woodlands, hills, and lakes, which make this park spectacular for hiking, walking along the river and lakes, and taking in the beautiful, natural scenery in Illinois.
What is the best National Park in Illinois?
There isn’t a concrete answer for this, as it depends on the traveler. If you want an exquisite view of the prairie lands that are most common in Illinois, parks such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prarie may be the best park for you, but if you want to see canyons and sandstone cliffs, you may want to visit Shawnee National Forest or Starved Rock. Do your own research based on what kind of nature/animals you’d like to see!
What is the largest State Park in Illinois?
According to multiple sites, this title goes to Pere Marquette State Park located in Grafton, IL (near the Missouri/Illinois state borders). This park is approximately 8,000 acres of midwestern natural scapes and beauty. You can even check out losing nearby as well as restaurants within the park. It’s very visitor-friendly, so if you’re in southern Illinois, or passing by, check it out!