This Illinois State Park Has Something for Everyone
Scale frozen waterfalls, snowshoe down winding trails, and soak up the small town charm.
Just a jaunt from the Windy City is Starved Rock State Park, a glorious unflat slice of the Midwest with cliffs overlooking the Illinois river and meandering trails that guide you behind lush waterfalls and through canopied forests. Explore the park at your own pace, or join one of the organized activities which include trolley tours, river cruises, and guided hikes that take place throughout the year. As a bonus, nearby you'll find not one but two other state parks—Matthiessen State Park and Buffalo Rock—with more trails and scenic views in case you didn’t get enough. If hiking isn’t your jam, the surrounding towns offer a number of breweries, restaurants, museums, resorts, and even thrilling activities like zip lining, skydiving, and white water rafting—there’s something for everybody. Here are the best reasons to drive to and enjoy Starved Rock.
Kick back at a storied lodge, cozy resort, or luxe glamping tent
Richly historic Starved Rock Lodge offers handsome rooms as well as private cabins nestled right inside Starved Rock State Park. Whatever your choice, you can roll out of bed and land boot-first on a trail. They also offer trolley tours of downtown Utica, live music, river cruises, and guided hikes. The Lodge restaurant will satiate your hiker’s appetite with dishes like barbecue baby back ribs and grilled salmon, as well as homemade artisan ice cream. With an indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, and an open-air bar overlooking the park, there are myriad ways to rest your weary bones after conquering the buttes.
Grand Bear Resort is another option for those seeking an all-inclusive place to lay their heads. In addition to the restaurant and bar, the resort has an indoor waterpark, mini golf, and cave arcade. For big groups, the resort also offers suites, private villas accommodating up to nine guests, and luxury cabins fit for eighteen. So bring your friends (and friends of friends).
Another choice option? Book a stay at newcomer Camp Aramoni, an upscale yet laid back glamp-ground within spitting distance of both Starved Rock and Mathesson. Large safari-style tents post up in a row on their broad property, each with its own patio chair-lined fire pit and breezy deck for sunrise coffee-sipping bliss. Inside, you’ll find plush beds, full bathrooms (aka hot showers on demand), and sitting areas with minifridges and all the amenities of a fancy hotel. The lodge hooks you up with regular meals plus games and a small gift shop while the outdoor bar—housed in a sleek repurposed Airstream trailer, no less—peddles locally sourced cocktails, beer, wine, and coffee drinks to thirsty customers as they relax around the massive communal fire pit.
Or sleep under the stars in a picturesque campground
Campers, glampers, and everyone in between will feel right at home in these parts. Most grounds can easily accommodate car campers and backpackers, but if you really want to ball out without dropping a ton of cash, consider booking a fully stocked RV, camper van, or slick vintage Airstream from RVshare. The city mouse-oriented company is basically Airbnb for camper vans, connecting folks to spic-and-span, ready-to-rock driveable and towable rigs around the country. You can even have your oasis on wheels delivered right to your house for door-to-door ease.
The top choice for the DIY-inclined is Starved Rock State Park Campgrounds, a network of both year-round and seasonal camping clusters tucked away just south of the park’s canyons. Reservations start at $25 per night, and be sure to book ahead of time—we’re talking months ahead of time—as they tend to fill up quickly, especially on weekends and holidays. If Starved Rock Campground is full, Pleasant Creek Campground is a mere 10 minute drive from most trail heads. Equipped with an arcade, tether ball, laundry, and a playground for the kiddos, this rural outpost offers a variety of electric and non-electric tent and RV sites as well as small cabins for rent.
For the primitive set, Kayak Starved Rock Campground provides all the basics: fire pits, picnic tables, grills, and an outstanding view. The grounds buck up against the northern bank of the Illinois river, convenient for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Reservations start at $29 per night for four people, and, in case you’re wondering, they also have “pimped out ultra clean porta potties with motion sensor lights,” so there’s that.
Soak up the views on a scenic hike
You could spend your whole vacation hiking the 18 canyons at Starved Rock State Park, but here are a few you really shouldn’t miss. Before hitting the trails, make sure to download Cornell University’s free Merlin Bird ID App, so you can geek out throughout the park’s many prime birding destinations and keep a record of your finds for post-trip slideshows (just kidding… kinda).
Wildcat Canyon, situated one mile from the Visitors Center, not only features the tallest waterfall in the park, but it also houses the deepest canyon. Go figure. Lasalle Canyon is a lush and winding romp through the forest. At the end, you’ll be rewarded with a 25 foot waterfall perfect for a refreshing dip. Eagle Cliff Overlook sits less than a mile from the Visitors Center and comes correct with a wonderful overlook of the Illinois River complete with eagles, pelicans, and herons soaring over (or under) head.
Ottawa Canyon and Kaskaskia Canyon are a true two-fer. These twin trails are a bit less traveled and feature huge amphitheater caverns plus picture-perfect waterfalls bound to blow your thirsty mind. Both can be accessed through the trailhead at the designated Ottawa/Kaskaskia Canyon parking lot, making it an easy one mile course. (Otherwise, you’re looking at a four mile journey from the Visitors Center.)
Over in Matthiessen State Park, you’ll find five miles of trails with three stunning waterfalls, captivating sandstone formations, and a whole bevy of crystal clear streams. After descending the steps near the parking lot, head down into the canyon and follow the trail toward Lake Falls and Giant's Bathtub. It’s a loop, so you can’t go wrong. The Lower Dells take you to Cascade Falls which is honestly spectacular, especially after a cleansing rainfall. Three miles west of Ottawa sits Buffalo Rock State Park, holding its own with two and a half miles of textured trails traversing a single astounding bluff. And don’t overlook the resident American Bison grazing near the Visitors Center—the beast family serves as the park’s proud mascots.
Get your fix at small town shops
Roll over to North 25th Road for a dose of mom and pop congeniality at Jack’s Camp Store. Operated out of a local garage, this hidden gem is stocked with ice, flashlights, firewood, flip flops, ketchup, mustard, and anything else you might need for a killer campout. Note that they’re cash only, so pack those paper bills.
Looking for something a bit more artisanal? From May through September, downtown Utica hosts Canal Street Market on Saturday and Sundays. The colorful street fair is rife with collectables and handmade items like tie-dyed shirts, silver spoons welded into jewelry, ceramics, and more. After hitting up the market, do yourself a favor and stumble over to the Rock and Soul and peep the shop’s thoughtfully curated collection of gemstones, rocks, and other shiny, eye-catching items. Follow it up with a trip to Starved Rock Hot Glass, a glass blowing studio and shop in Ottawa run by local artist Laura Johnson. If you time your visit right, you might just be able to catch Johnson in action stoking the flames.
As far as digging for antique gold goes, Country At Heart Antiques in Marseilles, Prindi's Antique Mall in Sandwich, Vintage Antiques and More in Oglesby, and Clarks Run Creek in Utica have all your treasure-hunting needs covered.
Drink (and eat) your way through the region
On Mill Street in Utica, dip your toes into local agriculture at August Hill Winery’s tasting room. Their production vineyard sits on repurposed corn and soybean fields, which have been in the family for generations. Every sip of their Illinois-born vino is teeming with tender love and corn… er, care. Across Mill Street, Lodi Tap keeps it real with craft beers, excellent burgers, and enormous Bavarian pretzels. Clarks Run Creek Gifts & Wine, also on Mill Street, serves a diverse selection of delicious wine, all of which go down that much sweeter while lounging about on their sundrenched patio. Finish off your trip with a send-off breakfast at John and Rina's, family-run daytime joint ideal for post-hike carbo-loading.
Among nearby Ottawa’s culinary enticements is Tangled Roots Brewery Company, dishing up scrumptious bites alongside a wide array of house-brewed beers. To boot, proceeds from some of the venerable outpost’s sudsy lineup benefit local causes. Take the Bison Weizen, for instance, which helps raise money to take care of the buffalo at Buffalo Rock State Park. Drinking for good always tastes better.
In Peru, newcomer Star Union Spirits is churning out surprisingly delicious vodka, rum, brandy, and a tequila-like Rested Agave spirit that drinks like a belly-warming reposado. And if the booze alone wasn’t enough of a draw, the distillery shares a complex with the one-of-a-kind Westclox Museum, a fascinating trip back in time where guests can admire antique clocks while learning about the factory’s storied industrial past.
Break a sweat with adrenaline-powered activities
Hikes are cool and all, but why not try something a little different this time around? Zip Chicago is located in Marseilles, about 30 miles east of Utica, and features a variety of cable routes with different speeds and heights to help you glide through the forest in style. If hurtling through the air in a harness isn't enough of a thrill for you, set off on a sky-high adventure with Skydive Chicago. Their expert divers are sure to give you something to write home about.
Ground-based options include Cedar Point Cedar Creek Ranch, where a fleet of horses leads riders on an unforgettable stroll through nature trails traversing 60 acres of forests. The outpost also offers Goat Yoga—because what could be cuter than an army of goats dawdling around while you perfect your sun salutations? According to lore, this particular yoga practice has positive effects on your glutes, as well as your mood.
Get out on the water
Whether you’re cruising on a funyak, canoe, or pontoon boat, hitting the waters around Starved Rock Park is an absolute must. Vermillion River Rafting is your go-to for white water rafting while Starved Rock Lodge offers beautiful Illinois River boating trips and Starved Rock River Adventures hooks folks up with private pontoon rentals for up to six hours. And you can always take it easy by snagging a canoe from C & M for a peaceful float down the Fox River amid its wondrous geological formations.