7 Reasons to Drive to Starved Rock State Park

Scale frozen waterfalls, snowshoe down winding trails, and soak up the small town charm.

It’s been a summer for the books, that’s for sure. Between the return of music festivals at full capacity and the blazing hot temperatures, the past few months have us looking forward to enjoying a nice, relaxing, tourist-free fall. And what better way to gear up for the serenest of seasons than paying a visit to the babbling brooks and shady oak trees at Starved Rock State Park (not to mention neighboring Matthiessen State Park and Buffalo Rock State Park), ready and waiting just under two hours southwest of Chicago?=

Whether you call the midwest home or not, you’re likely all too familiar with the large stretches of uneventful topography and endless cornfields that populate our humble region. Illinois, in fact, is ranked second to Iowa in corn production and second to Florida in flatness. But despite these geographical and agricultural silver medals, the state’s terrain is more diverse than one might think, especially the closer you get to the Illinois River. Ancient glaciers helped form Starved Rock’s famous craggy butte hanging 125 feet above the Illinois River as well as the textured landscape running through its two adjacent state parks, Matthiessen and Buffalo Rock. Together this outdoor trifecta provides enough trails, canyons, and rushing waterfalls to make all your Instagram followers stop and question that geo-location tag.

If hikes aren’t your thing, no sweat (literally). The area offers a wealth of opportunities to lose yourself in autumnal-hued small-town life and all the inviting hospitality that comes with it. Not far from the parks, you’ll find antique shops, gift boutiques, restaurants, museums, and leisure activities alongside boozy local gems like breweries and wineries. And if you’re craving some heart-pumping excitement, take off that sunhat and skydive above the corn fields, zip line your way through the forest, or white water raft down the Vermillion River. In the mood for a little pampering? A cushy lot of resorts and glamp-grounds are on hand to satisfy all your creature comfort needs with an extra special touch (ahem, whirlpool tubs).

Here is a list of seven reasons to head out on a Prairie State trip full of colorful leaves, outdoor thrills, and even a taste of luxury.

Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center
Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center

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 (yum). 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 grab your vax card and bring your friends (and friends of friends).

Camp Aramoni
Camp Aramoni

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.

dvande/shutterstock

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.

Nejdet Duzen/shutterstock

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 I D 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.)

Hendrickson Photography/shutterstock

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.

Starved Rock Hot Glass
Starved Rock Hot Glass

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 June through September, downtown Utica hosts Canal Street Market on 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, Sandwich’s Prindi's Antique Mall, Vintage Antiques and More in Oglesby, and Clarks Run Creek in Utica have all your treasure-hunting needs covered.

Lodi Tap House - Utica
Lodi Tap House - Utica

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 Path Mender Pale Ale, for instance, which helps raise money to preserve the trails at Starved Rock. Drinking for good always tastes better.

Star Union Spirits
Star Union Spirits

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.

Throwing your own campfire-fueled dinner party? Drop by Boggio’s Orchard in Granville to load up on farm fresh produce and fragrant baked goods. Stop in and say hello to the friendly resident farm animals while you’re at it.

Zip Chicago
Zip Chicago

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.

Starved Rock River Adventures
Starved Rock River Adventures

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.

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Elanor Bock is a Chicago born, New York-based professional dancer, writer, and renaissance woman, excelling at philosophy, mathematics, outdoor adventuring, and balancing six martinis on a tray in a crowded bar. Like her dog Oli, she is highly motivated by treats. Follow her on instagram @rathernotthanks.
Meredith Heil is a Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist. She's originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that's boots on the ground, no airport BS). She enjoys all things cocktails, crosswords, and women's soccer. Challenge her to a game of Hoop Shot at @mereditto.