9 Reasons to Drive to Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park
Scale frozen waterfalls, snowshoe down winding trails, and soak up the small town charm.
Now that winter is waning just the teeniest, tiniest bit, let’s reminisce. We snowshoed, skied, went sledding, and even made a couple of snow angels—don’t worry, there’s still time to do all of that if you’ve been slacking off. But between now and when those first few crocuses emerge from hibernation, it’s still "slow season"—aka the perfect time to take advantage of the less crowded trails of one of our favorite outdoor destinations, Starved Rock State Park (not to mention the two adjacent parks, Matthiessen State Park and Buffalo Rock State Park.)
This part of central Illinois is unusually beautiful during the colder months, with a bounty of trails winding through pine forests, deep canyons, frozen waterfalls, and a slew of spectacular ice formations. Together, the three parks form a trifecta of outdoor bliss, where opportunities for hiking, cross country skiing, and in some parts, even ice climbing abound. And after you’ve had your fill of the great outdoors, you’ll find antique shops, gift boutiques, restaurants, museums, immersive entertainment, and leisure activities just a stone’s throw away, alongside boozy local gems like craft breweries and wineries—nothing beats the small town hospitality and charm around here.
Here are nine excellent reasons to grab your parka and set out on a weekend getaway full of natural beauty, outdoor and indoor thrills, and perhaps a little taste of luxury.
Pick your way up a gargantuan ice mountain
Prior experience isn’t required to try your hand (er, forearms) at ice climbing around Starved Rock, and the experts over at Vertical Adventure are armed with the equipment and guidance you need to conquer a frozen waterfall or two. The canyons open for traversing are LaSalle Canyon, Ottawa Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, and Tonti Canyon, each with different challenges, features, and heights. Book a lesson online and make sure to call ahead to see if the ice conditions are suitable for climbing by calling 708-341-3255.
Hit the trails and soak up the views on a scenic hike
Open year round, 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.
Wildcat Canyon, situated one mile from the Visitors Center, not only features the tallest waterfall in the park, but also the deepest canyon. Go figure. Lasalle Canyon is winding romp through the snowy forest and at the end, you’ll be rewarded with a 25-foot icy waterfall. 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 soaring over (or under) head.
Ottawa Canyon and Kaskaskia Canyon are a true two-fer. These twin trails are a bit less trodden and feature huge amphitheater caverns plus icy waterfalls bound to blow your mind. Both can be accessed via the trailhead at the designated Ottawa and 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, six miles of cross-country ski trail beckon the Nordic set, while Do It, To It Ski Shop rents gear through March. 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 beastly family serves as the park’s proud mascots.
Cozy up at an inn, resort, or lodge
Starved Rock Lodge offers nicely appointed 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 onto a trail. They also offer winter wildlife trolley tours of Buffalo Rock, live music, and guided winter hikes. The Lodge Restaurant will satiate your hiker’s appetite with dishes like Filet Mignon and Grilled Salmon, as well as homemade fudge (yum). And with an indoor pool, sauna, and hot tub, 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 onsite restaurant and bar, the resort stocks an indoor waterpark, mini golf, and cave arcade. For big groups, the resort offers suites, private villas accommodating up to nine guests, and luxury cabins fit for eighteen. So grab your vax card and round up your friends (and friends of friends).
The area is also home to sweet bed and breakfasts chock full of old-school peace and quiet. Country-chic Brightwood Inn, located inside Matthiessen State Park, has nine rooms, many of which come equipped with jacuzzi hot tubs. Elsewhere, Landers House packs spotless guestrooms, cottages, and suites into its 1863 grounds in lively downtown Utica.
Or roll on up in an snazzy RV
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 glampers, connecting wheel-less folks with 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.
Regardless of your preferred shelter, the top choice for both the tented and rented crowd is Starved Rock State Park Campgrounds, tucked away south of the park’s canyons. The West Loop stays open year round, while the full grounds open starting April 1.
Get your heart rate going at an escape room
In Utica, Starved Rock Entertainment sports three themed rooms, each a little bit harder than the next, where the goal is to—duh—escape. For those of you thinking escape rooms are nothing but child’s play, trust us and go against your instincts. You might find yourself held hostage at a psych ward in Russia or trapped inside a tech genius’s creation, and with only 60 minutes to get the heck out of there, you’re sure to get a little sweaty. Bring your thinking caps and friends for this one, because solving lifesaving clues with buddies is always more fun.
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 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.
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.
Trailblaze with some four-legged friends
A fleet of horses leads year-round riders on an unforgettable stroll through nature trails traversing 60 acres of woodland over at Cedar Creek Ranch, weather permitting. In the spring, 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.
Peruse the wares at small town shops
Roll over to N. 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 make sure to bring those bills.
In downtown Utica, 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, 229 Estates in Ottawa, Vintage Antiques and More in Oglesby, and Clarks Run Creek in Utica have your treasure-hunting needs covered.
Poke around local museums and estates
Culture nuts, you’ve arrived. With its decorative carpets and opulent furniture, The Reddick Mansion gives onlookers a glimpse of Victorian-era Utica as one of the priciest homes of its day, while the Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum immerses curious visitors in all things scouting history (cookies may or may not be involved).