8 Reasons to Drive to Starved Rock State Park

Get a taste of the great outdoors in central Illinois.

Starved Rock
Starved Rock | Photo courtesy of Visit Illinois
Starved Rock | Photo courtesy of Visit Illinois

Look, it's going to be a hot July and August, but that doesn't mean you have to seek refuge under a patio umbrella or post up at the Humboldt Park splash pad all summer. Mother nature has plenty of natural showers 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. 

Photo courtesy of Visit Illinois

If hikes aren’t your thing, no sweat (literally). The area offers a wealth of opportunities to lose yourself in 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 bed and breakfasts are on hand to satisfy all your creature comfort needs with an extra special touch (ahem, whirlpool tubs).

Here is a list of eight reasons to head out on a Prairie State trip full of natural beauty, outdoor thrills, and even a taste of luxury.

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

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 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, and hot tub, there are myriad ways to rest your weary bones after conquering the buttes.

Grand Bear Resort
Grand Bear Resort

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).

Brightwood Inn & Farm
Brightwood Inn & Farm

The area is also home to charming 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.

Photo courtesy of Airbnb

Need a bit more space to stretch out? Consider booking an Airbnb for the trip. With rustic getaways like updated log cabins and quirky converted barns rubbing elbows with sleek modern abodes, the options are endless.

Photo courtesy of Visit Illinois

Or sleep under the stars in an RV or tent 

Campers, glampers, and everyone in between will feel right at home here. 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 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.

Photo by Adam Alexander

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. Just make sure to book ahead of time as this campground tends to fill up, especially on the weekends. If Starved Rock Campground is full, Pleasant Creek Campgrounds is only a 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. 

If you're into primitive camping, Kayak Starved Rock Campground has all the basics: fire pits, picnic tables, grills, and an outstanding view. The grounds are up against the northern bank of the Illinois river, convenient for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Being a new campground, reservations are only available on the weekends, and, in case you’re wondering, they also have “pimped out motion censored ultra clean porta potties,” so don’t miss the chance to break in these shiny new facilities.

Alternatively, sites like Hipcamp connect campers to individuals with nearby land they’re willing to share at a decent price per night. It’s another Airbnb-inspired venture, but this time it’s BYOB (AKA bring your own bed). And remember that wherever you land, dogs are almost always allowed, so there’s no need to leave Fido behind.

Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock

Hit the trails and 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. Pro tip: Before hitting the trails, make sure to download Cornell’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).

Nicola Patterson/Shutterstock

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 amphitheatre 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.) 

Nicola Patterson/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.

Photo by Elanor Bock

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.

Starved Rock Hot Glass
Starved Rock Hot Glass

Looking for something a bit more artisanal? Throughout the summer, downtown Utica hosts Canal Street Market on Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm. 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, 229 Estates in Ottawa, Vintage Antiques and More in Oglesby, and Clarks Run Creek in Utica have all your treasure-hunting needs covered.

Weber House and Garden
Weber House and Garden

Poke around local museums and estates

Culture nuts, you’ve arrived. Drive 22 minutes southeast of Starved Rock to Streator, Illinois for a tour of the epically gorgeous Weber House and Gardens. This Tudor cottage is bursting with pastoral charm and its well managed English gardens are in constant bloom and transformation. With its decorative carpets and opulent furniture, The Reddick Mansion gives onlookers a glimpse of Victorian-era Utica, while the Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum immerses curious visitors in all things scouting history (cookies may or may not be involved).

Photo by Adam Alexander

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.

Photo by Adam Alexander

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.

Photo courtesy of Visit Illinois

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.

Photo courtesy of Visit Illinois

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.

Photo courtesy of Visit Illinois

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 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.