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10 best State Parks in Illinois you should explore

What are the best State Parks in Illinois? Are you looking for some of the best State Parks in Illinois? Then look no further. This list is full of amazing top state parks in Illinois. 

Illinois may not be well-known for its incredible parks and outdoor scenery, but this list of the best parks in Illinois will show you that the state is filled with stunning natural highlights and wildlife and nature sanctuaries for you to explore and appreciate when you’re in Illinois.

Here is a list of the ten best State Parks in Illinois that you should visit!

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In a hurry? These are the best State Parks in Illinois

Overview of the best Illinois State Parks

Top State Parks in Illinois

Highlights Entrance fee
LaSalle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park Illinois Starved Rock state park

● One of the most beautiful features of Starved Rock State Park are the waterfalls
● The view from the Lover’s Leap Overlook is truly spectacular!

Free

Matthiessen state park Illinois Matthiesen State Park

● The unique climate means that many interesting trees and mosses grow here. You can see black oak, red cedar, and many other trees as you explore the park.
● You might be able to spot an eagle when you visit – the Plum Island Eagle Sanctuary is located nearby the park

Free

Illinois Beach State Park Illinois Beach State Park

● Illinois Beach State Park is a great place for birdwatching – you can spot many rare species such as a Solitary Sandpipers and Brewer’s Blackbirds.
● You may not be expecting a beach in Illinois, but you can relax on a sandy beach in this park!

Free

Beautiful fall colors and the Original Office building in the Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois Pere Marquette State Park

● Pere Marquette State Park is the largest state park in Illinois – it’s 8,050 acres!
● Nature here is historic – many of the natural formations were created millions of years ago due to glaciers

Free

The beautiful Kankakee river in Kankakee River State Park Kankakee river State Park

● The Rock Creek Suspension Bridge that takes visitors over the Kankakee River State Park provides a unique mode of transport that can also provide an adrenaline boost!
● The beauty of the Kankakee River is unparalleled.

Free

Fall colors seen from the Garden of the gods in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois Shawnee National Forest

● Hike to the small but beautiful Jackson Falls.
● Visit one of the most beautiful spaces in the park, the Garden of the Gods. This stunning overlook point will give you an unparalleled view of the rest of the forest.

A day pass costs $5

Castle Rock State Park Illinois Castle Rock State Park

● The nature of Castle Rock state park is intentionally being preserved and explored – there are about 27 different distinct types of ferns that have been identified in the area. If you are interested in plants, this park will provide many unique opportunities for you.

Free

Rock Cut State Park, Illinois Rock Cut state park

● Admire the beautiful landscape with plenty of interesting flora. For example, over 100 different types of wildflowers have been spotted in the park.

Free

A rockshelter at the Giant City Sate Park in Illinois Giant city State Park

● The historic accommodations at the Lodge and Cabins are a unique way to immerse yourself in the beauty and ambiance of the park.
● There are historic sites in the park such as carvings in stone faces that date back to the early 1800s

Free

The access road to Ferne Clyffe State Park, one of the best state parks in Illinois Ferne Clyffe State Park

● Hike the half-mile Hawk’s Cave Trail to see the “cave” it’s named for – it’s actually a shelter bluff which is exciting to see in person
● Another exciting trail is the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. The trail is just 0.7 miles long and you can see an incredible waterfall along the way.

Free

French Canyon Falls in Starved Rock State Park, one of the best state parks in Illinois
The French Canyon waterfall in Starved Rock State Park

Best Il State Parks

Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park is likely the most famous and popular park in Illinois, and with good reason too.

Featuring over 13 miles of trails and countless opportunities for fishing, boating, and photography, this state park is a can’t-miss destination if you want to experience the best of what Illinois’ wilderness has to offer.

One of the most beautiful features of Starved Rock are the waterfalls that are present throughout the park. Read this list of 12 of the best waterfalls and check them all off your list when you visit.

The waterfalls are seasonal in some cases, which means that you can’t visit during the dry parts of the year if you want to see them. If you visit during the winter, you may have the chance to see the frozen waterfalls – a truly unique sight to see!

If you are looking for more Starved Rock attractions, click here.

If you’re visiting the Starved Rock region, you’ll likely want to spend several days exploring everything this park and neighboring Matthiesen park have to offer.

If you’re looking for places to stay in the area, check out this list of the 12 Best Airbnbs in Starved Rock for 2021. If you prefer staying in a hotel during your trip, check out this post.

Highlights

  • One of the most beautiful features of Starved Rock State Park are the waterfalls
  • With more than 13 miles of trails, it is one of the best nature park in Illinois for hiking. If you are looking for more amazing hikes in Illinois, click here.
  • The view from the Lover’s Leap Overlook is truly spectacular!

Read Also:

If you are looking for more wonderful Illinois waterfalls, click here.

For an overview of the best canyons in Illinois, click here.

Opening Hours

6:30 AM – Sunset

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

2678 E 875th Road, Oglesby, Illinois 61348

Read Also:

Want to discover more of the area around Starved Rock? Ottawa is a cute small town in Illinois that’s worth exploring. 

Matthiessen state park, one of Illinois' best state parks
Matthiessen State Park (Photo credits: Tripp)

Matthiessen State Park

The beautiful Matthiesen State Park is located nearby the previously mentioned Starved Rock State Park and is a great option to add to a larger itinerary.

The park contains five miles of hiking trails and nine miles of mountain biking and equestrian trails.

You have many ways to explore the park when you visit, and when you do you may encounter several different types of animals such as white-tailed deer, salamanders, and interesting bird species such as the cliff swallow.

Matthiesen can be seen as a smaller brother of Starved Rock.

It also features waterfalls, and beautiful rock formations but without the crowds that you sometimes encounter at Starved Rock.

The park is split into two areas and most visitors find the Northern part, the Dells area, to be the most scenic.

Be sure to wear waterproof or water-resistant shoes when you come as the trails can often get muddy.

Highlights

  • The unique climate means that many interesting trees and mosses grow here. You can see black oak, red cedar, and many other trees as you explore the park.
  • You might be able to spot an eagle when you visit – the Plum Island Eagle Sanctuary is located nearby the park

Opening Hours

7:00 AM – Sunset

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

2500 IL-178, Oglesby, Illinois 61348

There’re separate parking lots for the northern Dells area and the southern Vermilion river area.

Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois Beach State Park

Illinois Beach State Park

The beautiful Illinois Beach State Park stretches along the coast of Lake Michigan. You can experience the white sand and the clear water, as well as the serene views of the lake.

The park features 6.5 miles of beaches and is a total of 4,160 acres.

There are many things to do while at the Illinois Beach State Park.

You can go hiking, try your hand at fishing, go swimming in the beautiful Lake Michigan, and more. In the winter you can even go cross-country skiing in the nearby park area!

You can also go boating here – the North Point Marina is the one you can use if you’d like to use a larger boat. You can also use smaller paddle boats and kayaks to explore the waters of Lake Michigan.

Note that while dogs are not allowed on the beach or within the nature preserve, they are allowed at the campgrounds, picnic areas, and some hiking trails as long as they remain on a leash.

Highlights

  • Illinois Beach State Park is a great place for birdwatching – you can spot many rare species such as a Solitary Sandpipers and Brewer’s Blackbirds.
  • You may not be expecting a beach in Illinois, but you can relax on a sandy beach in this park!

Opening Hours

8:00 AM – Sunset

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

1 Lake Front Drive, Zion, Illinois 60099

Beautiful fall colors and the Original Office building in the Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois
Beautiful fall colors and the Original Office building in the Pere Marquette State Park

Pere Marquette State Park

The Pere Marquette State Park was first established in 1931 and has been a popular destination for outdoor adventurers ever since.

Prior to the time when it was established as a park, this area was once home to Native American populations. You may be able to see evidence of them throughout the park – previous visitors have found pottery shards or arrowheads when they’ve explored the trails.

Later on, it was explored by a French missionary named Pere Marquette, which is how the park got its name.

Today the park is a fantastic destination for those wishing to explore the outdoors. There are thousands of acres of wildlife and natural attractions throughout the park. The park is especially scenic in the fall.

You can hike on many of the trails, try fishing, or even try rock climbing with the right equipment and preparation. Horseback riding and birding are both popular activities in the area.

January and February are good months to spot bald eagles.

Pere Marquette State Park has several campsites – you can bring your own tent or an RV, or rent a cabin. If you don’t like this type of rustic experience you can book a stay in the Pere Marquette Lodge where you find a swimming pool, sauna, and cocktail lounge.

Either way, you have plenty of options to make your trip to Pere Marquette State Park a memorable one.

Highlights

  • Pere Marquette State Park is the largest state park in Illinois – it’s 8,050 acres!
  • The parc’s nature is impressive – many of the natural formations were created millions of years ago due to glaciers
  • Bird watchers can spot 230 different species of birds.

Opening Hours

5:30 AM – 8:00 PM

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

13112 Visitor Center Lane, Grafton, Illinois 62037

The beautiful Kankakee river in Kankakee River State Park
The beautiful Kankakee river in Kankakee River State Park

Kankakee river State Park

Kankakee River State Park features 4,000 acres of parkland that include the shores of the Kankakee River and the picturesque surrounding area.

There is a seemingly endless list of activities that you can partake in when you visit.

You can explore the fantastic hiking routes, bike trails, and equestrian trails that take you through the park.

If you want to participate in activities that will get you closer to the river, you can go canoeing or spend an afternoon fishing.

If you visit the park during the winter, you can try cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling.

The Kankakee River State Park has 2 campgrounds and some amenities for you to take advantage of when you visit. The park store sells some basic necessities. If you forgot items such as ice, camping supplies, or firewood, you can pick them up there.

Highlights

  • The Rock Creek Suspension Bridge that takes visitors over Rock creek and which is part of the Kankakee river trail.
  • The beauty of the Kankakee River is unparalleled.

Opening Hours

6:30 AM – 8:00 PM

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

5314 W, IL-102, Bourbonnais, Illinois 60914

Fall colors seen from the Garden of the gods in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois
Fall colors are seen from the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest

Shawnee National Forest

Located in the southern region of the state, the Shawnee National Forest is a large expanse of woodlands, lakes, and dynamic landscapes that has been managed by the United States Forest Service since August of 1993.

If you are looking for more amazing Southern Illinois State Parks, click here. 

It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who designated the land as nationally protected.

While this makes it a National Forest rather than a State Park, it’s still a fantastic destination that you cannot miss if you enjoy wildlife, exploring, and the best of what the Illinois wilderness has to offer.

Today, visitors to the park can hike through many interesting trails, go rock climbing, horseback riding, and explore the region by boat. The forest is bordered by the Mississippi and Ohio river and there are more unique waterways waiting to be explored.

The Jackson Falls area of the park is where those who want to add some adrenaline to their hikes need to be. Here you can go rappelling and rock climbing. With several sites of differing difficulties, even novices will be able to test their skills. There are over 250 different routes, the easiest ones are graded 5.6, the hardest ones get a grade of 5.13b.

There are several campings dispersed throughout the park where you can spend the night. If that’s not your thing you can book one of the budget hotels near the park.

Even if you are not planning on camping, you can use the vault toilets that are present throughout the park.

Highlights

  • You can hike to the small but beautiful Jackson Falls. The water spills into a turquoise blue pool, and the falls are surrounding with bold rock faces that provide unique climbing opportunities
  • One of the most beautiful spaces in the park is the Garden of the Gods. This stunning overlook point will give you an unparalleled view of the rest of the forest.

Opening Hours

6:00 AM – 10:00 PM

Entrance Fee

A day pass costs $5/vehicle and is required to visit popular day-use recreation areas such as the Garden of the Gods.

Address

50 Highway 145, South Harrisburg Illinois 62946

Castle Rock State Park Illinois
Castle Rock

Castle Rock State Park

Castle Rock State Park is named for a sandstone formation that is situated along the Rock River. The park sits at the western bench of the river, about 3 miles south of Oregon.

The park has a diverse landscape that’s typical of the area, you will find rock formations and ravines and very diverse vegetation, including many different species of ferns.

There are six miles of hiking trails that you can explore when you visit the park.

These trails are well situated throughout the park for spotting birds and other wildlife as you explore.

During the winter, you can try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing over the snowy trails.

About 710 acres of the park are dedicated to a Nature Reserve for study and for preservation. Many of the plants that are protected here are unique to Illinois and this specific region of the state.

There are no standard campgrounds at Castle Rock state park – but there is primitive camping on the Rock Creek bank that is accessible only by canoe.

Highlights

  • The nature of Castle Rock state park is intentionally being preserved and explored – there are about 27 different distinct types of ferns that have been identified in the area. If you are interested in plants, this park will provide many unique opportunities for you.

Opening Hours

6:00 AM – Sunset

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

1365 W Castle Road, Oregon, Illinois 61061

Rock Cut State Park,  Illinois
Rock Cut State Park

Rock Cut State Park

Rock Cut State Park takes its name from the Kenosha-Rockford rail that used to traverse the area that is now the state park. During the construction in 1859 they used to blast through a rock outcrop to create a suitable railway track. Hence, the park got its name.

You may still see railway tracks as you explore the park but most of them are hidden in Pierce Lake.

The state park includes over 3,092 acres of protected land where visitors can hike, bike, fish, and explore the land in other ways. There are about 26 miles of bike trails, 40 miles of hiking trails, and 25 miles of equestrian trails. Some trails are designated for biking or equestrian use only, others are shared with hikers.

In winter some of the trails are groomed for cross-country skiers.

The park also has two fantastic lakes.

Pierce Lake is the larger of the two at 162 acres. It has docks and boat ramps and is very popular for fishing.

The smaller of the two lakes is called Olsen Lake and is a great location for those who wish to swim. In winter, when the ice conditions permit, the lakes are opened for ice skating.

There are almost 300 campsites, a minority can be reserved and the others are on a first-come first-serve basis. The camping remains open year-round.

Highlights

  • Rock Cut State Park has a beautiful landscape with plenty of interesting flora. For example, over 100 different types of wildflowers have been spotted in the park.
  • There is an abundance of wildlife. Visitors who are lucky get to see deer, foxes, beavers, and more

Opening Hours

6:00 AM – 7:00 PM

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

7318 Harlem Road, Loves Park, Illinois 61111

A rockshelter at the Giant City Sate Park in Illinois
A rock shelter at the Giant City State Park in Illinois

Giant city State Park

Giant City State Park is the ideal destination for travelers who are interested in nature.

Beautiful woodland areas and interesting rock formations are present throughout the park.

One particularly popular trail is the Giant City Nature trail which takes hikers past impressive sandstone bluffs, called the “Giant City Streets”. They provide great photo opportunities.

There are many activities you can participate in when you’re in the park. The area features some incredible hiking trails, horseback riding opportunities, places to picnic, and rock climbing trails if you’re looking for an adventure and an adrenaline boost.

The park is rich in history as well. The loge which is still in use dates back to 1936. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1985 the 12 original cabins were rebuilt but they are finished exactly like the original ones. In addition, 22 extra cabins were constructed to accommodate the growing number of guests.

The visitor center within the park houses several interpretive displays, and various education programs are held here throughout the year. These are typically free to attend so if you visit while one is being held, be sure to take advantage of this unique learning opportunity.

Highlights

  • The historic accommodations at the Lodge are a unique way to immerse yourself in the beauty and ambiance of the park. While the cabins are not original, they are exact replicas of the initial ones built in the 1930s
  • There are historic sites in the park such as carvings in stone faces that date back to the early 1800s

Opening Hours

6:00 AM – 10:00 PM

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

235 Giant City Road, Makanda, Illinois 62958

The access road to Ferne Clyffe State Park, one of the best state parks in Illinois
The access road to Ferne Clyffe State Park

Ferne Clyffe State Park

The picturesque Ferne Clyffe State Park has been a favorite spot amongst locals for a long time, and it’s an ideal place to experience the beauty of Illinois nature.

Ferne Clyffe State Park is a fantastic hiking spot for hikers of all skill levels.

There are eighteen different trails that you can pick from. There are no bicycles allowed on these trails, but note that horses are allowed on designated trails except November 1 to April 30 when no horseback riding is allowed within the park.

Ferne Clyffe has many picnic areas that are quite popular – in fact, the park is known for these as well as the beautiful nature. Seven sites come with a grill and toilets. Some even have a playground for the little ones. All these facilities can be used for free.

If you’d like to stay in the area for longer than just a day, Ferne Clyffe State Park has several different options for camping. Whether you want a more primitive campsite or access to shower facilities, you can find a set-up that suits you. Some amenities like the shower facilities are only open seasonally.

Ferne Clyffe is located close to Shawnee Forest and the two can easily be combined if you spend the night in the area.

Highlights

  • Hike the half-mile Hawk’s Cave Trail to see the “cave” it’s named for – it’s actually a huge shelter bluff which is certain to impress you
  • Another exciting trail is the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. The trail is just 0.7 miles long and you can see an incredible waterfall along the way. In the summer kids (and adults) can play in the water and around the waterfall. It is possible to scramble all the way to the top although you should be cautious as the rocks can become very slippery.

Opening Hours

This park is open 24 hours a day.

Entrance Fee

This park is free to visit!

Address

90 Goreville Road, Goreville, Illinois 62939

Tips for visiting these top State Parks in Illinois

Conclusion

No matter which of these stunning State Parks in Illinois you choose to visit, you’ll leave with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural beauty that the state is filled with.

You can spend a few days at a single park or visit a few as you take a road trip around the state.

Either way, you’ll have a great time visiting these incredible Il State Parks.

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