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10 amazing canyons in Illinois you need to see

Are you searching for the best canyons in Illinois to hike over the weekend? There are 70 parks in Illinois, including forests, wildlife areas, and nature reserves among others.

Every year, you can join more than 44 million visitors who come to enjoy the natural areas in Illinois.

But which are the best canyons for the best hiking in Illinois?

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Overview of the best canyons in Illinois

Here’s a comparison table of all canyons that we cover in this post. Read on for a short description of all the canyons.

Amazing Illinois canyons

Where Highlights
Little Grand Canyon

Shawnee National Forest

  • Wildflowers, making the canyon cheerful
  • Gives beautiful vistas of the Mississippi river
  • Several animals to see along the way
Wildcat Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • Has the tallest waterfall in the park
  • Is the deepest canyon in Starved Rock State Park at 90 feet
LaSalle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park Illinois LaSalle Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • Visitors can stand behind the waterfall
  • One of the most photographed canyons in the park
St. Louis Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • Houses one of the highest waterfalls in the park which is spring-fed, this means it is more likely than others to have water year-round
The frozen Ottawa Canyon Falls in Starved Rock State Park in Illinois Ottawa Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • Beautiful canyon that is lesser-visited and offers a more peaceful experience
  • See the frozen waterfall in winter, if you’re lucky ice climbers might be showing off their skills
French Canyon Falls in Starved Rock State Park French Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • Family-friendly hike
  • There are mini-falls as you enter the canyon
Hennepin Falls in Starved Rock State Park Hennepin Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • A peaceful canyon in the far eastern section of the park
  • The Hennepin overlook offers distant views over the Illinois river
Frozen Tonty Canyon in Starved Rock State Park, Illinois Tonty Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • You may see 2 waterfalls
  • It is less crowded compared to other canyons
Lonetree Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • The trail to the canyon is a nice introduction to Starved Rock for first-time visitors
The colorful foliage in Autumn in Starved Rock State Park Illinois Canyon

Starved Rock State Park

  • It offers river crossings and wildflowers in spring
  • There is a small and lovely waterfall with a pond on the far end of the canyon
(Photo credits: Kevin)

Little Grand Canyon

Located in Shawnee National Forest

Highlights

• Wildflowers, making the canyon cheerful
• Gives beautiful vistas of the Mississippi river
• Several animals to see along the way

Short description of the canyon

The Shawnee National Forest is grand. Most people who come here rush to see the Garden of the gods and miss the beauty of the Little Grand Canyon. This deep box canyon is the result of hundreds of years of erosion.

There is a 3.4-mile trail through the canyon, ideal for a weekend hike.

The trail offers breathtaking vistas not only of the canyon but also of the Mississippi River floodplains.

In addition to that, it also takes you along seasonal waterfalls and impressive sandstone overhangs. More than enough to make your trip worthwhile.

The descend into the canyon is a fun and adventurous undertaking. It follows the creek bed, there are steps to help you descend but you still have to be careful as the steps can get slippery. Certainly in the melting season or after heavy rains when the river is flowing abundantly.

The canyon floor is home to lush vegetation such as ferns.

While there, you may see animals, such as mink, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and deer among others.

The rocks also house several snake species, but you may never spot these unless you really go looking for them.

Bring bug spray as mosquitoes are common here and also bring your boots as the bottom of the canyon can get muddy.

Tip: If you are looking for a pair of waterproof hiking shoes, have a look at our selection.

The canyon can be visited any time of the year but we recommend going in autumn or spring. In autumn you can see the fall foliage while in spring the colorful wildflowers will cheer up the canyon.

Directions

From Interstate 57 take exit 54 and keep left following signs for IL-13.

Merge onto IL-13W. Stay on IL-13W for 16.7 miles. Turn left onto Old Hwy 13 and after 4.6 miles make another left onto IL-127.

Turn right onto Hoffman Rd. At the end of this road make a left onto Hickory Ridge Rd and keep following this road until you arrive at the intersection with Little Grand Canyon Rd.

Turn right onto this road and continue until you get to the parking lot.

All of the other described canyons can be found in Starved Rock State Park.

Starved Rock is about a 1,5-hour drive from Chicago. This makes it a great day trip, or even better, a weekend getaway.

There are also several cozy Starved Airbnb’s where you can your friends and family can spend the night. If you are looking for hotels or the best towns to stay near Starved Rock, click here. For amazing cabins in Starved Rock, click here.

Follow I-55S and I-80W until Exit 81 for IL-178. Drive South on IL-178 until you cross the Illinois River.

Starved Rock State Park is the first left after the river.

If you are looking for more things to do in the Starved Rock area, click here.

The Wildcat Canyon is the deepest canyon in Starved Rock State Park

Wildcat Canyon

Located in Starved Rock State Park

Highlights

• Is the deepest canyon in Starved Rock State Park at 90 feet
• Has the tallest waterfall in the park

Short description of the canyon

Wildcat Canyon has many superlatives describing it. It houses the tallest waterfall in Starved Rock Park at 80 feet and is also the deepest canyon in the park at 90 feet.

For more information about the Wildcat canyon falls, click here.

There are two viewing points at the topmost area of the canyon.

If you visit during winter and love ice climbing, Wildcat Canyon is one of the four canyons where you can do that in the park. Note that if you want to climb the icefall you will need to register at the visitor center.

There are two easy Starved Rock trails to get to the canyon; the Campanula and Bluff trail.

The Bluff trail starts at the visitor center and will bring you to the top of the canyon. Here you will find stairs to descend to the bottom. Follow the river trail to get back to the visitor center.

The Campanula trail, which also starts at the visitor center, is especially an easy trail if you bring your family for the hike.

You will hike across the French canyon on your way to the Wildcat canyon. This smaller canyon has views that you will enjoy.

Note that during the rainy days, the creek you have to get through can flood. However, you can still get breathtaking views of the waterfall from the boardwalks.

Directions

The hike to the Wildcat canyon starts from the visitor center. See above for directions to the visitor center.

LaSalle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park Illinois
The LaSalle waterfall in Starved Rock State Park

LaSalle Canyon

Located in Starved Rock State Park

Highlights

• Visitors can stand behind the waterfall
• One of the most photographed canyons in the park

Short description of the canyon

LaSalle Canyon is another gorgeous canyon that you can find in Starved Rock.

On your way to the canyon, stand at the bridge built over the canyon creek and learn about the history of the creek and the canyon.

Along the way, you can enjoy the great flora and fauna of the State Park. Some of the most common birds along the trail you might spot include bald eagles, blue herons, and white pelicans.

You will also have the chance to see small animals, such as chipmunks, raccoons, red foxes, and gray squirrels.

As you approach the canyon you will be surprised by the towering cliffs. It’s a sharp contrast with the flat riverside trails.

There is a waterfall in the canyon, but it is only 25 feet tall. This means that it is not the tallest, but it is unique in that visitors can walk behind it. LaSalle Canyon waterfall is moreover one of few waterfalls in Starved Rock that is likely to have water year-round.

The path that leads behind the canyon takes hikers to Tonty canyon but is closed for now. When it reopens it’s absolutely worthwhile to combine both canyons.

Directions

The canyon can be found around 2 miles from the visitor center (one way).

It’s also possible to park your car at the Parkman’s Plain trailhead. From there you only have to walk half a mile to reach the canyon.

If you use the out and back river trail that starts at the visitor center you will pass several other beautiful canyons as well as the Illinois Dam.

The great waterfall in the St Louis Canyon

St Louis Canyon

Located in Starved Rock State Park

Highlights

• Houses one of the highest waterfalls in the park which is spring-fed, this means it is more likely than others to have water year-round
• The chance to see lots of animals including wild turkeys and turkey vultures, and birds such as woodpeckers. Bald eagles can also be seen in winter.

Short description of the canyon

The St Louis Canyon was one of our favorites canyons in Starved Rock.

You will reach the canyon by a 1.5-mile canyon trail which starts at the visitor center.

Although we didn’t see any animals the park is home to many different species of wildlife including foxes, gray squirrels, chipmunks, and many others. Due to the many visitors wildlife sightings have become rare.

There are also several species of birds, such as warblers, woodpeckers, sparrows, and several others.

As you hike the area, you can hear chorus of green frogs that live in the pools at the bottom of the falls and in the creeks.

Several varieties of plants are scattered everywhere in the forest, including columbine, bellwort, bloodroot, white snakeroot, coralroot orchids, and jewelweed among many more.

The highlight of the Canyon is the view of the impressive 80′ high waterfall.

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This waterfall is spring-fed. Although it still needs rainfall, the waterfall will last longer through the seasons so that visitors can enjoy it more.

In 2004, there was a canyon wall collapse whose evidence is still visible today.

Directions

You will reach the canyon by hiking the 1.5-mile trail that starts from the visitor center.

If you are looking for a shorter hike, park your car at the St Louis Canyon car park. This parking lot is located just south of the park entrance on Route 178.

It’s 0.6 miles from the canyon and the hike should take approx. 10-15 minutes.

Note that no matter where you start your hike, to enter the canyon you will need to climb a steep staircase.

The frozen Ottawa Canyon Falls in Starved Rock State Park in Illinois
The frozen Ottawa Canyon in Starved Rock (Picture by Tom Gill. (Photo Licence)

Ottawa Canyon

Located in Starved Rock

Highlights

  • Beautiful canyon that is lesser-visited and offers a more peaceful experience
  • See the frozen waterfall in winter, if you’re lucky ice climbers might be showing off their skills

Short description of the canyon

You will find the Ottawa Canyon next to Kaskaskia Canyon at the far east end of Starved Rock.

The Ottawa Canyon is among the small ones. However, its waterfall is still impressive, and it is one of the four canyons in the park where ice climbing is allowed during winter.

The neighboring Kaskaskia canyon is deeper than the Ottawa canyon, but its waterfall is smaller.

Although these two canyons have fewer visitors, perhaps because of their long distance from the visitor center, they are worth a visit.

Moreover, you can visit them all year round. Making them perfect to escape from the crowds during high season.

The trail that leads to the canyon from the visitor center is 3.9 miles one-way.

As you hike the trail, you will walk past the Council overhang. This is a deep cave recess with black walls seemingly tarnished by smoke.

It is rumored that this cave was a hideout for Native council and religious meetings.

If you have the time and the fitness it’s absolutely worthwhile to start your hike at the visitor center.

If for some reason you want to shorten the trail you can do so by parking your car at the canyon’s parking lot off of State Route 71. From there it is only half a mile to the canyon.

Since depending on the time of the year you will need to wade through a creek to reach the canyons we recommend bringing waterproof hiking shoes.

Directions

If you have time and love a longer hike ( 3.9 miles one way), start at the visitor center and follow the riverside trail to the Ottawa Canyon.

For those that have less time, park your car at the eastern gate of the park off of State Route 71.

From here you will reach the canyons after a 0.5 miles hike.

French Canyon Falls in Starved Rock State Park
The French Canyon in Starved Rock State Park

French Canyon

Located in Starved Rock

Highlights

• Family-friendly hike
• There are mini-falls as you enter the canyon

Short description of the canyon

French Canyon is one of the smallest canyons in Starved Rock State Park. It lies only 0.4 miles from the visitor center making it one of the most popular canyons to visit in Starved Rock.

The canyon is home to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the park.

The waterfall can be admired from above and below.

Follow the trail from the visitor center to reach the lookout point. If you want to admire the waterfall from below you need to enter the canyon through the riverbed.

This may involve getting your feet wet if you have to wade through the water to reach the bottom of the fall.

Depending on the season you may encounter a narrow creek or a relatively wide river at the entrance of the canyon.

The clambering that’s involved to enter the canyon is not hard at all, just be sure to wear waterproof hiking shoes with a good grip, and kids will love it as they can slide down the mini-falls.

Here you can find more info about the French Canyon falls.

Directions

The hike to the French Canyon starts at the visitor center. The out-and-back trail is only 0.4 miles long.

Hennepin Falls in Starved Rock State Park
Hennepin Falls (Photo credits: Justin Meisser)

Hennepin Canyon

Located at Starved Rock State Park

Highlights

• A peaceful canyon in the far eastern section of the park
• The Hennepin overlook offers distant views over the Illinois river

Short description of the canyon

The Hennepin canyon is one of the tallest gorges in Starved Rock State Park.

Not many people visit the Hennepin canyon. The canyon, therefore, is a great spot when you need peace and quietness.

It’s also home to one of the best waterfalls in the park and one or more ice falls in winter.

The Hennepin waterfall is however rain-dependent, you should plan your visit in the melting season or after a heavy downpour to see it.

As you make your way to the Hennepin Gorge, you may be lucky enough to spot several species of forest birds such as pileated woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, barred owls, and wild turkeys.

The hike to the Hennepin Canyon starts at the visitor center and is 3.1 miles one-way.

You start by following the river trail, followed by a woodland hike through the bluffs. This will bring you to two points where you can enjoy distant views over the Illinois River.

You can then either walk away from the river for more views of the Hennepin canyon or continue in an easterly direction towards Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyon.

For some variety, you can hike back to the visitor center along the bluff trail.

This is a relatively long hike with several staircases along the way, but it is only of moderate difficulty and is a nice outing for the whole family.

Directions

The canyon can be reached by following the 3.1 miles trail from the visitor center.

For a shorter hike, park your car at the small parking lot along E 11th Rd, just off Route 71. From the parking lot, you will then follow the bluff trail along the canyon’s edge until you arrive at the overlook.

Frozen Tonty Canyon in Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
Frozen Tonty canyon. This is another one of the falls that are open to ice climbers.

Tonty Canyon

Located in Starved Rock State Park

Highlights

• You may see 2 waterfalls
• Since the Tonti bridge is closed fewer people make the trip to this canyon and it is less crowded compared to other canyons

Short description of the canyon

For now Tonty canyon is completely closed to the public.  Please consult the State Park’s website for updates.

If you are looking for a hidden gem in Starved Rock, you should absolutely visit Tonty Canyon, with a height of 60-70 foot, one of the highest canyons in the park.

If you visit the canyon during winter, it is also a great spot for ice climbing.

What makes it really unique is that if you visit the canyon during spring when the ice melts or after heavy rainfall, you can possibly even see 2 waterfalls.

Note that we advise you to wear water shoes as the entrance and large parts of the canyon floor can sometimes be flooded. The path can also get very muddy.

Directions

Before 2018, there was a bridge that allowed you to get to Tony canyon with ease.

In 2018, the bridge was damaged and closed, and there is no sign that the bridge might be coming back.

Without the bridge, fewer people visit the canyon, and you can enjoy its peacefulness when you make it there.

You will have to follow the LaSalle Canyon trail to get to Tonty Canyon.

Pass behind the LaSalle waterfall and look out for the sign that says “TO BOATS.” Continue with the trail from the sign, and you will get to Tonty.

If you want to shorten the hike, park at the Parkman Plain trailhead and start there.

Here you can find more info about the Tonty Canyon Trail.

Lonetree Canyon

Located in Starved Rock

Highlights

• The trail to the canyon is a nice introduction to Starved Rock for first-time visitors

Short description of the canyon

Lonetree canyon is located where the Bluff and River trail meet.

Combining the two trails creates a loop of 2.6 miles which takes you past several canyons as well as some nice vistas over the Illinois River.

This trail is a nice introduction to the park for first-time visitors.

You will see wildflowers in spring and if you manage to come early or late, and avoid the crowds, you may see some big wildlife such as white-tailed deer or raccoons.

Birds are also common in the park.

Keep your eyes peeled for woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, and tree sparrows, amongst others.

Lonetree canyon was named after exactly that, a lone tree standing near the end of the canyon. The canyon is also unique in the sense that it’s the only canyon in the park that never features a waterfall.

It’s no longer possible to enter the canyon, you can only see it from above from the Bluff trail.

Nearby sandstone point is an excellent place to take a break from hiking while taking in the views from the Illinois River.

Directions

Start your hike at the visitor center. We recommend doing the loop counter-clockwise, starting with the Bluff or Campanula trail and returning along the riverbank.

The colorful foliage in Autumn in Starved Rock State Park

Illinois Canyon

Located in Starved Rock State Park

Highlights

• A fun and, thanks to river crossings, a slightly adventurous trail leads into the canyon. A great hike to do with kids
• There is a small and lovely waterfall on the far end of the canyon

Short description of the canyon

You can visit the Illinois Canyon any time of the year.

However, it is more fun during spring when you can see the bounty of colorful wildflowers and the breathtaking waterfall with its charming pond.

The canyon is situated at the far eastern edge of the park, 4.7 miles from the visitor center.

Both the Bluff and River trails that start at the visitor center will eventually take you to the canyon. These are beautiful trails and it is worth doing the complete hike if you have the time.

If you’re short on time you can start your hike from a parking lot next to Rte 71, almost at the entrance of the canyon.

Once inside the canyon the trail slingers along the creek until it reaches the far end of the gorge, where the waterfall is with a little pond at the bottom. The water level of the creek varies, it can be quite high in spring. This means that reaching the waterfall may involve getting your feet wet.

The trail can also become very muddy.

As such, bring your waterproof hiking boots. Once you bring the right gear, the river crossings will offer so much fun, certainly for the little ones.

Even though this waterfall is among the smallest in the park, it’s a favorite amongst families with young children because of them.

Directions

Start the hike at the Illinois Canyon parking lot, and you will have two miles of the hiking trail to cover. If you start at the visitor center it will be around 9 miles out & back.

Conclusion

Most of the canyons in Illinois are located inside Starved Rock State Park being one of the best state parks in Illinois.

If you plan well, you can hike three or more canyons as they are close together. Most of the canyons are accessible during all seasons, but they are best visited in spring.

Four of the canyons allow ice climbing, so be sure to plan your visit in winter if you want to do some ice climbing yourself or if you want to see these thrill-seekers in action.

Bring the necessary gear to hike through creeks, which might be muddy and sometimes flooded.

See the web story that accompanies this post.

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