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7 best Southern Illinois State parks you should visit

Are you looking for the best Southern Illinois State Parks? You have come to the right place. 

If you’re looking for a state where you can explore the outdoors while avoiding significant crowds, look no further than Illinois. This state has a whopping 309 state parks for a total of hundreds of thousands of acres of protected land. 33 of these are located in the southern part of the state.

These beautiful parks offer a place to hike, bike, horseback ride, rock climb, and experience the best of what the state of Illinois has to offer.

Here we share a list of 7 Southern Illinois State Parks you definitely must visit while in the area. 

So definitely keep reading.

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

Overview of the best southern Illinois parks

Best Southern Illinois State parks

Highlights Entrance fee
A rockshelter at the Giant City Sate Park in Illinois Giant City State park
  • The opportunity to stay at the historic lodge and unwind from a day of exploring the park in reconstructed cabins is a truly unique one.
  • There are many trails to explore and unlimited opportunities for outdoor recreation throughout the park.

Free

The access road to Ferne Clyffe State Park, one of the best state parks in Illinois Ferne Clyffe State Park
  • The half-mile hike to Hawk’s Cave Trail is sure to impress! The name is slightly misleading as it is actually a huge shelter bluff.
  • For another short but exciting trail, check out the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. It is just 0.7 miles long but it has plenty to offer including a stunning waterfall. The water is safe to wade in and it’s not unusual to see both children and adults playing in the water during the summer months. There is also an opportunity to scramble up the rocks although they can get slippery so this should be done carefully.

Free

The Ghost Dance Canyon in Dixon Springs State Park Dixon Springs State Park
  • A lesser-visited family-friendly park with rippling creeks and impressive caves. After exploring the park you can swim in the modern swimming pool and kids can enjoy the exciting 45-foot waterslide. This facility has a lifeguard on duty at all times.
  • The hike through the Ghost Dance Canyon.

Free

Cave in Rock State Park Cave in Rock State Park
  • The chance to step into the cave that was used as a hideout for outlaw Samuel Mason and his gang. Frank and Jesse James also hid out in this huge cave as well.
  • If you are traveling with a family that includes young children, Cave in Rock State Park is a great option as there are three playground areas that you can visit for free.

Free

Fort Massac Fort Massac State Park
  • The chance to visit the replica of the 1802 American fortress is truly unique. You can see reconstructed barracks, office quarters, and other rooms and buildings.
  • The museum at the visitor center has a collection of artifacts related to the early Native American population and mannequins in period clothing along with other informative exhibits about the rich history of the fort.

Free

The Rend Lake Marina at dusk Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park
  • This park is perfect for birdwatching! You could see species such as the great blue heron or the red-tailed hawk. If you’re lucky, you might even see an American bald eagle!
  • You can unwind on the shores of Rend Lake, the largest manmade lake in the state of Illinois.

Free

The lake at Red Hills State Park Red Hils State Park
  • Although a lot of the natural beauty in Red Hills State Park is exceptional, you’ll have a particularly good time if you enjoy searching for wildflowers. The landscape is dotted with vivid and colorful blooms in the spring and summer months.
  • This park is enjoyable all year round. While the summer months are special due to the exceptional wildflowers, the winter months are truly remarkable due to the opportunities for winter recreation such as ice skating, sledding, and ice fishing!

Free

Best Southern Illinois State Parks

Below you can find our list of 7 amazing Southern Il State Parks.

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

Giant City State Park

If you are interested in experiencing the beautiful natural landmarks that Southern Illinois has to offer while also participating in outdoor activities, Giant City State Park is the perfect place for you.

The park is nestled in the Shawnee National Forest and its landscape is defined by woodland areas and fascinating rock formations.

To see the massive sandstone structures that gave their name to the park you can hike the Giant City Nature Trail. It is the park’s most popular hike.

The trail takes you past some impressive sandstone bluffs which have been nicknamed the “Giant City Streets”.

This is a great spot for a photo op as well.

In addition to hiking, you can explore the park on horseback.

You can find countless spots to set up a picnic for a lunch or snack break.

Those who are looking for an adrenaline boost can go rappelling and rock climbing in 2 dedicated areas of the park, the Devil’s Standtable and Shelter one.

Overnight visitors can stay in the Giant City lodge, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936.

The 12 original cabins were reconstructed in 1985 but retain their original charm and 22 cabins were added over the years as well.

For a complete experience, head to the visitor center within the park.

You can spend some time reading over the interpretive displays or participate in various educational programs that are generally free.

Highlights

  • The opportunity to stay at the lodge and unwind from a day of exploring the park in historical cabins is a truly unique one.
  • There are many trails to explore and unlimited opportunities for outdoor recreation throughout the park.

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
Fall colors along the access road to Ferne Clyffe State Park

Ferne Clyffe State Park

The beautiful Ferne Clyffe State Park is popular amongst locals and tourists alike!

This stunning state park in Illinois offers a selection of exciting hiking trails at varying difficulty levels.

The shortest trail is just 0.25 miles, the longest trail is an 8-mile stretch and leads from the Illinois to the Ohio River, passing somewhere halfway through the state park.

If you’re a beginning hiker or an expert explorer, you’ll find something that is a perfect fit for you.

Horseback riding is allowed between April 30th and November 1st.

During long hikes, you make take a break at one of the many spots for picnicking and day use. Some of them have grills and toilet facilities, and there are a few playgrounds throughout as well which makes the park family-friendly.

You can easily stay overnight at Ferne Clyffe State Park by utilizing one of the many campsites. You can choose a bare-bones approach with one of the primitive campsites or you can book a spot at one of the more luxurious campgrounds with modern facilities.

Ferne Clyffe State Park is located near the Shawnee Forest so you can easily visit both if you include an overnight stay.

Highlights

  • The half-mile hike to Hawk’s Cave Trail is sure to impress! The name is slightly misleading as it is actually a huge shelter bluff.
  • For another short but exciting trail, check out the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. It is just 0.7 miles long but it has plenty to offer including a stunning waterfall. The water is safe to wade in and it’s not unusual to see both children and adults playing in the water during the summer months. There is also an opportunity to scramble up the rocks although they can get slippery so this should be done carefully.

Read Also:

Here you can find an overview of more amazing waterfalls in Southern Illinois

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

The Ghost Dance Canyon in Dixon Springs State Park
The Ghost Dance Canyon. After a downpour, this canyon counts numerous small waterfalls. (Photo credits: Curtis Abert)

Dixon Springs State Park

In the Illinois Shawnee Hills lies the beautiful Dixon Springs State Park, one of the best-kept natural secrets in southern Illinois!

Although there’s a wide variety of stunning natural landmarks and opportunities for outdoor recreation it’s not nearly as crowded as other state parks.

If you are planning a trip to visit this beautiful state park you’ll be able to go birdwatching, the visitors center offers free birdwatching guides that list all the different songbirds that call the park home.

Hikers will be welcomed by an abundance of ferns, ivy, and mossy boulders. Keep your eyes peeled as you may spot deer and other wildlife as you explore the nature trails that wind throughout the park.

The park is located in hilly terrain and after heavy rains, many streamlets will meander down through the lush greenery to form small waterfalls.

The Ghost Dance Canyon is a great 0.7-mile trail that is rated as moderate. It’s a short trail but it has a lot to offer. It is recommended to visit the canyon after heavy rainfall as you will witness a series of waterfalls that are not there on dry days.

The park counts 2 family-friendly campgrounds with basic facilities. A swimming pool with a kid-sized slide is sure to keep the young ones entertained on hot days.

Dixon Springs State Park is one of the many dog-friendly Southern Illinois state parks.

Dogs are welcome but they must remain on a leash at all times.

Highlights

  • A lesser-visited family-friendly park with rippling creeks and impressive caves. After exploring the park you can swim in the modern swimming pool and kids can enjoy the exciting 45-foot waterslide. This facility has a lifeguard on duty at all times.
  • The hike through the Ghost Dance Canyon.

Opening hours:

This park is open 24 hours a day.

Entry fee:

This park is free to visit.

Address:

​982 IL. 146, Golconda IL 62938

Read Also:

If you are looking for more canyons in Illinois, click here.

The famous cave at Cave in Rock State Park, a must-visit southern Illinois State Park
The cave used to be a hideaway for pirates. (Photo credits: David Wilson)

Cave in Rock State Park

The stunning Southern Illinois Cave-in-Rock State Park is built around an impressive cave at the edge of the Ohio River.

The 55-foot deep cave was once a hideaway for notorious river pirates and outlaw gangs. All kinds of cruel crimes took place in this cave. This makes the cave all the more intriguing.

Today the first part is open for you to explore.

The cave is without any doubt the highlight of the park but in addition to exploring the cave visitors can also go hiking, fishing, geocaching, and enjoy a wide variety of water sports on the Ohio River.

The park also boosts some great picnic areas, some with an adjoining playground to stop the kids from getting bored.

Those that have a craving for food but didn’t bring their own picnic can taste some delicious southern-style cooking in the park’s restaurant.

If you wish to extend your stay at this stunning Illinois state park you can book one of the campsites or cabin accommodations.

The cabins are perched 80 feet above the mighty Ohio River and offer beautiful views of the surrounding area and the river that winds through the region. Each cabin features a kitchenette, a full bathroom, and a private balcony overlooking the river.

Those who are staying at the park might consider using the free ferry service to make a side-trip to the nearby Amish community in Kentucky.

Cave in Rock is another Illinois State Park that is proudly dog friendly. You can bring your four-legged friends but they must remain on a leash at all times.

Highlights

  • The chance to step into the cave that was used as a hideout for outlaw Samuel Mason and his gang. Frank and Jesse James also hid out in this huge cave as well.
  • If you are traveling with a family that includes young children, Cave in Rock State Park is a great option as there are three playground areas that you can visit for free.

Opening hours

6:00 AM to 10:00 PM

Entrance fee

This park is free to visit.

Address

1 New State Park Rd, Cave-in-Rock, IL 62919

Fort Massac is one of the best Southern Illinois State Parks
Fort Massac

Fort Massac State Park

Although Fort Massac State Park offers its visitors a wide selection of outdoor activities and natural landscapes to explore, one of the most unique features of this Illinois State park is its history that stretches back to before the American Revolutionary War.

The park is located in a very strategic location overlooking the Ohio river.

Already in 1540, when the first Spanish explorers discovered this region, they took advantage of this strategic spot by building primitive fortified encampments.

The Spanish were followed by the French who were the first to built a real fort on the site.

Fort De L’Ascension was originally constructed in 1757 and rebuilt 3 years later. It was then also renamed Fort Massiac.

By the time the British arrived the French had abandoned the fort and the Chickasaw tribe had burned it to the ground.

The British anglicized the name to Massac and this is how the state park got its name.

Ironically they never rebuilt the fort, it was only in 1794 that it was reconstructed at the behest of George Washington.

Over the following years, it protected military and commercial interests in the Ohio valley and played a minor role in the War of 1812.

It was finally decommissioned in 1862 after a measles epidemic that killed several soldiers.

The fort that can be visited in the park today is a replica constructed in 2002. It is a reconstruction of the American Fort that was present at this site in 1802. The foundation of the original French Fort is also still visible.

Fort Massac State Park also has the unique accolade of being the state’s first – it has been welcoming visitors since November 5, 1908.

If you’re interested in the history of the park or in reenactments of history in general, you’ll want to visit Fort Massac State Park in October.

During this month there are various historic programs where visitors can learn about what life was like for early American pioneers and the military that was stationed in the fort.

It’s a family-friendly event with contemporary food and live music.

Highlights

  • The chance to visit the replica of the 1802 American fortress is truly unique. You can see reconstructed barracks, office quarters, and other rooms and buildings.
  • The museum at the visitor center has a collection of artifacts related to the early Native American population and mannequins in period clothing along with other informative exhibits about the rich history of the fort.

Opening hours

This park is open 24 hours a day.

Entry fee

This park is free to visit.

Address

1308 E 5th St., Metropolis, IL 62960

The Rend Lake Marina at dusk
The Rend Lake Marina at dusk (Photo credits: Dasha Bondareva)

Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park

The beautiful Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park is the best place for those who are interested in shoreline recreation such as boating, fishing, or swimming.

Thanks to a nine-mile equestrian trail it is also possible to explore the area by horseback.

The trail loops around the wildlife area of the park and you have good chances of spotting deer, raccoon, pheasants, as well as some of the feathered residents of the park such as the great blue heron and red-tailed hawk.

If you are visiting between April 15th and September 15th, you will be able to try horseback riding through the beautiful Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park.

This beautiful Southern Illinois State Park is located along the banks of Rend Lake and its reservoir.

It is named for Wayne Fitzgerrell, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives who was one of the local voices that called for the damming of the Big Muddy River. This action led to the creation of Rend Lake.

Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park is perfect for anyone who wants to find a place for fishing or hunting.

The main type of fish that can be caught here is white and black crappie as well as large-mouth bass, bluegill, or catfish.

The park is also a popular seasonal hunting spot for those wishing to hunt deer or pheasant.

With basic tent sites and modern campsites with sanitary facilities, there are plenty of different ways to stay overnight at Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park.

There used to be a resort as well but this has been shut down in 2016 and today it is still unsure if it will ever reopen.

Highlights:

  • This park is perfect for birdwatching! You could see species such as the great blue heron or the red-tailed hawk. If you’re lucky, you might even see an American bald eagle!
  • You can unwind on the shores of Rend Lake, the largest manmade lake in the state of Illinois.

Opening hours

This park is open 24 hours a day.

Entrance fee

This park is free to visit during the day and you can book a campsite or RV site for an additional fee.

Address

11094 Ranger Rd, Whittington, Illinois 62897

The lake at Red Hills State Park
The lake at Red Hills State Park (Photo credits: Mark Goebel)

Red Hills State Park

The diverse landscape of the Red Hills State Park in Southern Illinois offers ample opportunities to explore woodlands, water features, trails, and more.

There are over eight miles of trails that you can explore on foot, by bike, or on horseback. During your hikes you will come across wooded hills, amazing gorges, and colorful prairies with wildflowers. The northern part of the park, above US-50, consists of dense forest where the southern part is more open.

For a scenic overview of the area, you can hike to the 120-feet high viewing tower. Red Hills is the highest stretch of land between St. Louis and Cincinnati.

The lake is nearly 40-acres large. A boat ramp is available. Anglers can take to the water or fish from the lake’s edge. When the lake freezes it becomes an attraction for ice skaters and those who want to give ice fishing a try.

The park counts numerous shaded picnic areas with grills. If you will be at the park during mealtime but you’re not interested in packing a picnic, the Trace Inn Restaurant is a great option. It is open year-round and offers delicious fare in a rustic setting.

Overnight guests can stay at the campground. There are over a hundred campsites available and they offer amenities such as electricity, toilet facilities, and showers.

Red Hills State Park is one of the many dog-friendly southern Illinois state parks. Dogs are welcome but they must remain on a leash at all times.

Highlights

  • Although a lot of the natural beauty in Red Hills State Park is exceptional, you’ll have a particularly good time if you enjoy searching for wildflowers. The landscape is dotted with vivid and colorful blooms in the spring and summer months.
  • This park is enjoyable all year round. While the summer months are special due to the exceptional wildflowers, the winter months are truly remarkable due to the opportunities for winter recreation such as ice skating, sledding, and ice fishing!

Opening hours

6:00 AM to 9:00 PM

Entrance fee

This park is free to visit.

Address

3571 Ranger Lane, Sumner, IL 62466

Conclusion

Although Southern Illinois has plenty of state parks to explore, this list includes seven of the best.

Whether you are looking for a place to camp, trails to hike, or historic structures to explore, you’ll find something for you in one of these Southern Illinois State Parks.

Here is an overview of more amazing Illinois State Parks. If you are looking for an overview of the cutest small towns in Illinois, click here.

Illinois is home to some incredible castles. Here is an overview of the best Illinois castles to visit.

Are you looking for more fun things to do in Southern Illinois, click here.

If you are visiting Starved Rock, have a look at our Starved Rock travel guide in which we share the best Starved Rock travel tips.

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