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Starved Rock in winter: 9 amazing winter activities (+tips)

Visit Starved Rock in winter to witness towering ice waterfalls and snow-covered canyons.

Located just ninety miles from downtown Chicago, Starved Rock is an ideal destination to explore the natural beauty of Illinois’ best state park.

While many prefer to see the Park’s natural wonders in the warmer months, you can’t beat the peaceful serenity of Starved Rock State Park in winter.

Take a look at our top recommendations if you’re planning a trip to Starved rock.

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Best tips for your Starved Rock trip

Here is an overview of the most important things to know before traveling to Starved Rock.

Where to stay:

Inside Starved Rock: Starved Rock lodge

Outside Starved Rock: Hampton Inn Ottawa( comfortable hotel), Super 8 by Wyndham Ottawa Starved Rock ( basic hotel), Private cabin with huge whirlpool ( vacation home)

Renting a car: Check out Rentalscars.com and Discover cars. There are rental car offices at both Peoria airport and Chicago O’Hara airport. Both airports are about 1.5 hours away from Starved Rock.

Need domestic travel insurance for your Starved Rock trip? Here you can find all info on domestic travel insurance for your trip.

What to pack for your Starved Rock trip? Hiking shoes, hiking poles, and ice cleats if you visit in winter.

Things to do in Starved Rock in the winter

Here we share a list of amazing Starved Rock winter activities.

Frozen Tonty Canyon in Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
The frozen Tonty waterfall is stunning and open to ice climbers.

See the frozen waterfalls

As you make your way through the quiet, undisturbed trails of a snow-filled Starved Rock, it will feel as if time has stopped when you finally catch a glimpse of the icy waterfalls. This otherworldly beauty is a truly unforgettable experience that you cannot encounter at any other time of year.

There are numerous different trails that lead to the frozen waterfalls.

Getting to French Canyon Waterfall is easy, it’s only 0.5 miles away from the visitor center. However, the real winter beauty can be found at the following three canyons.

The shortest waterfall is LaSalle Canyon Waterfall reaching heights of only twenty feet high.

Wildcat Canyon is home to the tallest waterfall, but the absolute star is Ottawa Canyon Waterfall.

The rolling streams and protruding limestone create a beautiful turquoise color in the frozen, suspended waterfall.

If the conditions are safe, explore the stunning views from behind the waterfall as well or go adventure in the hidden caves. Archeologists have found that one particular overhang in an Ottawa alcove was the spot that Native Tribes used for ceremonies because of the natural acoustics and surrounding beauty.

The hike is very reasonable as well at about two miles roundtrip from the parking lot next to Route 71.

If you’re lucky you might spot ice climbers at these three ice falls. Of course, you can also try this yourself, more info here.

It is no wonder that the frozen waterfalls top the list for best Starved Rock winter activities.

Here you can find more information on the different waterfalls in Starved Rock.

A snow-covered staircase in Starved Rock State Park
A Starved Rock winter wonderland

Go winter hiking in Starved Rock

Hiking with heavy, bulky layers is always a bit more of a challenge in the winter months.

However, there are also obvious benefits to the chilly climate.

First and foremost, there is nothing more beautiful than a fresh downpour of snow.

Hiking in Starved Rock amongst white branches with crisp air against your cheeks is truly serene.

Secondly, the large groups are nice and warm in their homes, so you don’t have to share the park with summer crowds.

Finally, there are more than thirteen miles of trails in this State Park filled with beautiful wildlife and majestic bluffs and canyons.

Make sure to stop by the Visitor Center to check the trail conditions and pick up some trail maps or download the PDF on your phone. 

Park guides advise travelers to always stay on the trails to ensure hiker safety.

Note that all of the trails are marked with colored posts that have corresponding colors to the ones on your map. Additionally, yellow dots on posts indicate that you’re moving away from the lodge, whereas white means you are returning.

If you still feel uneasy about braving the cold alone, contact the visitor center to inquire about the best-guided winter hikes in Starved Rock.

Since some trails can get quite slippery during winter we advise you to bring ice cleats.

Here you can find more information on the best ice cleats for walking. If you are looking for the best ice cleats for boots, click here. 

Ottawa Canyon in Starved Rock State Park in Winter
Ottawa canyon is superb in winter

Go snowshoeing

Snowshoeing is a fantastic activity for beginners and experienced snowshoers alike (not to mention great exercise!).

The flat surface allows for easy movement across the park trails for a day of fun and an alternative to hiking.

While snowshoeing, you can still stand atop the sandstone bluffs, peer up at the waterfalls, and admire the incredible rock formations that you would if you were hiking.

Note that you will have to bring your own pair. Unfortunately, they can’t be rented in the park.

Bald Eagle
Many bald eagles can be spotted in winter in Starved Rock

Go wildlife spotting

Enjoy unobstructed views of Starved Rock’s wildlife.

With the greenery of summer gone, you might see a variety of interesting animals such as herons, coyotes, wild turkeys, and deer.

Smaller animals in winter include the red fox, raccoon, and opossum.

The most highly sought-after animal is the bald eagle which is especially easy to spot during the winter months.

Read Also:

If you are interested in seeing some bald eagles, Grafton Illinois is also a great place to spot these majestic birds.

You will find most of the eagles near the Illinois River in search of food since the smaller waterways froze over.

One of the best areas for this is by the lock and dam where it’s very common to spot their white head hunting.

Don’t forget to bring your binoculars!

If you are looking for a pair of lightweight binoculars, click here. 

If you want to view other wildlife, there are two prime locations to go for the best wildlife viewing.

The first is the Illinois Waterway Visitor’s Center outdoor viewing platform.

The second location is at the top of Starved Rock.

An Ice Climber in the Maligne Canyon
An ice climber conquering an ice fall in the Maligne Canyon in Canada (picture taken by Keith Roper)

Go ice climbing

Brave the heights to go ice climbing!

Only experienced climbers are allowed to climb through Starved Rock and must register at the visitor center.

If you’re a beginner, check out Vertical Adventures where you’ll receive a lesson and can practice on the 32-foot climbing tower before your first climb. At Vertical Adventures, there is no need to pack your own gear.

Show up and you’ll receive your ice climbing shoes and a helmet!

More experienced climbers can begin climbing the frozen waterfalls whenever they feel comfortable. Once you get to the top, make sure to stop and take in the beauty and calmness of the beautiful winter day and gorgeous landscape surrounding you. 

There are 4 canyons available for climbing: Wildcat Canyon, Tonti Canyon, La Salle Canyon, and Ottawa Canyon. The shortest is LaSalle at about 20 feet tall and the tallest is Wildcat which is more than 90 feet tall.

Frozen Lake Falls in Matthiessen State Park
Frozen Lake Falls in Matthiessen State Park

Explore Matthiessen State Park in winter

Matthiessen State Park is located just a few miles south of Starved Rock and is truly beautiful.

It is known for its beautiful campgrounds which are famous amongst horseback riders.

There is even an equestrian campground solely dedicated to this type of camper.

At Matthiessen State Park in winter, an exciting activity to take part in is horseback riding through the snow.

Open all year round, there are nine miles of trails dedicated to visitors who have their own horse (or who work with a nearby ranch).

In addition, picnicking, hiking, and fishing are very popular in the summer months, whereas snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are very popular in the winter because of the flat terrain.

Expect to see snow-covered rock formations, frozen streams, and a combination of white prairie and quiet forest.

Because the park is smaller than Starved Rock, it tends to be much quieter and has fewer crowds. What better way to explore a snowfall than to trek through undisturbed snow?

The Park can be divided into the upper and lower dells.

In the upper dells, expect to stand in the middle of a canyon at Cedar Point or stop and admire the waterfalls at Giant’s Bathtub or Lake Falls.

The lower dells have fewer scenic spots but the frozen Cascade Falls make up for it.

Journey up icy, wooden stairs and across elevated bridges, to a breathtaking, dome-like structure you won’t find at Starved Rock. A waterfall spews out in the middle and there are small caves to explore.

Cross-country skiers
Cross-country skiing is a great way to experience the magical snowy landscapes.

Go cross country skiing in Matthiesen State park

Matthiessen State Park is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Whether you’re a professional or a complete novice, you are guaranteed an adventure cross country skiing. If you don’t have your own skis, no problem.

You can still enjoy over six miles of tree-lined cross-country trails from the comfort of your rentals.

Boots and poles are a very reasonable price at $15 per adult and $10 for children 12 and under. The rental cabin is located near the shelter and fort and the Park’s Dells entrance.

The most popular skiing routes include the Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail, the Matthiessen State Park River Trail, and the Dells Area to Vermillion River Area Loop.

Join an activity organized by Starved Rock

Learn from the experts with a guided activity.

If you’ve never been hiking in the winter, consider the Guided Winter Hike Tour so that you can fully enjoy the beauty of the frozen waterfalls or spot a bald eagle in the sky.

A guide is a fantastic way to see the best trails at Starved Rock. Not to mention, each hike comes with a souvenir bag, granola bar, bottled water, and a token for a hot chocolate or other warm drink.

Other activities include an Eagle Watching Trolley Tour, Christmas Lights Tour, or the Historic Trolley Tour where guests can learn about Starved Rock history, the Lock and Dam, and the historic downtown Utica.

Other events include a sled dog demo.

As you see the Starved Rock Lodge is always brimming with activity and in Winter they’re totally going for the Christmas spirit with several musical events such as Jingle Bell Rock and a Classic Crooner’s Christmas. Make sure to check out their events page or follow Starved Rock social media to find additional entertainment.

Great hotel near Starved Rock
The Starved Rock Lodge

Warm up at the fire at the lodge

There is no better way to wrap up a day spent in the cold than sitting by a fire.

The Starved Rock Lodge has a giant fireplace situated in the center of the main hall surrounded by tables and chairs that are free for anyone to use.

Make sure to grab a hot chocolate or a seasonal cocktail from The Back Door Lounge while you sit next to the crackling fire.

Other facilities include saunas, a hot tub, and a heated indoor pool. More than enough to bring you even more warmth and comfort.

Tips for visiting Starved Rock in winter

We’ve compiled the best Starved Rock tips for your next adventure:

  • Check out our guides on where to stay near Starved Rock

Best places to stay near Starved Rock

Best VRBOs, vacation homes, and Airbnb’s near Starved Rock

Best cabins near Starved Rock

  • Stop by the visitor center

Make this your first stop at Starved Rock. Pick up trail maps and talk to Park staff for trail suggestions and important information.

Tourism brochures, a gift shop, and exhibits displaying the park’s history, geology, and ecology are also available.

  • Wear warm clothes and waterproof boots

Temperatures can drop below freezing so it is important to dress safely as well as comfortably. Waterproof boots, wool socks, and layers are essential. Make sure you have a scarf for the wind as well!

  • Pack backup clothing

There is nothing worse than waking up to finding your boots, hat, or mittens to still be wet from the day before. Make sure to properly lay out your snowy clothing so it has time to dry. If it still doesn’t dry, at least you have extras!

  • Bring ice cleats

While major parts of the trails are flat, you will also come across some staircases to enter or exit the canyons. These may become slippery in winter, so make sure to bring ice cleats to protect yourself and prevent an unnecessary injury.

  • Buy hand and foot warmers

These are available at many convenience stores during the winter months. Simply buy a few packs, rub them together, and stick them in your mittens or boots for up to ten hours of heat. They are the best way to keep your fingers and toes warm!

A sunny day in the snow can be blinding as it reflects off the glistening powder. Protect your eyes from UV rays and make snowshoeing and ice climbing more enjoyable.

In our Starved Rock travel guide, we share everything you need to know for a wonderful holiday.

Snow-covered trails in Starved Rock State Park
Can you hear the snow crunching under your shoes?

FAQ about Starved Rock

Here we answer the most common questions you may have about visiting Starved Rock in winter.

  • Is Starved Rock open in winter?

Yes! The State Park and the Lodge are open all year round. All trails and activities remain open so that the brave of heart can tackle the cold months.

  • How do you get to Starved Rock?

When flying into the area you can choose from Chicago O’Hara airport and Peoria airport.

Starved Rock is only 1 hour and 42 minutes west of Chicago by car. From downtown, follow the I-55 and I-80. If you don’t have a car, you can take a bus to Ottawa or Oglesby where you will need to take a taxi to the park. This will cost between $45-$60.

Peoria airport is also about a 1h and 30-minute drive away from the park.

Both airports offer car rental services.

  • Where should I stay in Starved Rock?

Check out our post with our top accommodation recommendations from cozy lodges and cabins to hotels and Airbnbs.

Conclusion

This winter, there is no better place to spend the coldest months than immersed in the spectacular beauty of Starved Rock.

Pack up the family, your partner, or explore by yourself. Regardless of what Starved Rock winter activities you choose to do, you will make lifelong memories of your adventures.  

Read Also:

Here is a list of more fun things to do in Illinois in winter. 

See our web story that accompanies this post.

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