Ways to get the family off the sofa and into the Great Outdoors with adventures including hiking, biking, and interacting with wildlife.
It’s crowded on weekends, but that’s because Starved Rock State Park is one of Illinois’ most beautiful hiking spots. The paths wind through tall trees, wildflower meadows, and 18 rock canyons, most of which have a waterfall you can walk right up to. Stop at the overlooks along the Illinois River, and don’t forget to look up—you might see a bald eagle flying overhead.
The hiking paths in Mississippi Palisades State Park—especially the southern trails—contain a rich Native American history dating back nearly 1,000 years. Located where the Mississippi and Apple Rivers merge in northwestern Illinois, the park’s 15 miles of hiking trails take you past some unique rock formations with names like Twin Sisters and Indianhead. You also can rock climb (at your own risk), hunt, and fish.
You’ll be tempted to sing, “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam…” as you bike alongside the new herd of buffalo at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. While the U.S. Forest Service warns that the herds aren’t always visible on the 1,200-acre grazing area, you can check what’s going on in advance on the new Midewin bison livecam, which looks out over their habitat from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. CST every day. Even if you can’t see the buffalo, the park’s peaceful paved trails— which range from 1.5- to 16 miles long—teem with mint-green leopard frogs, ring-necked pheasants, more than 100 different bird species, and a sea of coneflowers and other prairie plants.
On one side, sandstone bluffs. On the other, the Mississippi River. That’s why families like to ride along the flat, paved, 20-mile Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail, which parallels the Great River Road. Named after a former state senator, the trail goes past the Marquette Monument, the historic 19th century town of Elsah, and some of the best catfish restaurants in Illinois.
Race against your family on the dual ziplines that go up to 45 miles per hour at Zip Chicago, which is actually 80 miles southwest of the city in Marseilles. You’ll whiz 85 feet above the ground with views of the river valley. For extra thrills through the dark canopies, try their nighttime ziplining.
One of the most beautiful places in Illinois, Shawnee National Forest has family activities on land and water. Hike through the colorful cliffs on the Little Canyon Trail, rent a boat and go tubing on one of the 11 lakes, or ride horses through the 320-million-year-old sandstone rock formations in the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area. Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour lets you ride long ziplines—some more than 1,100 feet long—across 83 acres of the forest.
Stop first at the Visitors Center and take a photo of the kids sitting in the giant eagle’s nest. Then head out into Pere Marquette State Park. In summer, families can cruise along the 25-mile bike path, ride horses, and then stay overnight in their lodge, which has an indoor pool. Visit in September for Rendezvous at Fort de Chartres, an annual living history show that re-creates the fur trade era of the early 1800s. Their most popular attraction is in January or February, when hundreds of bald eagles migrate to the Mississippi River and lower Illinois River near the park.
It’ll feel more like a Louisiana bayou than a Midwestern river, but the Cache River State Natural Area, lined with 1,000-year-old Cyprus trees, is a lovely and unique place for a family paddle. The water is suitable for both novice and experienced paddlers, and family-friendly guided tours are available through Cache Bayou Outfitters. The area’s often described as “a conservationist’s dream” because of all the rare wildlife, including bald eagles and a “snake bird.” They’re having a special paddle on August 21, during the full solar eclipse that will be crossing through Southern Illinois.
Paddle down the Illinois River at Buffalo Rock State Park, the place that was once home to Native Americans and where the French explorer Louis Jolliet and the Jesuit missionary priest Father Jacques Marquette made their trip up the river in 1673.