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A family of four sitting down for a rest on rocks in front of a waterfall

Everybody Outside!

Family Fun

5 Days 509 Miles

Explore new ways to get the family off the sofa and into the Great Outdoors with adventures including hiking, biking, and interacting with wildlife.

Day 1: Beautiful Trails In Illinois' State Parks

Hiking

  • Hikers resting and admiring the waterfall

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 witness up-close. 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.

Day 2: Strengthen family bonds with thrilling rope courses

Ziplining

  • Zipline at the forge

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.

Day 3: Bike along lakes and rivers

Biking

  • A couple biking along path beside lake and taking a photo

Chicago’s lakefront trail is one of the most scenic bike paths in the country and therefore one of the most popular, too. But if you plan to cycle it on a weekday, or early in the morning on a weekend, you should have plenty of room to cruise. The 18-mile trail, which runs along Lake Michigan, offers phenomenal skyline views plus fun family stops like the doggie beach at Irving Park, Lincoln Park Zoo (free admission), Navy Pier, Buckingham Fountain, and Museum Campus, which has some grassy areas where you can sit down and soak in the city views.

Up for a long ride? The Fox River Bike Trail, an hour’s drive from Chicago, is a 40-mile-long path lined with adorable towns, parks, and historic rail lines. You’ll cross over six bridges and through nature preserves, and on weekends, there are fun festivals going on in communities along the trail. If you bring your bike on the train from the city, you can access the path easily from Elgin station.

Day 4: Bison, Birds, and Bike Trails

Exploring Nature

  • Person hiking through Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie at sunset

You’ll be tempted to sing, “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam…” as you bike alongside the herds of bison 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.

Day 5: Paddling and Swimming in Natural Wonders

Out on the Water

  • A family canoeing among cypress trees in the swampy Cache River.

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 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 June 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.” 

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.

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