Put on your puffiest winter coat and warmest boots, and check out our guide to snowy hikes, thrilling skiing, and other outdoor winter adventures in Illinois.
Starved Rock & Matthiessen State Parks
WHERE: OGLESBY. JUST SOUTH OF I-80 AND ABOUT 90 MILES WEST OF CHICAGO.
These neighboring gems sit 3 miles apart in the north-central part of the state. At Starved Rock State Park, layer up and hike 12.3 miles of trails that pass sandstone bluffs and skirt the Illinois River. To see some of the park’s 14 frozen falls, head to any of the seven overlooks: French, St. Louis, Ottawa, Kaskaskia, Wildcat, LaSalle or Tonty canyons. Some falls reach 80 feet high. At Matthiessen State Park, rent a pair of cross-country skis (weekends only) and glide across 6 miles of trails.
Make it a weekend Kick back in Starved Rock’s 1930s lodge or one of the cabins (some feature fireplaces and allow pets). Warm up in the lodge’s indoor pool, hot tub and sauna. The rustic dining room dishes comfort food, and the Back Door Lounge serves local brews.
WHERE: LISLE, A WESTERN CHICAGO SUBURB OFF I-88.
Take a break from urban noise at the woods’ 16 miles of looped trails. At Morton Arboretum, you can choose a short hike or an extended trek through the 1,700 acres of trees, including an evergreen forest. After at least 4 inches of snowfall, you can rent cross-country skis or snowshoes to traverse 3.5 miles of groomed trails. All other trails are available for visitors willing to blaze their own path on skis. Be sure to keep an eye out for six colossal trolls crafted from reclaimed wood by Danish artist Thomas Dambo.
STAY FOR SPECIAL EVENTS
The arboretum features events nearly every day. Kids paint snow and build forts in the Children’s Garden, then go on a hunt for gnomes. Adults enjoy sampling treats during February’s Chocolate Weekend.
WHERE: GALENA, ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER (80 MILES WEST OF ROCKFORD).
The northwest region’s diverse terrain makes it a perfect winter playground. Rent cross-country skis in town and head out on the beginner-friendly Galena River Trail. For an overnight, the Inn at Irish Hollow offers on-site trails and gear. Once you’ve perfected the kick and glide, visit Eagle Ridge Nordic Center, which features 7 miles of groomed trails, plus ice-skating and sledding. At nearby Chestnut Mountain, skiers and snowboarders can play on 19 runs and the Farside terrain park (rentals and lessons available).
WHERE: ALTON, ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
Each winter, around 3,000 bald eagles fly to Illinois to make it their temporary home, settling in among the cliffs and trees in at least 27 counties around the state—making Illinois one of the best places in the entire country to spot the majestic bird. From Alton, take a guided 45-minute shuttle to locations along the Mississippi River while keeping your eyes open for this iconic bird. Get eagle watching tips and other places to catch a glimpse here.
3 Downstate Destinations
Hike amid 12,000-year-old sandstone bluffs, then come back to relax in a lodge room or cabin. (Note: The lodge is closed from mid-December through the first weekend in February.)
See the park’s namesake 55-foot-wide cave, at times home to native peoples, explorers and pirates. Rent a cabin or home atop Pirates’ Bluff on the Ohio River.
Grab a trail map at the visitor center and explore 12 miles of trails. Reserve a room in the 1930 lodge, which features a 50-foot fireplace, or kick back in one of the park’s cabins.