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6 Illinois Parks to Explore

Jun 04, 2020 Activities

The Camel Rock at the Garden of the Gods in Herod

Illinois is a state adorned with a diverse array of parks that encapsulate the beauty of nature and offer an immersive experience for visitors.

From expansive woodlands to tranquil lakeshores and sprawling prairies, Illinois' parks serve as sanctuaries where one can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and embrace the serenity of the outdoors. These parks, whether preserving natural habitats or providing recreational opportunities, stand as testaments to the state's commitment to conservation and the preservation of its rich ecological heritage. Here are some of the top parks to explore in Illinois...

A lake at Moraine Hills Stage Park in McHenry
Moraine Hills State Park

Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry (1 hour drive from both Chicago and Rockford)

Located near the Fox River and McHenry Dam, Moraine Hills State Park is ideal for both hikers and cyclists.

  • Moraine Hills State Park offers marshes, lakes, prairies, bogs, wooded hills and streams for hikers and cyclists looking to explore, with a rating of moderate to difficult bike trails.
  • The park’s Lake Defiance is one of the few glacial lakes in Illinois that has remained largely undeveloped, maintaining its natural condition and picturesque views.
A Couple is Overlooking a River at Buffalo Rock Sate Park in Ottawa
Buffalo Rock State Park

Buffalo Rock State Park in Ottawa (1.5 hour drive from Chicago)

With a mix of prairie and woodland, Buffalo Rock State Park is the smaller, less-crowded sister of nearby Starved Rock State Park and Matthiessen State Park with sweeping views of the Illinois River not to be overlooked.

  • On the bluffs of the Illinois River, this charming park is home to an enormous outdoor sculpture known as the Effigy Tumuli. These mounds - representing five earthen sculptures - are molded from Illinois clay and invite visitors to walk around and explore. 
  • Buffalo Rock State Park is also ideal for beginner hikers looking to develop their skills. 
Overhead view of fall colors on the Great River Road next to the Mississippi river
Mississippi Palisades State Park

Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna (30 minute drive from Galena)

The Mississippi Palisades State Park, located along the Mississippi River and the Great River Road, is known for its steep cliffs and interesting rock formations.

  • Nestled near the confluence of the Mississippi and Apple rivers, the 2,500-acre Mississippi Palisades State Park is rich in Native American history.
  • The park also features beautiful trails, the longest of which, Sentinel Trail (more than 1.3 miles), leads to the awe-inspiring Sentinel Rock – a favorite for kids to spot.
People venture out onto Homer Lake in a boat
Homer Lake Forest Preserve

Homer Lake Forest Preserve in Homer (30 minute drive from Champaign)

Homer Lake Forest Preserve is 892 acres to explore, with hiking, fishing, boating and picnicking. 

  • With approximately 10 miles of trails crossing grasslands, prairies and woodlands, this preserve is a hidden gem for hikers. Walk along the Salt Fork River or around the secluded Collins Pond for plenty of bird-watching opportunities. 
  • The forest preserve’s large lake is also a great spot to break out your kayak or canoe or go fishing as well.
Gondolas over the Pere Marquette State Park
Pere Marquette State Park

Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton (5 hour drive from Chicago)

Spanning 8,000 acres, Pere Marquette State Park offers some of Illinois’ most scenic hiking and biking trails.

  • This summer, visitors can see the park from new heights riding the Grafton Sky Tour, a gondola ride offering sweeping views of the Mighty Mississippi and Pere Marquette State Park.
  • Be sure to check out the exhilarating Grafton Zipline Adventures, featuring nine zip lines throughout Pere Marquette State Park.
Person on a zip line flying through a forest
Shawnee National Forest

Shawnee National Forest in Herod (5 hour drive from Chicago)

Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, Shawnee National Forest is an idyllic destination for families to finally ditch the devices and fall in love with the outdoors.

  • A hiker’s paradise, Shawnee National Forest sits between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and is filled with magnificent jutting walls of rock covered, and paths that meander through canyons under forest canopies.
  • Follow the trail to Garden of the Gods, a breathtaking overlook with spectacular views of towering sandstone cliffs formed millions of years ago. 
  • Thrill-seekers can find adventure on the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour consisting of eight zip lines, the longest stretching more than 1,100 feet. The tour includes 11 platforms high in the trees, three aerial suspension bridges, the longest stretching 180 feet, and two short ground hikes. 
  • If you’re looking to get out on the water, you can rent canoes and kayaks at Cache Bayou Outfitters for a ride in the Cache River Wetlands State Natural Area located in Belknap just 20 minutes from the Shawnee National Forest.

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