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Hidden Gems at Illinois' State Parks

Jun 13, 2019 Outdoors & Regional

An aerial shot of Starved Rock at the Starved Rock State Park in Illinois

Discover great outdoor sights at hidden gems among Illinois' state parks and natural areas.

When warm weather comes to Illinois, it’s time to get outdoors and bask in nature. With 70  parks spread across the state — including nature preserves, wildlife areas, forests, and more — that attract up to 44 million visitors per year, Illinois' system of state parks makes for a fabulous trip in any area of the state. Among beautiful foliage, waterfalls and other natural features, you can find activities ranging from hiking to biking to simply enjoying the scenery.

Some of the best activities at Illinois' state parks are the hidden gems — the features that are off the beaten track or require a bit more exploration to fully enjoy. Here are some of the best hidden gems you can find in Illinois' state parks.

A nature trail in Giant City State Park

Giant City Nature Trail at Giant City State Park


Boasting some of the best wilderness trails in Illinois, Giant City State Park is home to Giant City Nature trail — a path formed over 12,000 years ago. Check out mesmerizing bluffs of sandstone and incredible geological formations while taking in the sights of towering trees and lush foliage. Partake in horseback riding, fishing, rappelling, and more as you experience this state park.

Where to Stay: Spend a night or two in Giant City Lodge, which offers three types of cabins, a dining room, lounge, and an outdoor swimming pool.

Limestone Caves in the Mississippi Palisades State Park

Limestone Caves at Mississippi Palisades State Park


Check out the incredible caves at Mississippi Palisades State Park and be awed by the formations created by nature. The limestone caves here are sinkholes that descend straight down into the earth, all surrounded by beautiful rock formations formed by erosion. Make sure to lay your eyes on Twin Sisters and Indian Head!

The State Park offers plenty of hiking trails, a swimming beach, and boat launch ramps.

Where to Stay: Before heading into the park, spend some time in Galena, which features charming B&Bs and other quaint accommodations.

Waterfalls flowing down cliffs in Starved Rock State Park

Waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park


You might have seen Starved Rock State Park’s incredible waterfalls among the Most Instagrammable Spots in Illinois, but they’re even more magical in person. Check out the waterfalls at St. Louis. French, Wildcat, Ottawa, and Kaskaskia canyons. In the winter, the waterfalls freeze, creating natural ice sculptures that you need to see — or climb!

Where to Stay: Near Starved Rock State Park, you’ll find a variety of restaurants and bars like August Hill Winery and Joy & Eds, as well as places to stay such as Landers House.

A person walking along the Pomona natural bridge in the Shawnee National Forest
The Pomona Natural Bridge, Shawnee National Forest

Pomona Natural Bridge at Shawnee National Forest


Okay, okay, it's not quite a state park, but Shawnee National Forest has its own hidden gem you won't want to miss: a beginner-friendly hike along the Pomona Natural Bridge. At 90 feet long and 8 feet wide, the sandstone bridge formed naturally over millions of years of erosion by running water. You'd be wise to follow its lead and head downstream, where you'll find a small cave that’s perfect for photo opportunities.

Where to Stay: Located nearby is the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which makes the perfect reward after a day of hiking. Try your share of reds and whites from a variety of local wineries like Pomona Winery and Alto Vineyards. Many of the wineries also feature accommodations, such as Kite Hill Vineyards B&B & Winery.

Beaches at Illinois Beach State Park


The city of Chicago is known for its miles of lakefront beaches, but the shores of Lake Michigan also make for a beautiful retreat at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. This beach is Illinois' only remaining stretch of beach ridge shoreline. Spanning 6.5 miles along the lake, the beach offers gorgeous views amid 700 species of plants.

Where to Stay: While you're in Lake County, take a trip to enjoy the thrills of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee or explore the historic streets of Downtown Long Grove — both of which would make for a great place to spend a night.

Wildlife at Goose Lake Prairie State Park

Grundy County

Sometimes the best sightseeing is watching creatures in their natural habitat. For a peek at peaceful wildlife, look no further than Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, home to species including deer, coyote, red fox, cottontail rabbit, muskrat, beaver, and badger. A variety of birds and waterfowl also inhabit the area; keep your eye out for kildeer, marsh hawks, great blue herons, and mallards. Goose Lake is also a great spot to find flowers in bloom from spring to autumn, such as New England asters, goldenrod and violets.

Where to Stay: Goose Lake is a suitable day trip from the city of Chicago — home to some interesting wildlife and bird-watching experiences of its own. But it's also worth taking a trip down the Kankakee River to stay in the river town of Kankakee and check out interesting architecture such as Frank Lloyd Wright's B. Harley Bradley House.


by Erica Abdnour of Concierge Preferred

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