Before you take a dip in the refreshing clear, cool water, you’ll need to lace up your hiking boots to reach the swimming hole at Bell Smith Springs deep in the Shawnee National Forest. Uneven terrain, stairs and a creek crossing earn the park’s 7-miles of interconnected trails a moderate rating. Begin at the Bell Springs Recreation Area. Along the way, you’ll see several landmarks, including hand-carved stone steps, cliffs, boulders and the rock formation called Devil’s Backbone. For a more direct route to Devil’s Backbone, begin at the Hunting Branch Trailhead.
Overnight accommodation: The Resort at Egyptian Hills, Creal Springs.
Snowmelt and rainfall are major contributors to waterfalls, which tend to dry out during the summer and early fall. At Starved Rock State Park, discover eight seasonal waterfalls along green-marked trails. From the Visitor Center, the French Canyon waterfall is less than a half-mile jaunt and it’s another mile to spring-fed St. Louis, which is the tallest at 80 feet. For the truly adventurous who are looking for a longer trek, Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons split at the Council Overhang, about 4 miles from the Visitor Center and another mile to reach Illinois canyon.
Nearby Matthiessen State Park in Utica (2 miles south of Starved Rock) boasts equally impressive falls in the Upper and Lower Dells. Follow the brown directional signs for a challenging 2-mile hike with rough terrain and lots of stairs, which takes you past Lake Falls, where water from Matthiessen Lake drops 45 feet to the Lower Dells and then Cascade Falls. An interior trail leads to the aptly named Giant’s Bathtub and Cedar Point Canyon.
Overnight accommodations: Starved Rock Lodge.
In the Shawnee National Forest, head to Ferne Clyffe State Park in Goreville to see its namesake waterfall. For an easy hike (less than .75 miles round trip), follow Big Rocky Hollow Trail. The trail leads into a box canyon with the waterfall at the end. From the campground, follow the Waterfall Trail down the bluff where it connects with the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. This .75-mile route is moderately difficult.
Overnight accommodations: Shawnee Trails Lodging & Suites, Goreville
A word of caution: Swimming is strictly prohibited at these parks.
Paddle a canoe or kayak through an ancient cypress-tupelo swamp at Cache River State Natural Area in Belknap where you can see 1,000-year-old cypress trees and wildlife such as herons, egrets, hawks, turkey vultures, woodpeckers and songbirds. The massive trees, including more than 10 State Champions, have flared bases, which exceed 40 feet in circumference. Rent gear from Cache Bayou Outfitters or join one of their public tours to learn more. The daily, two-hour guided trips (through November) cover the history, geology and ecology of the river. They also offer sunset (Friday–Sunday) and full-moon tours (check online calendar for dates). Afterwards, head to Mermet Springs where you can scuba dive at this unique spring-fed stone quarry and marvel at underwater treasures such as a submerged airplane.
Overnight accommodation: Davie School Inn, Anna
Splash and play along the Lake Michigan shore at Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, with more than 6.5 miles of beach. While there’s plenty of surf and sand, the park is also known for its dunes with more than 650 species of plants, including wildflowers and prickly pear cacti. Learn more about the area through hands-on exhibits at the Nature Center, where seasonal park staff can answer questions. From there, set out on a nature walk. The South Unit of the park has 5 miles of trails, a campground, a seasonal camp store, and the Zion Bike Trail, which connects to the North Unit. Visitors will find parking, bathhouses and plenty of beach to picnic and play in at both units. Use caution though, since no lifeguards are on duty.
Overnight accommodations: Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center
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