Outdoor Explorers — Enjoy Illinois by Water, Bike, Rock or Hike

The great Illinois outdoors offer plenty of places to get out and get active.

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Whether it’s on a bike, on a hike, on the rocks or on the water (or go for a combo!), the great outdoors offer plenty of places to get out and get active. Here are some fresh-air options to explore in Illinois.

  • On the Water

Find aquatic adventures on A reclaimed quarry, at a natural wildlife refuge or on freshwater lakes with stretching shorelines.

The Quarry Cable Park, Crystal Lake

Located within Three Oaks Recreation Area, this former mining quarry is now a 32-acre cable wake park. Rent a wakeboard (or bring your own) and launch off the jump features. If you’re not quite ready to go airborne, take a lesson from the experienced quarry instructors. Afterward, lounge by the firepit with a much-deserved burger and beverage from the Lakeside Quarry Bar and Grille. For a slower-paced lake experience play bean bag toss or just hang out on the sand.

Lake Shelbyville, Shelbyville

With 172 miles of shoreline, this place is built for lake-lovers. Choose from one of three full-service marinas and join a community on the water. Stay near the water in a suite complete with a firepit, or opt for a cozy cabin or lakeside campground. Rent kayaks, pontoon boats or even a party barge, and explore the coves of Lake Shelbyville. Lunch on the water, you ask? Just cruise by Nessie’s, the floating restaurant.

South Sandusky Recreation Area, Benton

Swimming at South Sandusky Beach, one of the best sandy shores in Southern Illinois, means gliding through the sprawling waters of Rend Lake. The recreation area is part outdoor playground and part wildlife refuge. After a dip in the lake and a picnic in the shade, see if you can break a local fishing record by catching one of the enormous crappie, catfish or largemouth bass hiding in the brush, banks and off-shore stumps of the lake.

  • On a Bike

Once the center of America’s railway boom, Illinois is now a hub for rail-trails that are perfect for biking.

Lakefront Trail and The Bloomingdale Trail Park, aka The 606, Chicago

There aren’t that many places in the world where you can ride along a path beside water stretching as far as the eye can see on one side and with buildings reaching higher than the clouds on the other. That’s the setting of the iconic 19-mile Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan in Chicago. Farther west, a reclaimed railway line is now a 2.7-mile trail with green spaces, outdoor artwork and a neighborhood vibe with access points to Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

Tunnel Hill State Trail, Harrisburg to Karnak

This trail traces the route of the legendary Pullman train cars that once rumbled through these ravines. With more than 45 miles of well-maintained surface that passes through seven Southern Illinois towns and over bridges where train whistles once echoed, this is a destination trail for bike-lovers. The highlight of the trail is the long and narrow passageway in the aptly named town of Tunnel Hill. It’s almost impossible to resist the photo opportunity.

Rock Island Trail State Park, Alta to Toulon

Ride beside a tallgrass prairie, through fields of wildflowers and over a trestle bridge on this 26-mile trail that serves as a path through history. Once a main corridor for rail traffic, Rock Island Trail is now a place for solitude and for nature to reclaim its space. Check out the railroad museum at the renovated Wyoming Rail Station with its original red paint. It serves as the park headquarters and visitors center.

  • On a Hike

With limestone cliffs and prairie grasses, hiking trails are as diverse as they are plentiful.

Ferne Clyffe State Park, Goreville

Hike beneath the shelter of some of the largest natural bluffs in the state in this Southern Illinois park with 18 trails. Explore the base of a waterfall on Bork’s Waterfall Trail, challenge yourself with an overnight stay in the remote campsite on Happy Hollow Backpack Trail, or weave through rare plants on the 1-mile Round Bluff Nature Preserve Trail. Trails range from easy to moderately difficult, so there is an option for all levels of hiking skills. 

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Wilmington

The Joliet Army Ammunition Plant once powered the United States Army in WWII, but today the space has been reclaimed for the first national tallgrass prairie in the country. This huge restoration site offers more than 30 miles of hiking trails through a natural prairie south of Chicago. Walk through two former farmsteads near the Iron Bridge Trailhead or go bird-watching on the Henslow Trail, named for the Henslow’s sparrows that can be seen along with eastern meadowlarks, dickcissels and bobolinks. 

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, Darien

There are 11 miles of mapped trails crisscrossing the limestone bluffs of this 2,500-acre forest preserve with 740 native plant species. Take the permanently marked orienteering course to learn how to navigate trails with a map and compass. The mapped course takes you by the tiered Rocky Glen waterfall and Sawmill Creek bluff overlook. Hikers well-versed in trail navigation are invited to explore the many unmarked paths of Waterfall Glen.

  • On the Rocks

Picnic on a bluff that was once an island or discover a cave that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Shawnee National Forest: Jackson Falls, Garden of the Gods, Rim Rock National Recreational Trail

This forest has roots in nine different counties in Southern Illinois. And there is no shortage of wonders within its real estate. Jackson Falls provides some of the best rock climbing in the state, while Garden of the Gods offers some of the best views from atop jaw-dropping natural rock formations. The Upper Rim Rock Trail circles a dramatic rock escarpment, while the Lower Trail descends to a rock overhang known as Ox-lot Cave.

Giant City State Park, Makanda

It takes only a moment of meandering through the narrow path cut between the towering sandstone bluffs of the Giant City Nature Trail to understand that the “Giant City Streets” here have nothing to do with man-made skyscrapers and everything to do with the power of nature. Among bluffs carved 12,000 years ago, you are sure to feel small here. But you will also feel mighty after an epic day of rappelling these cliffs in Southern Illinois.

Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks, Oglesby; Buffalo Rock State Park, Ottawa

Three state parks lie within 10 miles of one another, and each park has enough natural attractions to fill a week. The waterfalls at Starved Rock dot 13 miles of rock-lined trails, while the mineral springs tucked into Matthiessen are framed by plunging canyons leading to the Vermilion River. At Buffalo Rock, you can stand on a bluff that was once an island in the middle of the Illinois River. There is no better place for a picnic.

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