Catch the Cold: Winter Adventures in Illinois

Hike a snowy trail, ski cross-country or tackle a frozen waterfall at these spots that stay hot in chilly months.

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When snow hits the Illinois landscape, the state transforms into a wonderland filled with fun outdoor activities and cozy cabins. Here's a guide to some of our favorite 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. (Check with the park office if you’d like to try ice climbing.) 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.

Morton Arboretum

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.

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.

Northwest Corner

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).

3 Downstate Destinations

Giant City State Park, Makanda

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.)

Cave-In-Rock State Park, Shawnee National Forest

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. 

Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton

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.


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