According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the state parks of good old Illinois saw over thirty million visitors in 2014, which, in a sense, is unsurprising due to the wide array of natural beauty, expansive outdoor recreational opportunities, and surprising ecological diversity available in this spectacularly scenic state. Get in one with nature amidst colorful foliage, cool temperatures, and spooky atmospheres, especially in the autumn months when you and the entire family will be able to appreciate firsthand the awe-inspiring seasonal metamorphosis this Midwest wonder goes through each year. With forests, farmlands, wetlands, and rolling hills galore, as well as Lake Michigan on its northeast corner, and some of the best diving, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, mountain biking, and canoeing options around, Illinois is truly a thing of pure beauty.
What’s more is that stretching nearly four hundred miles from north to south, there are over three hundred twenty easily accessible and gorgeously showcased state parks to explore. So go ahead and trek on over to these natural gems today to experience a distinctive mix of attractions — from hunting and fishing, to hiking and camping, to celebrating “the Prairie State’s” history in unique ways. Here are seven of the best state parks in Illinois.
Illinois' Best State Parks
1. Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, Illinois
Sure, Illinois may be a relatively flat state, but this jewel of a state park separates itself from the rest by offering gigantic limestone bluffs, ravines, springs, and a plethora of wildlife to excite any outdoor enthusiast to the core. With almost fifty campground sites, the area is superb for fishing and hiking, especially through those miles and miles of walking trails that meander in and around the deep dark forest. Plus, there are plenty of trout, bass, sunfish, and others water-dwelling creatures to keep you company in the flowing streams that surround you. See a side of the Midwest you never knew existed.
2. Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, Illinois
With all its skyscrapers, concrete, and steel, it may be hard to believe that an urban jungle such as Chi-town is actually biologically rich as well. Yet, the region of Chicago is full of dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline that support almost seven hundred species of plants. Plus, it’s got this beachside state park near Zion that, by itself, stretches for more than six and a half miles! Offering fantastic places to bicycle, jog, or just relax at, the gorgeous, sandy shores of this Lake Michigan-lined outdoor favorite offers 241 spots with access to electricity and shower facilities. More luxurious accommodations can be found at Illinois Beach Lodge and Conference Center, which offers nearly a hundred rooms, as well as banquet and meeting spaces serving up to five hundred people.
There’s also the North Point Marina to check out— situated near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, it’s one of the most visited Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ sites. With 1,500 slips, it’s the largest marina on Lake Michigan, the perfect place to enjoy the greatest of Great Lakes. So lounge on some shores, swim in some cool waters, and catch schools of some nice long fish. The expansive Illinois shoreline awaits!
3. Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, Illinois
It’s one of the most popular of Illinois state parks— a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts with over one hundred thirty campsites equipped with onsite electricity, water, and showers. The options for adventure are endless, especially since it’s the only place in the state where you can find seventy-foot waterfalls and spectacular sandstone canyons with bluffs overlooking the Illinois River.
Try hiking into a waterfall and you’ll no doubt feel like you’ve been transported into a mountain oasis. How about doing some fishing, hunting, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, or horse riding within the park? There’s even a 1930s-style lodge that’s available to stay at, as well as on-and-off water scenic tours of the area. Did we mention that there’s a winery across the river in Utica and an indoor water park at Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort? Bonus points indeed! So kick back with a burger, watch a fiery sunset over the treetops, and experience the never-ending beauty of southwestern Illinois. There’s fun to be had at this heavily visited state park—it even has an equally pretty little sister, the Matthiessen State Park, which is always a whole lot less crowded! Check it out.
4. Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, Illinois
What really sets this park apart is the incredible scuba diving options it offers, especially within the clear, deep waters of Inland Sea and Sportsman’s Lake. However, there’s also more that enough to do on land: from hiking, fishing, canoeing, horse-riding, mountain-biking, as well as almost two hundred campsites on the ground, with about half of them equipped with electricity (Shower facilities are available too, just in case you don’t want to bathe in the nearby lake!).
Plus, the Kickapoo State Recreation Area in Vermilion County near Danville is great to check out for all those kayak and and tubing enthusiasts out there—it’s on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois’ only National Scenic River where visitors can spend the day floating lazily past sandy bluffs atop brightly colored tubes. Sounds just like a dream, right?!
5. Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, Illinois
It may be giant, but this one’s a true playground among the boulders for young and old alike. With massive chunks of limestone rising amidst nature’s skyline, there’s tons to explore through hiking, rock-climbing, fishing, boating, and hunting, especially within The Giant City Nature Trail, where kids and adults can enjoy exploring a “city” made by nature (The hike has a bit of uneven terrain but is not very long and is incredibly easy for munchkins to navigate through!).
What’s more is that there are a variety of tent or trailer camping options available as well—all sites are very well-kept and equipped with water, electricity, showers, and sanitary facilities. There are even equestrian trails offering a separate campground to accommodate animals and equipment. Those looking for cabin-style living can easily find comfort at a Civilian Conservation Corps-built lodge with outlying cabins, which serves also as a convenient base for travelers hoping to explore southern Illinois and the nearby Shawnee National Forest. Make sure to trek towards the Shawnee Wine Trail, featuring a dozen wineries within easy reach, and other well-known sites like the Pomona Natural Bridge, Alto Pass, and the Bald Knob Cross.
6. Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, Illinois
Over 4,000 acres in size, Kankakee is a fantastic option for hunters, fishermen, hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders alike. There are also plenty of opportunities for camping, ranging from sites that are more primitively styled, to those boasting electricity and various amenities. There’s even an eleven-mile equestrian campground that’s open seasonally on both sides of the Kankakee River
Wildlife thrives in this area, which is just an hour southwest of downtown Chicago, with deer, duck, pheasant, turkey, dove, rabbit, squirrel, fox, coyote, and raccoon all permitted during to dwell there during various seasons. The shallow local waters make it a great spot to reel in a bounty of smallmouth bass, channel catfish, Walleye, and Northern pike as well. Even try taking a tour of the river from the comforts of your very own canoe! When left in its natural state, the Kankakee River meanders through the entire park and is recognized for its exceptionally clean water and spectacular Dolomite and limestone cliffs. It’s a scene-stopper for sure.
7. Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, Illinois
It’s got the distinction of being Illinois’ first state park and is located in southern Illinois near Metropolis, home of the mighty Superman, as well as the Ohio River. Unsurprisingly, the age-old area focuses on the early history of Illinois settlement, with “The Fort Massac Encampment” held each autumn to celebrate pioneer life.
Though the actual fort has been burned to the ground, destroyed by an earthquake, torn down for lumber, and finally reconstructed based on archaeological studies, it’s still a more than fantastic place for history buffs to do some hiking, picnicking, and camping. The Native Americans and the Europeans-- including the Spanish, French, and British — have all explored this ancient site at one time or another, and have adored it. Why not check it out for yourself?
This article was written by Pamela Chan.