Known as the Prairie State, Illinois inspires images of sweeping prairies, rolling hills, and the impressive Chicago skyline. From the national forests to the bustling metropolitan areas, Illinois boasts an abundance of things to do and explore. Get ready to search a pirate cave, drive a steam locomotive, or find your zen in a Japanese Garden. Whatever you choose to do, Illinois vacation rentals are centrally located to offer convenient access to several of the best-known attractions in the state. That said, check out the 10 top hidden gems in Illinois.

1. Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville

Ancient Native American site.
Source: Flickr/Steve Moses

Located directly across the river from St. Louis, Missouri, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site features about 80 mounds constructed between 900 and 1400 A.D. Cahokia was a great city until the inhabitants mysteriously abandoned it sometime around the early 15th century. Monks Mound, the largest remaining mound, features four terraces, and rises 10 stories high. Each mound served specific functions in the society of Cahokia, including burials. This historical gem helps visitors understand the early civilization of the area.

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2. Mississippi Palisades State Park, Savanna

Dirt trail through the woods.
Source: Flickr/CinCool

Cross over into another world when you enter Mississippi Palisades State Park. Put on some good walking shoes and hit the trails once traveled by Native Americans who followed the bluffs along the Mississippi River. Along the rugged 15 miles of trails, look for the many limestone caves that feature stunning rock formations, including Twin Sisters. Help the kids watch for and identify the various species of wildlife you encounter, including deer, skunks, foxes, squirrels, and birds. Visit during spring, summer, or fall as some overlooks and amenities close during winter months.

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3. Cave in Rock State Park, Cave-in-Rock

Cavern by a body of water.
Source: Flickr/David Wilson

Pirates, and bandits, and outlaws, oh, my. If anyone knows where to find a hidden treasure, those guys do–and, in 1739, a French explorer found the cave and named it “caverne dans Le Roc.” River pirates used it as a base camp, and other lawbreakers followed suit. Things changed in the mid-1800s when a church moved into the cave, and established their village nearby, which they later named Cave-in-Rock. Find the cave, kick back, and relax in peace and quiet.

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4. Pomona Natural Bridge, Pomona

Trail through dense woods.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As is the nature of hidden, precious gems, Pomona Natural Bridge awaits discovery. For a relatively easy hike that is suitable for all ages and skill levels, hit the jackpot when you find this treasure tucked away in a mature oak, hickory, and beech forest. Water passing over an outcropping of sandstone carved out a natural bridge that is 90 feet long and about eight feet wide in places. Stay on the trail and just a few yards downstream you find a small cave.

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5. Silver Creek and Stephenson Railroad, Freeport

Source: Facebook/Silver Creek & Stephenson Railroad

Free your inner train engineer or fireman on an antique steam engine at Silver Creek and Stephenson Railroad. Guests get to shovel coal or sit in the engineer’s seat, hands on the throttle as the steam locomotive rolls along a private track. It’s the only place in the country that allows passengers to help drive a train. Silver Creek and Stephenson Railroad’s pride and joy is the 1912 Heisler steam locomotive that carries passengers on the 3.4-mile round-trip ride. For a few dollars above regular passenger fare, ride in the cab with the engineer and the fireman.

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6. Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford

Asian Architecture
Source: Facebook/Anderson Japanese Gardens

Your quest for beauty reveals a jewel when you find Anderson Japanese Gardens. Near the outskirts of the large city of Rockford, there lies a 12-acre tranquil and unexpected oasis. Find your zen in this quiet world of duck ponds, waterfalls, fountains, statuary, and secluded spots for meditation. During spring and summer, different flowers and perennials bloom all through the season; then, Japanese maples turn brilliant oranges and yellows in the fall. Take a time-out to enjoy breakfast or lunch at the restaurant, Fresco at the Gardens.

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7. Starved Rock State Park, Oglesby

Rocky cliff in a state park.

To find a hidden gem takes some hiking, and that’s what Starved Rock State Park is all about. It’s the perfect place to hike, enjoy the views, and reach the end of your trail feeling inspired instead of just tired. With 2,630 acres, you find lots of short trails for people who want an easy hike with kids. Other trails include some stairs, and lead to canyons with waterfalls, including Wildcat Canyon. To see the waterfalls, visit after heavy rain or in the spring after the snow and ice melt.

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8. Grosse Point Lighthouse, Evanston

House on lush lawn
Source: Flickr/John Martinez Pavliga

Step off the beaten path and keep stepping all the way to the top of the 1873 Grosse Point Lighthouse. Take your kids who are ages eight and older on a scheduled tour to climb the 141 stair steps to the top of the tower for a stunning panoramic view of Lake Michigan. Docents lead tour groups on Saturdays and Sundays, June through September. It took a number of shipping disasters in this area before the government acknowledged the role a lighthouse here plays in building commerce in Chicago.

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9. Villa Kathrine, Quincy

Source: Facebook/Villa Kathrine

Few people know there’s a beautiful castle–Villa Katherine–hidden on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in Quincy. A wealthy Illinois native, W. George Metz, enjoyed European architecture and decided to build his mansion in 1900. He lived alone there until selling the property in 1912, after which it changed hands several times before becoming the town’s visitor center. After picking up tourist information and touring the castle, feel free to tour Katherine Villa Park, overlooking the river.

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10. Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, Herod

Cliffs in the tree tops
Source: Flickr/Curtis Albert

Between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in southern Illinois, Shawnee National Forest encompasses forests, hills, lakes, and valleys. Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area features hiking trails to some stunning sandstone formations, including Anvil Rock and Devil’s Smoke Stack. Rim Rock National Recreation Trail is an easy hike without steep grades or climbing unless you decide to leave the trail to go exploring. The best time to visit Garden of the Gods is in the autumn when the leaves turn colors. Herod vacation rentals include rustic log cabins and tree houses that give you that off-the-beaten-path experience.

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