Ten Great Outdoor Destinations in Illinois

Selecting the best of anything requires an exercise in subjectivity that depends on the tastes and judgments of whoever is making the selections. The following offers our choices for ten great outdoor destinations in the state of Illinois, loosely arranged geographically and subject to your consideration and approval. Whether you're planning a trip to Illinois or are a native, we invite you to visit all these locations and to consult Illinois.com for accommodations, restaurants, and attractions in each area. Also, please send us your reactions and tell us your own choices for great outdoor destinations.

1. Chain O' Lakes State Park

The northeastern segment of Illinois displays vistas of rolling hills and valleys, forests and farmland, with numerous lakes and rivers that beckon to everyone who ever yearned to row a boat, cast out a line, or paddle a canoe or kayak. Chain O' Lakes State Park, about an hour and a half north of Chicago, provides a playground for lovers of water and nature. The 6,000-acre park borders and contains several scenic lakes and is traversed by the Fox River, hosting an abundance of wildlife in its meadows, grasslands, wetlands, marshes, and forests. Visitors enjoy fishing, boating, kayaking, and canoeing on the park's waterways, camping in its more than 200 individual campsites, and bike riding, hiking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing on its miles and miles of trails.

2. Galena, Illinois

Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the area in and around Galena, at the northwestern corner of Illinois, for fishing, boating, canoeing, and kayaking on the Mississippi and Galena rivers; ballooning over the city and surrounding countryside; birdwatching in 45,000 acres of woods and wetlands along both banks of the Mississippi; and camping, hiking, and bike riding along the Galena River Trail and through the rolling hills of nearby Apple River Canyon State Park, Mississippi Palisades State Park, and Schurmeier Forest. Several popular gardens in and near Galena include the Linmar Gardens, Timber Ridge Gardens, and Cedardale Farm Flowers. For many visitors, Galena is best known for its hundreds of restored homes and buildings dating back to the early 1800s. The downtown Main Street has dozens of historic 19th-Century landmark buildings now converted to charming shops, restaurants, and bed and breakfasts; and the restored home of Union General and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant stands as a famous historic site in the city.

3. Outdoor Chicago

The Chicago area's gorgeous landscapes - its breathtaking lakefront with miles of harbors, trails, and beaches, its lush parks and preserves, its tree-lined city streets and suburban communities - make it a popular outdoor destination where visitors and residents alike embrace activities such as bicycle riding, hiking, ice skating, and cross-country skiing. Chicago neighborhoods play host to yearly art and ethnic festivals in aesthetically beautiful locations like Old Town, the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and scores of suburban settings. The Chicago area is streaked with trails for hiking and cycling, including the lakefront, the North Branch of the Chicago River, Busse Woods in northwestern Cook County, the Indian Boundary Trail, which heads westward along the Des Plaines River, and Waterfall Glen, which winds around the Argonne National Laboratory, southwest of the city. Best-known among Chicagoland's exquisite outdoor vistas are the Chicago Botanic Garden in north suburban Glencoe; Osaka Garden, an authentic Japanese garden on Chicago's south side; the internationally renowned Morton Arboretum in southwest suburban Lisle; and the world-famous Buckingham Fountain, nestled amid downtown Grant Park's lovely greens and gardens.

4. Starved Rock State Park

According to legend, a band of Illiniwek Indians starved to death in 1760 while hiding from some attacking Potawatomi on top of a high sandstone bluff. They gave name to the bluff, the surrounding site, and eventually to this 2,600-acre park, located along the Illinois River near Ottawa, some 60 miles southwest of Chicago. The park now provides a breathtaking getaway for outdoor lovers, with thick forests, towering bluffs, and 18 canyons fed by spectacular waterfalls that are quite rare in this part of Illinois. Some 15 miles of hiking trails - short and long, steep and level - wind through the woods, passing such colorfully named sights as Wildcat Canyon, Lovers Leap, Eagle Cliff, and Starved Rock itself. Hundreds of bird and wildflower species inhabit the site, with lists available to visitors.

5. Rock Island Trail State Park

Bicycle riders and walkers can travel back through time on this solitary and scenic trail that runs along an abandoned railroad bed in Central Illinois, offering memories of early 20th-Century architecture and the prairieland once inhabited by the area's settlers. The trail offers easy walking as it follows a linear, 26-mile, tree-covered path among a wealth of natural resources, including wildflowers and hardwood trees, streams and rivers, a trestle bridge than spans the historic Spoon River, and through a plain - once covered with tall prairie grass - on which much of the prairie has now returned. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad once thrived here, and its depot still stands along the trail in the town of Wyoming - a silent monument to those who once rode its rails.

6. Fort Crevecoeur State Park

Attention, mountain-biking history buffs: this 86-acre park, overlooking the Illinois River near Peoria, commemorates Fort de Crevecoeur, erected in 1680 by the French explorer Sieur de La Salle to protect the Illiniwek Indians from the Iroquois. The fort was the first public building in Illinois, and it has been rebuilt according to its original design and dedicated to the preservation of Central Illinois' French heritage. A nature trail winds through the park's hardwood forest along terrain that combines the flat prairieland of northern Illinois with the rolling hills, ravines, and bluffs of the state's southern portions, making this and the surrounding areas ideal for those with a wide range of mountain-biking skills. For nature lovers, a drift prairie in the park has a wide variety of prairie plant species.

7. Central Illinois' Native American Heritage

Three sites in Central Illinois offer fascinating glimpses into Native American civilizations.

  • Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which holds the nation's largest collection of Native American earthen mounds and has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site, includes the 100-foot-high Monks Mound, the largest man-made earthen mound in North America, and provides scenic views of prairie plants and grasses and a forest filled with box elder and green ash.
  • Horseshoe Lake State Park, best known for its abundance of woods and wetlands and wildlife and as a bird watching paradise, is believed to have provided Native Americans with a source of fish and game as long as 10,000 years ago.
  • Pere Marquette State Park, named for the French missionary who reached the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in 1673, was inhabited by Native Americans as early as 9500 BC and is famous today as a winter refuge for bald eagles and for scenic views of the two rivers, breathtaking fall colors, and a wealth of outdoor recreational activities.

8. Shawnee National Forest

Driving southward from central Illinois, the prairie landscape changes to rolling hills dotted with forest, caves, and swamps leading to the Shawnee National Forest in the foothills of the Ozarks. The Shawnee covers some 270,000 acres of rugged mountains and rock formations, extending southward to the tip of the state roughly from the Mississippi River near Carbondale and from the Ohio River at Shawneetown. The Shawnee has become a popular outdoor recreation area whose abundant natural wonders of lakes, wildlife, wilderness, and access to 135 miles of hiking trails make it a favorite destination for a wide variety of outdoor activities such as climbing, camping, horseback riding, backpacking, canoeing, and fishing.

9. Giant City State Park

Giant City, near Carbondale, was named by early settlers who believed its enormous rock formations resembled a city built for giants. A nature lover's paradise, Giant City State Park nestles among huge sandstone bluffs and dense oak and hickory woodlands in the western Shawnee National Forest. Considered one of Illinois' most beautiful natural attractions, this 4,000-plus-acre park offers an abundance of wildlife, wilderness trails, and wildflowers. Each year, the park hosts more than 1.2 million visitors, who enjoy the breathtaking scenery along with outdoor recreational activities that range from camping, horseback riding, and hiking, to fishing in its ponds, and to rock climbing and rappelling along its massive bluffs.

10. Garden of the Gods

For climbing and sightseeing, the Garden of the Gods in the eastern Shawnee offers unique rock formations in an area believed to be more than 320 million years old. The area's stone cliffs test those in search of rappelling and rock climbing, and a paved trail allows non-climbers to view enough of the area's natural wonders to make a visit worthwhile. For horseback riding and backpacking, the nearby High Knob Trail weaves through the Shawnee's eastern hardwood forest and provides easy access to the River-to-River Trail, a scenic and challenging path that crosses the state, covering about 160 miles between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.