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All the urbanization in recent years has been a windfall for nature-lovers in the state of Illinois. As thousands flock to the cities, the state’s natural landscapes are becoming that much more enticing. Today, thanks to years of environmentally-conscious legislation, the state boasts some 80 protected areas including state parks and state forests. And to be clear, while the Prairie State may not claim any household names like Zion or Rocky Mountain, the biodiversity, canyons, rivers, forests, and waterfalls make Illinois a genuine frontrunner when it comes to hiking in the United States. For a quick rundown on the best places to take a much-needed walk in the woods, here’s our list of Illinois’ best places to get outside.
Starved Rock State Park
Consistently voted the number one outdoor attraction in the state of Illinois, Starved Rock is a must-do for any nature enthusiast. With babbling waterfalls that stumble over limestone cliffs and rock formations covered in lush moss, it has the feel of a dewey oasis. It’s perhaps best known for the bluffs that seem to be stacked on one another creating winding natural hallways. The park boasts 18 canyons, 14 waterfalls, and over 13 miles of trails. Within the park, the Illinois Canyon Trail is an out-and-back 9.5-mile hike that is blissfully untouched by humans — no walkways, no pavement, just pure Illinois backcountry. Pro tip: visit after heavy rain to see the waterfalls and wildflowers in full effect.
Shawnee National Forest
Stretching a massive surface area of 280,000 acres, the Shawnee National Forest is the largest in Illinois with tons of great hiking trails. The park is an expansive land of rolling hills with deciduous trees that vary widely in character depending on the season. Some of the most popular hiking spots in the area include the Garden of the Gods, a short 1.5-mile loop with gorgeous views for photography buffs, Millstone Bluff, an ancient Indian village site with petroglyphs, and Cave in Rock — a massive 55-foot opening that has provided shelter for hikers over the last few centuries.
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
Waterfall Glen is easily one of the most beautiful regions in all of northern Illinois. With over 740 native plant species, 300 species of mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians, and another 300 species of invertebrates, Waterfall Glen is a stomping ground for biodiversity. The 11 miles of recreational trails here are open to hiking, biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing in the winter. There are also several old quarries scattered around the park with still waters that are great for fishing.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Despite its nickname as the Prairie State, Illinois has virtually no prairie land left. The Midewin National forest area was designated in 1996 in attempts to reclaim some of the state’s old identity and reintroduce an endangered ecosystem. Today, the park has 29 miles of hiking trails and has even brought in bison to populate the region. Throughout the area, you’ll stumble across eerie abandoned military bunkers that were built during the WWII era. For a full day outdoors, hike the 13-mile loop connected by the Group 63, Bunker Field, and Twin Oaks trails.
Kankakee River State Park
Along both sides of an 11-mile stretch of the Kankakee River, the Kankakee State Park is a great place to spot wildlife and to enjoy a quiet afternoon with a fishing pole. Be on the lookout for smallmouth bass, catfish, walleye, and pike fish. Kankakee park boasts an illustrious collection of bluffs — an iconic geographical feature in Illinois. Set up shop beneath one of the curvy bluffs and hang out for an afternoon in a perfect little slice of paradise.
Giant City State Park
Giant City is one of the best options for hikers looking for a longer backpacking trip and the opportunity to camp overnight. The 12-mile Red Cedar hiking trail has plenty of maps and well-marked signs along the way to guide you through one of the most beautiful spots in the state. There are over 75 species of trees throughout the park, so feel free to bring a guide and try to spot some of Illinois’ stoic wooden gems.