Best State Parks in Illinois

Visiting the best state parks in Illinois is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend a weekend or holiday. But, if you’re planning on visiting some of these amazing locations, then you need to know which ones are truly worth your time and effort.

We have created our list of the best state parks in Illinois to help more people find the right location when they decide where they want to visit next.

In addition, our team has put together an up-to-date guide featuring all the top places you should consider visiting while you’re traveling through IL, including everything from historical landmarks and nature preserves to national forests and wildlife refuges. Check out our full guide below!

How many state parks are there in Illinois?

Illinois has almost 50 state parks and historical sites that you can visit, which offer fun and educational activities for the whole family. During the Spring, Summer, and Autumn, many visitors flock to the area because they know there are so many great activities for everyone to enjoy.

Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy walking, hiking, and cycling during the warmer months. Some of the best state parks include Ball Bluff Recreation Area, Cache River State Natural Area, and Goose Lake Prairie State Park, located next door to Starved Rock State Park.

Which parks are free to visit?

If you’re looking for a fun and free activity, then you should focus your attention on the smaller state parks that charge no admission fees. These locations include Bishop Hill Historic District, Busey Woods State Natural Area, and Pope County State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Which parks have camping facilities?

If you’re planning on staying overnight or longer, then you need to know about the state parks that offer camping and equestrian facilities.

These locations always come with more amenities and bigger sites for visitors who want to stay a little bit longer and enjoy all the attractions in one location.

Some of the best state parks for camping include Bridge over Fountain Creek State Park, Cedar Point State Recreation Area, and Rock Springs Conservation Area.

What kinds of events do they host?

Every state park in Illinois offers something different, which means you can always find a location with the perfect type of event for your needs.

Some places offer educational guided tours, while others have special holiday events planned out for visitors. Festivals are always a great way to celebrate the history of IL, and you’ll be able to meet several fascinating characters along the way who want to share their knowledge with everyone. You can even join in on some fun contests that revolve around nature, history, or art.

One of our favorites includes Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, located in central Illinois. This location has over 1,000 acres filled with trails, picnic areas, and a fishing pond for those who enjoy spending time with a fishing pole.

What is the most popular state park in Illinois?

According to our list, the most popular state park in Illinois is Copper Ridge, County Park. This location was opened in 1978 and offered many different facilities that appeal to people of all ages.

Some of these include hiking trails, picnic areas, an amphitheater for live entertainment, and stunning views of the surrounding landscape. If you’re planning a trip to Copper Ridge, then we recommend checking out their website to see what events and activities they have going on during your visit.

What other state parks should I consider?

While Copper Ridge County Park is the most popular, visitors can consider many other exciting locations. These include Cap Sauers Holdings Reserve (Illinois’ first all-water reserve), Bunker Hill County Park (a great stop for bird watchers), and more.

If you are looking for information on the best state parks in Illinois, our list is a terrific place to start your search for areas rich and rock formations, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and much more. Browse through each location before making your final decision about which one to visit.

Starved Rock State Park

Located near Utica, Illinois, Starved Rock State Park covers over 2,600 acres and includes a stunning waterfall and several unique canyons. The Park was first opened to the public in 1893, and it has been a hot spot for local tourism ever since.

During your visit, you can enjoy scenic views of the St. Louis River Valley, trails for snowmobiling, bike rentals, picnic areas with grills, equestrian trails, and more.

If you want to learn about the history of Starved Rock or even take a hike down to the Illinois River, then this location is perfect for you. The Park has several different activities for visitors of all ages, so you can take the whole family or go there for a romantic weekend with your spouse.

Glaciations formed this park’s 18 canyons in one of the most beautiful Illinois state parks. St. Peter sandstone is known for its beautiful rock formations, which are primarily found in the park.

Matthiessen State Park

Located in Utica, Illinois, Matthiessen State Park offers 19 miles of hiking trails, camping facilities, and equestrian trails. This location draws in many visitors throughout the year due to its rich history and scenic views.

Some of these attractions include:

  • A monument that pays tribute to Native Americans who inhabited this area
  • Over 100 species of birds
  • A scenic river that is perfect for canoeing or kayaking
  • Beautiful bike trails and natural springs

You can also view these attractions without spending a single cent. The Park offers free admission to visitors interested in learning more about the history of this area, so contact the Park Office if you have any questions.

Which is Better, Starved Rock or Matthiessen State Park?

The State Park Illinois system parks are great, but you might enjoy visiting Matthiessen State Park more than Starved Rock. This location draws in many visitors throughout the year and features some impressive views and free admission.

Other differences between the two parks include:

  • Starved Rock offers only a few camping facilities, while Matthiessen offers hiking trails, camping sites, and biking trails in designated areas, ideal for long weekend getaways or a few days away from home
  • Starved Rock Park has a rich history that includes Native American sites, but Matthiessen does not have this history

Matthiessen is more suited for families with children since they can enjoy the rides and petting zoo. Starved Rock also has horseback riding, but it is only available several times a year.

You can also contact the Park Office if you want to learn more about these locations before making your final decision.

Kankakee River State Park

You’ll find excellent fishing on this Federal Clean Streams-certified stream, including smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, and channel catfish.

In the 16th century, Kankakee River State Park was home to many large Native American tribes, including the Miami, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa. However, the most substantial village was Rock Village or Little Rock Village in the park’s current area near the mouth of Rock Creek.

Mississippi Palisades State Park

The park’s main attraction is a recreation of Fort de Chartres, founded in 1720 by the French and abandoned in 1763. The fort features a reconstruction of a powder magazine constructed in 1764 but not officially recognized until 2008.
The Park has fishing access to the Mississippi River via a boat launch.

Lake Shelbyville State Park

Camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and hunting are popular activities at this park that borders the lake.

In the late 1970s, crews from Southern Illinois University used Carbon 14 dating to determine that bones found in this park were around 3800 BC. These bones are currently housed in the university’s museum.

Lincoln Trail State Park

The Lincoln Historic Site operates year-round with special events, including candlelight tours of the restored cabins during Christmas time. Matthiessen State Park is the better park between the two. Matthiessen offers many more attractions, including an equestrian trail, while this park features hiking trails instead.

Some other benefits of visiting Matthiesen include free admission and a scenic river for canoeing or kayaking. You can also view these attractions without spending money.

Bunker Hill County Park

This Park includes miles of hiking trails that lead to waterfalls and gorges, and many of the trails offer scenic vistas. The Park also offers an impressive treehouse and camping facilities.

During the winter months, the park offers snowmobiling trails and many miles of snowshoeing paths.

Powersite Dam & Lake Shelbyville

This site includes a campground, marina, beach, and picnic areas.

In the early 1900s, this site was used as a hunting ground for many local hunters from nearby cities. The park’s current dam is the second one built to control the river’s water flow after an earlier dam failed.

Dripping Springs Natural Area

This site is home to many endangered species, including the indigo snake, sharp-shinned hawk, and butterfly varieties. The Park also includes a natural cave made up of the exposed roof of the underground cavern that runs underneath the area.

Castle Rock State Park

Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy this park’s many trails, including a North Country National Scenic Trail section.

In 1812, this site was named after a large outcropping of sandstone that resembled an old German castle tower. The location is also home to one of the largest herds of white-tailed deer in Illinois.

Oak Ridge Prairie State Natural Area

You’ll enjoy the many scenic vistas at this park, including a panoramic view of the Illinois River Valley.

In 1720, French explorer Louis Juchereau de St Denis established Fort de Chartres near this site and traded with local Native Americans. The fort was captured by British forces in 1765 and renamed Fort Cavendish for one of the commanders, but it was soon abandoned and destroyed.

Kaskaskia State Park

A replica of Fort Kaskaskia is located within this park, which is the oldest French settlement in Illinois. In 1763, the fort was captured without a fight by British troops under Henry Hamilton.

This site also includes a campground and marina with fishing access to the Illinois River.

Nachusa Grasslands

This Park is named after 19th-century Illinois politician Joseph Duncan, who helped establish the land as public property. It’s located in Franklin Grove and offers scenic vistas, prairie plants, and wildflowers, in addition to a reserved campsite.

Illinois Beach State Park – Zion, IL

For 6.5 miles, this state park runs along the beautiful, sandy shores of Lake Michigan. It has several options for cycling, jogging, or simply relaxing in a peaceful environment with nothing but the waves lapping against the beach.

The campground has 241 spaces with access to electricity and showers. Illinois Beach State Park is a great spot to visit if you want to have fun in the sun.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

This Park offers a natural spring, prairie grasslands, and steep ravines carved out by the nearby Salt Fork River. You can also enjoy excellent fishing and hunting in season. The nearby town of Goreville was named for Major Thomas T. Gore, who established the area’s first store in 1872.

Apple River Canyon State Park – Apple River, IL

The Illinois jewel, Apple River Canyon, is rich with limestone bluffs, ravines, springs, streams, and various creatures that will inspire the adventurer in you as you distinguish yourself from the rest of the state’s relatively flat terrain. The campground has 49 sites without showers; getting clean should be enough reason to go swimming.

Giant City State Park

This Park has camping, horseback riding, and fishing so that you can enjoy all three. In addition, nature Trails at Giant City nature trail is a lovely place to visit while taking in the beauty of the surrounding area.

People who enjoy the outdoors will particularly enjoy this park. It’s a great escape from the city, and you’ll find options for camping, hiking, fishing, swimming, and more.

Pere Marquette State Park

This Park offers a quiet escape in an untouched natural area with no modern amenities to be found. You’ll enjoy the views, especially at sunset. If you are looking for peace & quiet, this would be a great place to visit.

The restored 18th-century French village includes 22 original buildings showing life when it flourished in 1735.

Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center offers a full-service lodge with over 70 rustically charming guest rooms, suites, and cottages. The picturesque setting at the foot of a wooded bluff overlooking a scenic bend in the Big Muddy River is an ideal spot for a relaxing getaway or an unforgettable family vacation.

Shawnee National Forest

Looking down the beautiful bluff overlooking the Ohio River, Shawnee National Forest is a great place to hike. The sandstone ridges and deep, narrow valleys are perfect for outdoor adventures, such as camping, fishing, canoeing, hiking, hunting, mountain biking, horseback riding, and swimming.

Marquette State Park

Marquette State Park is known for its bald eagles during the winter months. They come here to nest and lay their eggs.
The eagles return each winter beginning in late October, then leave again in March or April. During that time, it’s a great place for bird watching and outdoor adventures.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

This site is full of amazing Native American Indian history from the Mississippian period. The visitor center has an observation platform so that you can see the mounds from above. You may also take guided tours that travel into the mounds.

Rock Cut State Park

This Park offers swimming in a spring-fed pool. You can enjoy the crisp, clear water that is 60 feet deep in some places.

The Park also has trails for hiking and biking, plus camping if you want to stay longer than a day. There are also group campsites available.

Kickapoo State Recreation Area

The Kickapoo Park has a campground, trails for hiking and biking, swimming, boating on 22-acre Lake Camelot, fishing access, or a portage to the Illinois River. For the outdoor enthusiast, the park offers something for everyone.

Are you looking to get away from the city for a while at a nature park? Kickapoo State Recreation Area is an excellent choice. It’s easy to access yet still provides rustic charm, perfect for camping or just taking a walk.

This Park is also perfect for those who enjoy water activities, such as fishing and swimming. It features a beachfront with restrooms, showers, grills, and picnic tables but no lifeguards on duty. A boat launch provides access to the river so you can take your pick of boating or fishing.

You can visit any state parks or numerous others in Illinois; most are available with cabins and campsites equipped with electricity or showers. There’s even a state-wide pool, so you can take a dip in the water when the weather is hot.

These parks are easily accessible and have something to offer, regardless of your outdoor hobbies or interests.

Conclusion

Illinois state parks offer something for everyone, including outdoor enthusiasts, boaters, birdwatchers, scuba divers, and others. Many of these state and national parks have gorgeous abuse, natural beauty and offer popular activities including:

  • Rock climbing
  • Biking trails
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Horseback riding
  • Swimming Beach
  • Rolling Hills
  • Limestone bluffs and cliffs
  • Boat ramps
  • Bird watching
  • Overnight campgrounds with shower facilities
  • Miles of shores along Lake Michigan
  • Ice-skating
  • Cabins
  • Waterfalls, streams, and caves
  • Scuba diving
  • Kayaking
  • Canoeing
  • Fishing ponds
  • Campground amenities
  • Primitive camping
  • Recreation, hotel, and lodge accommodations
  • Playground equipment
  • Restaurants
  • Fine dining
  • Ice fishing
  • Waterfowl in wildlife areas
  • Picnicking
  • Miles of trails

Many of these state parks are near charming towns rich with recreational opportunities. In addition, many of the parks are home to migratory birds, including marsh hawks, great blue herons, and bald eagles, which is perfect for nature lovers. Enjoy a memorable camping trip or weekend getaway at one of the best Illinois state parks!

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