While Evanston is blessed with a great downtown, excellent beaches and plenty of parks and water to enjoy, to get a good hiking experience you need to hit the road.
And as long as you’re hoping in the car, why not travel to the state’s top outdoor destination—Starved Rock State Park.
About a two-hour drive from Evanston in north central Illinois, Starved Rock State Park is the go-to place for outdoor adventure, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year. And it’s about as different from Evanston’s flat urban landscape as you can get.
The park features 18 canyons that were formed by melting glaciers. You’ll find impressive rock formations, wooded hiking trails, waterfalls and scenic lookouts atop sandstone bluffs that, quite frankly, make you wonder how this all got to central Illinois.
You can thank a series of floods from glacial moraines that sent rushing water across the land and eroding the sandstone and other rocks in the area. The lush vegetation and abundant wildlife really stands out amid the endless acres of farmland surrounding the area.
The canyons carve four miles out of the sandstone bluffs in the park, and they are one of the reasons the park is so popular. During the spring or after a rain, each of the 18 canyons will feature waterfalls. The French, LaSalle and St. Louis Canyons have the largest, which also tend to last the longest in drier weather.
In addition to the canyons, Starved Rock offers giant bluffs overlooking the Illinois River, which offer a panoramic view of the area that’s not to be missed. In total the park features 13 miles of hiking trails. (You can find a trail map here.)
The trails are open all year, and the park has become increasingly popular in the winter, where a large population of bald eagles can be seen feeding in the Illinois River. The trails are well-marked, with yellow dots indicating you are moving away from the visitor’s center, white dots marking that you’re heading back toward it.
If you want to stay the night, the park’s historic lodge was built in part by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It now offers 72 luxury rooms and 22 cabin rooms—and they go quickly. The lodge features a swimming pool, restaurant, and great room with a massive stone fireplace. Even if you’re not staying there, it’s worth a peek in.
There are 129 premium campsites in the park, with reservations accepted and highly recommended. The park charges $25/night per site, and $35/night on holiday weekends. Each campsite has electricity and a grill pit, and there are two buildings with showers and flush toilets. (See the campground map here.)
For hikers, you won’t find better trails in the state. Go in the spring for the wildflowers and waterfalls running through the canyon. Go in the fall for the colors. Go in the winter to see the eagles. You really can’t go wrong.
Details: The park is located in Utica, Ill., just south of I-80 and east of I-39. The main park and picnic areas are open from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Camping areas are obviously open 24 hours, but the gates are open from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. You can read more about the park here.