Travel Through Illinois State Parks Best Hiking Trails

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Image by christine.gleason on flickr

There are over 270 trails that total more than 700 miles in 70 Illinois state parks. Talk about hiker’s paradise! While there are a few hiking trails that extend over twenty miles, many of the trails are far shorter and more accessible to the general public. There are even trails that are specially designed for those with a physical disability.

Aside from hiking trails, the state parks in Illinois also have biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing trails open during certain times of the year. Most of the state parks have campgrounds, picnic areas, and educational visitor centers. Illinois might not have been on your radar as a hiking destination, but with 70 state parks and dozens of other parks and recreation areas, it is time you thought again about visiting the great outdoors of Illinois. 

Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park Trail

Hennepin State Park
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The Hennepin Canal was the first canal in the United States built out of concrete. This historic canal may not have had long-lasting success as a commercial and industrial waterway, but its construction included several engineering innovations that are still used today.

Now, this canal is part of a state park and offers visitors a 155-mile-long hiking and biking path from the Illinois River to Rock River. Also, there are certain portions of the trail that are open to horseback riding and snowmobiling.

The Hennepin Canal is also a prime fishing area, as well as a great canal to kayak down. There are several camping grounds and day-use areas within the park and along with this lengthy trial. If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of the canal and the creation of this state park in Illinois, you can check out the visitor center near Sheffield Monday through Friday from 7:30 AM to 3:30 PM.

Matthiessen State Park

Illinois State Park
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Matthiessen State Park offers visitors five miles of well-marked and maintained trails that are exclusive to foot traffic. Several trails are ideally suited for leisurely walks and a few others that provide a more rigorous hiking experience. The trail system in this park is easy to navigate as there are signs and maps in plain sight along the various paths.

Aside from hiking trails, there are nine miles of biking and horseback riding trails and six miles of cross-country skiing trails. Matthiessen State Park is trail central in Illinois! During your hike here, you will encounter canyons, prairies, streams, and lively forests, as well as unusual rock formations.

Pere Marquette State Park

Illinois State Parks
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If you are seeking abundant recreational activities, this beautiful state park in Illinois has it all. Pere Marquette State Park is open year-round to visitors interested in hiking, fishing, camping, horseback riding, and bird watching. In fact, from January to February the park is a well-known wintering ground for the impressive bald eagle. It is possible to see hundreds of bald eagles during these two months!

There are approximately twelve miles of groomed trails for both avid and first-time hikers. There is also a 3-D trail map located at the visitor center to help you plan out your ideal hike. Any of the trails that you decide to set foot on will treat you to exceptional views and wildlife watching opportunities. It is recommended that you spend more than one day in this park, and you can do so by camping or renting a charming log cabin.

Starved Rock State Park

Illinois State Parks
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Starved Rock State Park is revered as one of the most beautiful destinations of all Illinois State Parks. Located on the Illinois River bluff in La Salle County, this extraordinary natural area is host to eighteen canyons and thirteen miles of trails. Hiking here will grant you access to waterfalls, natural springs, sandstone bluffs, moss-covered canyon walls, a variety of wildlife, and ancient oaks, cedars, and pine trees.

There are free guided hiking tours available every Saturday and Sunday at 9:30 AM starting at the Visitor Center. You will learn about the history, geology, flora, and fauna from your knowledgeable and highly experienced hiking guide. Your guide will either take you to Starved Rock and French Canyon or Eagles Cliff Overlook, Lovers Leap Overlook, and Wildcat Canyon.

There are also additional guided tours, scout programs, bald eagle viewing excursions, and a Jr. Ranger Program in the Starved Rock State Park. The visitor center is open daily from 9 AM to 4 PM.

Dogs are also welcomed in the park and on the trails as long as they are leashed.

Giant City State Park

Illinois State Park
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A portion of the Shawnee National Forest is further protected as the Giant City State Park. Located near Carbondale, this gorgeous protected area is a highly sought-after park to visit for nature and hiking lovers. There are eight trails, including the Post Oak Trail, which is designed for hikers with physical limitations.

Then, there is the Red Cedar Hiking Trail, which is a challenging 12-mile hike that has a campsite at the halfway point. Other trails include the Arrow Wood, Devil’s Standable, Indian Creek, Stone Fort, and Trillium. The most popular hiking trail is the Giant City Nature Trail; home to colossal sandstone bluffs that were formed some 12,000 years ago.

There are also 12 miles of equestrian trails and an equestrian campground that is open from May 1 through October 31. Giant City State Park is home to more than 75 species of trees, hundreds of species of wildflowers, and carpets of moss and fern.

 Mississippi Palisades State Park

Illinois State Parks
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If you want hiking trail variety and abundance, the Mississippi Palisades State Park has it! The rugged 15-mile trail system that winds through this park is broken up into five challenging hikes and five less strenuous hikes. The southern trails are more geared toward the hardcore hiker, while the northern trail system is more accessible to the casual hiker. The south system’s longest hike is the 1.2-mile-long Sentient Trail. Similar to it, the Oak Point trail is suitable for hikers with physical limitations.

The trails that cross through this park have been used for over a thousand years! While the state now maintains them, the Native Americans that used to occupy this part of Illinois once walked the paths that make up the southern trail system.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Bork's Falls
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Ferne Clyffe State Park has long been recognized for its remarkable beauty. The ancient forests here are dense and interlaced with ferns and unique geological features. Eighteen hiking trails within this park are designated solely for foot traffic. Certain areas are open to horseback riding, but this is only available from November 1 to April 30. Each trail has been assigned a number along with its name. This is to help make navigating easier for first-time forest hikers.

Aside from multiple campgrounds, there are also seven picnic areas within Ferne Clyffe State Park. This is an excellent place to spend the day hiking and picnicking in the woods.

Buffalo Rock State Park

Buffalo Rock
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This unique state park in Illinois is located on a bluff that was once an island in the middle of the Illinois River. While this state park might be tiny at only 298-acres, it offers visitors expansive views and spectacular scenery. Unlike other Illinois State Parks, there is also an art installation within the park.

Artist Michael Heizer created sculptures of a snake, turtle, catfish, frog, and a water strider as a tribute to the Native Americans who once thrived here. This one-of-a-kind earth art is called Effigy Tumuli and is best admired first from a distance.

The Buffalo Rock State Park River Bluff Trail is a trail that takes you high above the Illinois River. You will come across two observations decks on this trail where you can stop, rest, and enjoy the fantastic views.

Additionally, the Woodland Trail takes you through the forest where you will have the chance to appreciate the animal and plant life that call this protected area home.

Trail Of Tears State Park

Illinois State Parks
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Located in western Union County, the Trail of Tears State Park is 5,000 stunning acres of protected forest. There are dozens of trails within the park that are open year-round, including one path that is designated for cross country running. Between May 1 and October 31 several trails are open to horseback riders. Many of the hiking trails take you uphill and through valleys. Here, you will find yourself pleasantly immersed in nature.

You will also find two picnic areas and multiple campgrounds if you want to spend more than one day in this park. Due to the high volume of trails, spending at least a few days here is recommended. This then allows you to really appreciate the park in its entirety.

Rock Island Trail State Park

Rock Island Trail
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The Rock Island Trail State Park is a lovely tree-covered trail that stretches from Alta to Toulon in Illinois. The trail is uninterrupted for 26-miles and is open to hikers, bikers, and cross-country skiers. This well-maintained trail system provides a perfect path to enjoy a long and easy hike in a truly beautiful part of Illinois.

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