The Best Outdoor Adventures in Illinois from Outside elessard

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An estimated 50 million people visit Chicago annually. Precious few of them see the rest of Illinois, however, and they’re missing out. While the most famous city in Illinois always delivers good times, anyone who loves the outdoors will be amazed by what lies beyond the purview of the L. With 64 state parks, 289,000 acres of protected national forest, and seven unique scenic byways, Illinois is brimming with opportunities for outdoor recreation—if you know where to look. Ready to see for yourself? Here’s a rundown of must-visit places to play outside in every corner of Illinois.

 

Chicago and Beyond

Northern Illinois

You don’t have to venture far outside of the city to experience nature at its finest. Just a 90-minute  drive southwest of Chicago, North Utica is the perfect launchpad for exploring parks along the Illinois River. Hike Starved Rock State Park’s 13 miles of trails that wind along the river, past bluffs, and through 18 canyons. In spring and early summer, rainfall brings ephemeral waterfalls to life throughout the park. Downriver at Matthiessen State Park, take the adrenaline up a notch on nine miles of beginner-friendly mountain biking trails. After a day of adventures, retire to a luxury tent at Camp Aramoni, a one-of-a-kind boutique campground with all the trappings. Access to outdoor equipment, seasonal chef-inspired meals for breakfast and dinner, plus gourmet s’mores every night are all included in your stay.

If water activities are high on your adventure list, head north to Rock Cut State Park. As one of the larger state parks in northern Illinois, this recreation area is home to two lakes, with plenty of options for on-the-water fun. Rent kayaks, paddleboards, and boats on-site.

Camp Aramoni is a one-of-a-kind boutique campground. (Photo: Enjoy Illinois)

Land of Lincoln

Central Illinois

Want to get a taste of Illinois culture? Set out on a classic Route 66 trip but with an adventurous twist. Ditch the car to travel by road bike on the Illinois Route 66 Trail. Made up of mostly rural roads, with some city paths and gravel trails, the 301-mile journey follows the historic Route 66 (now Highway 55) from Chicago to St. Louis—connecting cyclists to quaint towns, historic points of interest, and quirky roadside attractions along America’s most famous roadway.

Visit the Presidential Museum and other historic sites related to Abraham Lincoln. Eat at eclectic restaurants and enjoy farm-to-table dining experiences. Then, stop off at a drive-in theater (yes, you can bike in) for a relaxing evening before continuing your journey.

Great Rivers Country

Western Illinois

Head west to explore Pere Marquette State Park. Located near the convergence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, this 8,000-acre park is the largest in the state, which means there’s plenty of room for adventure. The park’s limestone rock formations offer something for all types of climbers, with a mix of sport and trad routes, plus bouldering problems.

For a more low-key adventure, try the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail. This 20-mile paved path runs along the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway from the state park to the nearby town of Alton. Along the route, you’ll pedal past limestone cliffs with unparalleled views of the mighty Mississippi River.

Pere Marquette State Park is the largest park in Illinois. (Photo: Enjoy Illinois)

Trails to Adventure

Southern Illinois

At the southern end of the state, the Shawnee National Forest provides seemingly endless access to nature. Here, six distinct ecological regions converge, fostering astounding diversity in plant and wildlife. From wetlands and lush canyons to dense oak and hickory forests and rocky ridges, the varied terrain is the ultimate playground. Fish for nearly 150 native species found in the forest’s rivers and lakes. At nearby Rend Lake, the second-largest lake in the state, 19,000 freshwater acres provide ample space for speedboats and jet skis.

Hikers can enjoy a variety of trails that traverse the forest. Take in views of Garden of the Gods—one of the most famous geological formations in southern Illinois—on the quarter-mile Observation Trail. For even more rock action, check out nearby Cave-in-Rock and Giant City state parks, both named for the unique rock formations found there. Looking for more of a challenge? Plan a multiday trip to hike the 157-mile River to River Trail, which travels from the Mississippi River to the Ohio River through some of the most remote parts of the Shawnee National Forest.

Rend Lake is the second-largest lake in Illinois. (Photo: Enjoy Illinois)

The Illinois Office of Tourism leads tourism industry efforts to inspire visitation to and within Illinois, resulting in significant economic impact and quality-of-life benefits for all Illinois residents. We are committed to making Illinois a model of inclusivity and celebration of diversity. To learn more, visit EnjoyIllinois.com.

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