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Starved Rock State Park: Breathtaking canyons amid the plains of Illinois

French Canyon, Starved Rock State Park
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January 16, 2018 06:35 PM

If your group likes nature experiences with a healthy dose of civilized comforts nearby, Starved Rock is the place to go. Layers of carved sandstone, waterfalls and tree-covered bluffs surround both campsites and a lodge with restaurants and other amenities. The park lies on the southern bank of the Illinois River and is less than a two-hour drive southwest of Chicago.

Facts and figures

  • Starved Rock has more than 13 miles of trails
  • The park attracts more than 2 million visitors a year
  • Stream erosion and glacial meltwater formed its 18 canyons
  • The park's human history dates back to 8000 B.C.
French Canyon Waterfall

History
The park's name comes from a Native American legend that has been passed on throughout the decades but not historically verified. Accused of murdering Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe in the 1760s, Illini tribe members fled to a 125-foot-high sandstone butte above the Illinois River. Trapped there by an alliance of Ottawa and Pottawatomi warriors, the Illini starved to death.

A separate, Romeo-and-Juliet-like legend is attached to the park's Lover's Leap overlook. Legends aside, Native American tribes inhabited this land over thousands of years, building the essential human history of farming and hunting off the banks of the Illinois. By the turn of the 20th century, the area had become a resort with a hotel and natural pool. The state of Illinois purchased the land in 1911 to create its first recreational park.

Things to see and do
Starved Rock's visitor center is a good place to pick up maps and supplies while taking in exhibits and informational movies about the park. Its campground has 133 reservable sites with electricity, while the lodge offers modern hotel rooms and standalone cabins. Starved Rocks hiking trails are oriented toward visiting its 18 canyons, 14 of which have waterfalls. The recommended canyons for scenic waterfalls are St. Louis, French, Wildcat, Tonty, Ottawa and Kaskaskia. And of course, you'll want to see the park's namesake Starved Rock, which is a short (.3 mile) but moderate (many steps) hike from the visitor center. The park also offers year-round guided hikes.

From late December until March, the park is a prime spot for eagle watching. Thousands of bald eagles migrate to the area each year, hunting for fish along the river. You can learn about them on eagle-watching tours led by park staff, and also at the nearby Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, which has a wildlife viewing area.

If a tour on wheels is more appealing, take one of the trolley tours, which go through the park and also to neighboring towns. Utica, for example, has wineries, shops, mini golf and an indoor water park. The history buffs among you might want to see Hegeler-Carus Mansion, of glimpse of what state-of-the-art looked like in 1874, including one of the country's oldest gymnasiums. You can also go horseback riding at Cedar Creek Ranch, about 15 minutes away from the park.

If your group wants to explore further, Matthiessen State Park is just minutes away and features activities you won't find at your average park—namely archery and a radio-controlled model airplane field—plus cross-country skiing in winter. Buffalo Rock State Park, which features incredible views of the Illinois River, is also nearby.

Best time to go
The best time to visit depends on your group's priorities. Summer and fall are great for hiking and camping under the stars. In winter, you can see the bald eagles and waterfalls that have become stunning icefalls. The campground is open year-round, and often full from May through October, so reservations are recommended.

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