Starved Rock State Park

Summary

If you are from the metropolitan Chicago area, a post on Starved Rock may seem unnecessary. Well known as THE state park of northern Illinois, chances are if you have a passion for enjoying nature, there’s a high likelihood you have visited Starved Rock. Perhaps you’ve hiked the canyons, engaged in eagle watching or enjoyed a holiday barbeque along the Illinois River.

However, like many nature parks, Starved Rock has, over the years, become incredibly crowded and we’d like to share a few tips for visiting the park along with a brief overview for those not familiar.

Logistics

Starved Rock is located about 1.5 hours from Chicago in Utica, IL, about 10 minutes south of I-80 along IL 178. The grounds have a comprehensive visitor center, complete with food, washrooms and a sizeable parking lot. There is also a rustic lodge, reminiscent of national park lodges, located a short drive from the visitor center, with a nice restaurant, accessible also to visitors who are not booked at the lodge. 

Depending on the route you take, there are a number of restaurants/snack shops located near the park in both Utica or in the nearby Ottawa.

A frozen Wildcat Canyon

Tips

  • Starved Rock, due to its proximity to metropolitan Chicago, can have massive crowds during the spring and summer months, or even the occasional warm winter day. Getting there early (before 8:30) is best to be able to enjoy the park without feeling crammed in. You can easily spend the better part of the day hiking the numerous trails threaded throughout the park.
  • Bald Eagles make their appearance along the Illinois River near the park during the winter months, though the best time to catch them is during the coldest periods, late-January through mid-February. You may not get very close, but you have a high likelihood of spying a few.
  • Many of the paths in the park require significant climbing of stairs. 4 of the paths nearest the visitor center include inclines of well over 50 steps. 
  • Finally, though many of the trails are planked, safety at the park is always a concern. Not a year goes by that you do not hear of someone falling to an untimely death, no matter the season. In the winter months, ice lines many of the trails and the canyons can be incredibly steep and slippery if not inaccessible, even with hiking boots.

Trails from the Visitor’s Center

Parking at the visitor center is the best bet for first-time visitors. This starting point provides easy access to some of the parks most well-known features and trails. The visitor center is located a few hundred yards from the Illinois River, a hotspot for eagle sightings during the winter months.

The park’s namesake viewed from Lover’s Leap

Heading east from the visitor center you will find yourself on a trail that almost immediately provides a number of short spurs – one leads up a steep staircase to the Lodge. Another, heading towards the river, will lead you on a climb to the park’s namesake site Starved Rock. Both the lodge and Starved Rock provide great views of the river and the surrounding area. Both of these trails, though short, will also require a bit of effort as each are pretty much all incline.

Should you choose to bypass both of these spurs you can continue down the main trail a short distance and encounter a fork in the road. To your left is  the Lover ‘s Leap Overlook trailhead. Similar to the Starved Rock Overlook, Lover’s Leap provides dramatic views of the Illinois River.  Heading east from Lover’s Leap is a planked walkway along the cliffs overlooking the river. Despite the climb to Lover’s Leap, this is one of the must-do trails in the park. This trail is about 30 minutes round trip from the visitor’s center.

A view into French Canyon

If you choose the other direction from Lover’s Leap, you will access a trail to French Canyon. Perhaps the most well-known (and well-traveled) canyon in the park, French Canyon is a twisty-turny adventure that will require some steady footing. Icy conditions can easily prohibit any hiking in the area of this canyon.

Wildcat Canyon in its winter glory

Each of the trails to French Canyon and Lover’s Leap lead to trails connected to Wildcat canyon, which is a must see in the park. Featuring a few steep waterfalls, this canyon is especially dramatic in the winter months when the falls transform into cascades of ice. Prepare to spend a little bit of time here, both for the sights and the crowds.

If the park is not crowded, 2-3 hours is all you need to access the hikes described here. There are a lot of stairs, but many of the trails are planked for ease of access.

The Hidden Gem

Bluebells in Illinois Canyon

The portion of Starved Rock described above has been our setting for probably close to 30 visits, and outside of large crowds, it has never been a disappointment.  

That said, a few years back, we decided to exit the park through the west exit (RT. 71 towards Ottawa.) After traversing winding roads for about 10 minutes, Rt. 71 began to hug the Illinois River. As we proceeded toward the park’s exit, we saw a sign for Illinois Canyon. One last hike for the day sounded like a good way to round out the trip.

Snow coats blankets Illinois Canyon

Though the parking lot for Illinois Canyon is very small and the initial path is almost invisible, a little bit of effort took us into what may be both the neatest and least typical canyon in the park. The first 10 minutes of the hike take you along a river and through some other watery areas. To proceed to the canyon, you may have to walk through water depending on the season.

The canyon itself is probably a football field wide – it almost does not feel like a canyon – more like a valley between large rock walls. Seasons play an incredible role in this canyon. The winter provides frozen waterfalls and large frozen pools which always seem to have incredible designs in the ice due to the way the pools have been formed. 

Spring, on the other hand, yields carpets of wildflowers, including the most incredible display of bluebells we have seen. Additionally, a number of the trees bloom with vibrant violet flowers. Despite the often muddy spring paths, Illinois Canyon in the spring may be the most beautiful sight northern Illinois has to offer.

Starved Rock and the surrounding areas, including Matthiesson State Park and the city of Ottawa are more than deserving of a visit for anyone living in northern Illinois. Whether a day trip or an extended stay over the weekend, visitors, especially those who get to the park early, will not be disappointed.

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