Take your own road trip and enjoy this Midwestern state’s natural splendor

Illinois is known for many things: culture, history, architecture, food. But nature should also be included in that list. It may be difficult to get past the image of towering buildings in metropolitan Chicago, but outside the city, there is so much natural wonder to explore. As you hit the road, you may be surprised at the landscapes you discover and mother nature’s hidden gems waiting around the next turn.

If you’re not sure where to start, there are several road trips that highlight Illinois’ glorious outdoor spaces. From pristine lakes and state parks to quiet wetlands and breathtaking vistas, Illinois is the perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds.

Adventure on the Water

Some of Illinois’ most amazing adventures can be found at the water’s edge. The state is brimming with rivers and lakes, providing endless aquatic fun for visitors.

The Mississippi River, which runs along Illinois’ western border, is a natural playground that can be enjoyed in many ways. Start in Galena, in northwest Illinois, and journey down the Great River Road for breathtaking views of the magnificent waterway. For those seeking something more active, take a hike through Mississippi Palisades State Park, just 30 minutes south of Galena. Those up for a challenge can trek Sentinel Trail, the 1.3-mile path that leads to Sentinel Rock. Visitors can soak in the scenes aboard the Celebration Belle, a paddlewheel boat running a range of tours on the Mississippi from sightseeing to themed. To really get your heart pumping, head further south down the river to Grafton, and try out a zipline adventure or view the mighty Mississippi from an aerial tram with Grafton Sky Tours.

From the Mississippi, venture east into central Illinois to experience all that the Illinois River and its surrounding areas have to offer. Starved Rock State Park feels like a completely different world, you may even forget you’re in the heart of the Midwest. This famed state park boasts 13 miles of trails running through towering trees, rocky canyons, cascading waterfalls, and stunning bluffs. Grab a canoe or kayak to explore the area from the water or hike up to one of the bluffs for gorgeous valley and river views. If there’s time, make your way over to Buffalo Rock State Park, the smaller sister park to Starved Rock. Nestled on the bluffs of the Illinois River, Buffalo Rock is home to an elaborate outdoor sculpture that features five Illinois native species molded in clay, called Effigy Tumuli.

Starved Rock State Park is filled with wonderment.

Starved Rock State Park is filled with wonderment. Photo courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism

If you find yourself in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, take a paddle down Nippersink Creek. Rent a kayak or canoe and spend the day floating along 11 miles of beautiful calm waters. For a different kind of water adventure, check out The Quarry Cable Park, located in the Three Oaks Recreation Area in Crystal Lake. This cable wake park lets wakeboarders skid across the water without the use of a boat, allowing them to practice their skills like never before. If you’re not an extreme sports fan, spend some time playing sand volleyball on the beach, or take in the quarry views from the lakeside patio.

Get Lost in the Woods

Southern Illinois offers a true escape from city life. The impressive landscapes and natural wilderness areas will satisfy any outdoor lover. Wander amid the thick woodlands and steep sandstone walls of Giant City State Park, located in Makanda. This park is perfect for rock climbing and rappelling, but also offers more mellow adventures like hiking, fishing, and horseback riding. Over in the town of Goreville, visitors can explore the lush forest of Ferne Clyffe State Park and take a hike on Waterfall Trail to see dazzling vistas and, of course, the route’s namesake attraction.

The Cache River State Natural Area, in Belknap, is a must see for nature enthusiasts. This ancient cypresstupelo swamp is home to 100 endangered plant and animal species. Rent a kayak or canoe, and paddle through the Cache River Wetlands. You’ll feel like you’re floating through a Louisiana bayou. If you prefer to keep both feet on land, take the Heron Pond Trail to the floating boardwalk to get lovely views of the wetlands.

Shawnee National Forest, stationed between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, is a magnificent example of Illinois’ natural beauty. The forest landscape consists of sandstone cliffs, quiet lakes, rippling creeks, and rolling hills. There’s over 400 miles of trails to explore, leading visitors to awe-inspiring lookout points and streams pouring into crisp watering holes. And don’t miss a visit to Garden of the Gods and Rim Rock Recreational Area, filled with dramatic sandstone rock formations just waiting to be photographed.

Hit the Trails

No matter which part of Illinois you visit, there’s a trail to enjoy. Up in Lake County, cruise nearly 32 miles of the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway. Then head over to Half Day Forest Preserve for plenty more hiking and biking trails, plus fishing and birdwatching. Independence Grove offers seven miles of paved trails, ideal for biking and walking. And in the winter, strap on those cross-country skis to enjoy a snow-filled wonderland.

Stroll Through Farms and Gardens

Nearly every region of the state features lush gardens and sprawling farms that provide visitors with some unique outdoor experiences. Just outside of Chicago, you’ll discover the Chicago Botanic Garden, which boasts 27 incredible gardens for you to explore. Over in Lincolnshire, Didier Farms hosts a summer farmers market, as well as several U-pick events. And in the fall, you can enjoy Pumpkinfest, complete with hayrides, a corn maze, homemade apple cider, and, of course, pumpkins. If you love to get lost, check out Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, home to the world’s largest corn maze.

Over in Lisle, you’ll find the Morton Arboretum, a 1,700- acre forest with more than 222,000 live plants. It’s the perfect spot for a blissful stroll. Then jet over to Jonamac Orchard in Malta, featuring more than 10,000 apple trees spread across 105 acres. Get your basket ready for some epic apple picking.

Illinois has so much to offer visitors, especially when it comes to outdoor fun. Step out of the city and into the wild, wonderful wilderness of Illinois’ natural backyard. Visit enjoyillinois.com for more travel ideas about natural wonders across the state.

By Vanessa Day