When thinking of Illinois, most people immediately think of city life and Chicago pizza. But Illinois is also home to many of the most stunning state parks, forests, and recreation areas in the country, and no hiker worth their salt should pass up the opportunity to explore these gorgeous trails. Read on to discover 22 of the best places for hiking in Illinois!
Castle Rock State Park
First on our list of places for hiking in Illinois is Castle Rock State Park! The incline in Castle Rock State Park ranges from about 60 ft (18 m) to 400 feet (118 m) over the 809-acre expanse of the park. The trails cater to everyone of all levels, from family strolls to advanced hikes. One of the attractions to look out for is the Castle Rock State Park Lookout, which hikers of all levels can access. You can take to the trails all year round and even take your dog with you, as long as it’s on a leash.
Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park
In Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park, you can follow a historic trail that follows the route used by native Americans. The route goes over rolling hills, through woods of hardwoods and pines, and along flatter ground, covered by grasslands. Look out for wildlife, such as raccoons, deer, and squirrels, as well as a variety of birds. All in all, the park features 10 to 15 miles of trails.
Rock Cut State Park
Rock Cut State Park features trails that are fairly easy and moderate, which give a variety of options of areas to explore. One of the trails is the Perryville Path, which follows an out and back route. The park caters to hikers of all levels and parts are wheelchair friendly. You will find other activities to do in the park, and dogs are allowed on leash.
Chain o’ Lakes State Park
It is the number of lakes that stands out in Chain o’ Lakes State Park. At this Illinois hiking destination, you’ll be surrounded by various-sized bodies of water. The hiking trails wend in and out of the lakes, with a gain of 150 – 155 ft (46 – 47 m). The trails suit hikers of every skill level. Water attracts birds and other wildlife, so look out for your companions in the wild as you enjoy your hiking.
Moraine Hills State Park
More than 10 miles of Illinois hiking trails await the hiker in Moraine Hills State Park. Along the way, you will enjoy seeing the rich population of birds and wildlife that inhabit the lakes and wetlands covering about half the area of the park. Right near the middle of the park is Lake Defiance, which gives you a unique opportunity to see one of the few glacial lakes in Illinois that is still undeveloped.
Channahon Parkway State Park
Next up on our list of places for hiking in Illinois, the Channahon Parkway State Park is the trailhead for the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail, which covers 80 miles (128 km) of possible hiking along a surface covered in asphalt, crushed stone, gravel, and grass. It follows the route of an old rail trail. The park offers another 61 miles (98 km) of trails to explore. There are plenty of scenic and historic sites to enjoy along the way. Look out for birds, particularly the great blue heron.
Maple Grove Forest Preserve
The trails in Maple Grove Forest Preserve are suited to all skill levels of hiker. Features like the 1.4 miles (2.4 km) loop, surrounded by beautiful wildflowers is an outing worth taking on its own. Make a family occasion of it and plan a picnic to enjoy amongst the flowers. The family dog can go on this Illinois hiking trip too, as long as it’s on leash.
Ottawa Canyon – Starved Rock State Park
Ottawa Canyon is a trail in Starved Rock State Park, which is an easy 1 mile (1.4 km) loop trail for all hikers of any skills level. Let your dog have a day out, as dogs are allowed on leash. Choose your time of year carefully, so that you’ll have the best opportunity to enjoy the wealth of wildflowers on the route.
Lake Katherine Trail
The Lake Katherine Trail is a fairly easy trail for hiking in Illinois that is perfect for a leisurely stroll, or a fairly steady walk. No matter what pace you choose to take on the trail, you’ll have plenty of chances to look at the number of birds along the way. The trail is wheelchair-friendly, so it does cater to everyone. If you are interested in the water, after you have enjoyed the trail, you can rent a kayak and go out onto the lake.
Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail – Matthieson State Park
Amazing waterfalls, some of which are in caves the water has carved from the rock over thousands of years, abound on the Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail. This is a 2.2 mile (3.5 km) trail that takes you on a route past the waterfalls and across a bridge that spans the river, from which you can look down on the waters rushing down the various rapids. The elevation gain of the trail is 380 ft (115 M), so be prepared for some climbing.
Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is a recreation area and is aptly named: its scenic beauty is not easily surpassed, so it must surely be a place that is worthy of belonging to the gods. The area is perfect for hiking and picnicking, so you can have a full day enjoying the area. One of the most popular hiking trails is the Observation Trail, and it’s worth navigating the steep gradients and steps to see the panoramic view at the top.
Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve
In the Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, you’ll find a 3.2 mile (5 km) loop trail that follows Salt Creek all the way around the bluff to arrive at a historic watermill, which is part of the sense of the past that seeps into the area. Fall is a particularly beautiful time of year in the preserve, with the striking oranges and reds of the trees reflecting in the river.
Waterfall Glen Trail
Get to this Illinois hiking destination early, because the Waterfall Glen Trail is a very popular attraction. The 9-mile (15 km) loop crushed stone trail is used by hikers, walkers, and runners. The views along the way are beautiful and the waterfall the trail passes is wonderful. The trail is best from April to October, but is available all year round. Take care, because some parts can be a little slippery in wet weather.
Eastern Central Illinois
Kickapoo State Recreation Area
One of the things about hiking, especially Illinois hiking, is that sometimes you get to see not only the beauty of nature, but also its power of rejuvenation. The Kickapoo State Recreation Area was established on the site of an old strip mine, which wreaked havoc with nature. Now, you can hike through lovely forested areas and past some of the 22 deep water ponds. Enjoy the birds, wildlife, and wildflowers while you marvel at the glory of nature.
Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park
Hiking and history may not always seem like a likely combination, but sometimes they do go together. The Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park marks the site of Abraham Lincoln’s first home in Illinois. In the park, the Lincoln Trail is a 5 mile (8 km) loop suitable for walkers looking for a moderately challenging Illinois hiking trail. There are some side trails that are a bit more challenging. The Sand Ford Nature Trail is recommended for those more adventurous hikers.
Spitler Woods State Natural Area
In the 202 acres of Spitler Woods State Natural Area, you will find the chance to hike through beautiful trees, which are not too densely packed, so you can enjoy the birds and wildlife waiting for you to discover them. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to spot something rare and add it to your watchlist.
Western Central Illinois
Nauvoo State Park
Next on our list of places for hiking in Illinois is Nauvoo State Park! Both the original Quashquema name for the town that is the backdrop to the park and the present Hebrew name focus on the peace of Nauvoo State Park. This is truly something you can experience in the beautiful surroundings. If you keep your eyes above the trail, you should be able to see birds, such as goldfinches and wood ducks, and wildlife, such as raccoons, skunks and deer. An even better way to enjoy the beauty and peacefulness is to camp in the park and really take your time hiking.
Horseshoe Lake State Park
Sometimes, the name of a park just tells you what to expect. It’ll be no surprise to know that the central feature of Horseshoe Lake State Park is the unusually shaped lake. The Horseshoe trail takes you along the lake, so you can enjoy the views of the water from the bank. In hot weather, why not take a break and cool off in the water, instead of just looking at it?
Randolph County Conservation Area
If you are looking to get away from it all while hiking in Illinois, then the 5-mile (7.6 km) loop trail in the Randolph County State Conservation Area is a good option for you. The trail is not very busy, so you’ll have a great chance to be alone with nature. The most popular time for the trail is March to October. You can enjoy the forest, wildlife, and birds in this park.
Sam Dale Lake Conservation Area
The Sam Dale Lake Conservation Area is not only about hiking, but also gives you plenty of opportunity for other activities if you feel inspired to move beyond the trail at this Illinois hiking destination. Perhaps you’d like to take some time off your feet and sit on a horse, or see the shores from the lake rather than looking out over the water as you hike past. If you choose to stick to hiking, you can follow the Sam Dale Loop Trail, which is accessible all year round.
Trail of Tears State Forest
When you are setting off for a hike in an area with an unusual name, your curiosity is sure to be piqued. State of Tears State Forest is such a park. The name refers to the trek the Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw nations undertook when they were forced to relocate in the early 19th century. There are a number of trails that let you explore the forest. One of these has been specifically designed for cross-country running.
Fort Massac State Park
Last but not least on our list of places for hiking in Illinois is Fort Massac State Park! If you are interested in trees, then the loop trail at Fort Massac State Park is definitely the place for you to visit, as it is a Forest Watch Tree Identification Trail. If you are looking for a longer hike, then try out the Hickory Nut Ridge Trail. It follows the Ohio River and gives you plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the park. There is also a sense of history in the area, as it is the first state park to be declared in Illinois, way back in 1908.
Hiking in Illinois is the perfect way to explore the variety of beautiful natural areas the state has to offer. It is also the best way to get up close and personal with forests, grasslands, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. There are plenty of opportunities to catch sight of wildlife along the trails, as well as the abundance of birdlife. Some of the best locations for Illinois hiking have a sense of history, which adds to the experience. You can also move beyond the trails and participate in other activities that the parks and preserves offer. Take the opportunity to explore the wonderful trails in Illinois and find much, much more that the state has to offer.
Looking to set off on more Illinois adventures? Check out our recommendations below!