Skip the Crowds at These Six Lesser-Known Illinois State Parks

These state parks have all the scenic views and nature fun, minus the crowds. Plus, they’re just a drive away!

Move over, Starved Rock! 

Don’t get me wrong — I love Starved Rock State Park! The scenic bluffs, winding trails that lead to waterfalls and boardwalk overlooks make it a must-visit destination for any family who has yet to experience Illinois’ most popular state park. 

Because of Starved Rock’s popularity, though, peak times like weekends and summer vacation can get packed with visitors. I don’t know about you, but overflowing parking lots and packed trails aren’t exactly what I have in mind when I think of a family day in the great outdoors. 

Enter these scenic state parks that offer tons of outdoor fun for families of all ages and abilities. Families can go hiking, fishing, picnicking, biking, camping and more at these nature spots.   Plus, these six state parks are just a drive away, with way less foot traffic than what you’ll typically encounter at Starved Rock. 

Happy trails! 

Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park

Illinois state parks
Photo credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Swimming (and scuba diving), fishing, hiking, biking and camping are just a few of the adventures awaiting your family at Illinois Beach State Park. The beach is home to 6.5 miles of sandy ridge shoreline, as well as dunes, marshes, savannas and forests. 

The park’s campground features The Pavilion store, which sells everything from firewood and souvenirs to hot dogs and ice cream. Enjoy a bite to eat during your day trip, or make camping a breeze with the amenities offered at The Pavillion. 

The Illinois Beach Hotel is a great option for families that want to plan a beach getaway but aren’t looking to camp out. The lodge has a restaurant, event space and conference center, and boasts its status as the only hotel in Illinois located on a Lake Michigan beach. 

Pets are not allowed on the beach or in the nature preserve, but are permitted in the campground, picnic areas and trails. 

Chain O’ Lakes State Park 

Illinois state parks
Photo credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Chain O’ Lakes State Park is a popular spot for fishing, boating and picnicking. After driving just 90 minutes northwest of Chicago, visitors can unwind in the heart of Illinois’ largest concentration of natural lakes. Families interested in fishing can catch bluegill, largemouth bass, walleye, crappie, muskie, northern pike, bullhead, catfish and yellow and white bass. 

The park also features four trail systems for hiking, biking and horseback riding. For families with littles, the Pike Marsh North Picnic Area has an accessible trail that is just a quarter-mile long. Rent a boat in the summer, or go ice skating, sledding or snow shoeing in the winter. Campsites are available for families interested in camping overnight. 

Family pets are welcome and must be kept on a leash at all times. 

Kankakee River State Park

Illinois state parks
Photo credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Just an hour south of the city lies Kankakee River State Park. This hidden gem is a quiet place for families to camp, hike, fish, canoe and explore the outdoors. 

Families can catch smallmouth bass, channel catfish, walleye and Northern pike in the river. Two boat ramps make it easy to get out on the water, but be sure to bring your own boat or canoe. You can rent canoes at nearby businesses, but there are no rentals on-site. Swimming is not allowed at this park.

The park’s trail system winds along the Kankakee River, offering views of the water, a frothy waterfall and limestone canyons. A three-mile hiking trail, 10.5-mile biking trail and 12-mile equestrian trail make it easy to explore the park. 

Pets are allowed and must be kept on a leash at all times. 

Matthiessen State Park 

Illinois state parks
Photo credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

While I wouldn’t call Matthiessen State Park a “hidden gem,” this lesser known park is just down the street from Starved Rock and features much of the same natural beauty, making it a great alternative to the busy park. 

The state park is split into two areas: the Matthiessen Dells and the Matthiessen Vermillion Area. The Dells are the park’s main attraction; the Dells trail runs through towering sandstone bluffs, around mossy boulders and under waterfalls. After weaving through the dells, be sure to take a few moments to catch the view from the bridge overlooking Cascade Falls. 

Matthiessen Vermillion Area is home to picnic sites, a model airplane field and a winding system of hiking, biking and cross country skiing trails. During sunflower season — mid-July-August — head to the model airplane field at the end of the Matthiessen Vermillion Area. Just beyond this point, you’ll find 60 brilliant acres of sunflowers in bloom. 

Pets are allowed and must be kept on a leash at all times. 

Moraine Hills State Park

Illinois state parks
Photo credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

This state park in McHenry County was formed by glaciers. Its wetlands, forests, lakes and river access make it a popular destination for hiking, biking, fishing and birding. 

The park’s 48-acre Lake Defiance is one of the few glacial lakes in the state that has remained largely undeveloped. Visitors can fish at Lake Defiance or on the east bank of the Fox River. An accessible fishing pier on the McHenry Dam provides access to the river. Boat rentals are also available for families that want to get out on the water. 

More than 10 miles of hiking, biking and cross country skiing trails are available for families who want to explore the park by foot. Want to explore Moraine Hills State Park by stroller? The River Road trail is paved and just under two miles. 

Pets are allowed and must be kept on a leash at all times. 

Rock Cut State Park 

Illinois state parks
Photo credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Just shy of a two-hour drive from Chicago, Rock Cut State Park offers so many outdoor activities for families. The park is home to two lakes, 40 miles of hiking trails, a campground with over 270 premium campsites and abundant wildlife. 

Summertime activities include swimming, hiking and mountain biking, fishing and boating, hunting and camping. In the winter, families can go cross country skiing and snowshoeing. 

Located in the park, Olson Beach is a great day trip for families. For a small admission fee, families can enjoy swimming, volleyball and a concession stand with snacks and ice cream. The Outdoor Store rents kayaks, canoes, peddle boats and paddle boards, and offers a variety of fun and informative classes. 

Olson Beach daily fees are $5/guests taller than 48 inches, $2.50/guests shorts than 48 inches, free for kids 3 years of age and younger. Pets are allowed and must be kept on a leash at all times. 


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Nikki Roberts
Nikki Roberts
Nikki Roberts is the assistant editor on the Chicago Parent team. She is always on the lookout for the coolest and trendiest new attractions, restaurants and events for Chicagoland families. Her newsletters, online family guides and exciting digital content keep families informed on all the latest happenings around town.

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