Starved Rock State Park is less than 100 miles from downtown Chicago, but it feels like a world away as you stand atop a cliff overlooking the Illinois River and marvel at stunning waterfalls. Here are some tips to make the most of your visit.
Get there early.
It’s not a secret that Starved Rock is a great destination, and it often attracts a large number of people, particularly on pretty days. Get there early if at all possible. (Trails opens at sunrise, the park opens at 7 a.m.) It’s also cooler in the morning, and beating both the heat and the crowds is a win-win. Because crowds can cause parking issues, as can weather, follow the park on Facebook and check for updates prior to leaving and along the way.
Wear good shoes.
When my family last visited, I saw a surprising number of people in flip flops or sandals who were struggling. One teen boy in sandals was pleading with his friends to wait for him, saying, “C’mon, bro, my feet!” Closed toes shoes that fit well are key to enjoying your time on the trails.
Bring plenty of water and snacks.
There are 13 miles of trails and a surprising amount of stairs. You and your littles will get thirsty, and you’ll be glad to have something to keep you hydrated. Be kind to nature and bring a reusable water bottle.
Ditch the stroller.
Speaking of the stairs, the fact that there are so many of them means it’s really tough to maneuver a stroller. Consider a carrier instead.
Check out the Junior Ranger program.
There are two junior ranger programs, one for kids ages 5-7 and another for those 8 and up. Pick up a packet at the Visitor Center, which opens at 9 a.m. There are also scout badge opportunities. Note: The Visitor Center is temporarily closed, but you can print copies of the booklet online. Badges are currently unavailable.
Protect yourself from the sun and bugs.
There’s a lot of tree canopy that provides some shade, but you can still get burned. Bring the sunscreen and also some insect repellant. Although not what first comes to mind when you’re thinking of being outside in the Midwest in the summer, consider wearing light clothing that has long sleeves. Not only will it help with sun, but it’ll also protect you from any poison ivy and mosquitoes looking for a free lunch, too.
Consider bringing a change of clothes.
Kids really like to play in the waterfalls and pools underneath them at Starved Rock. However, hiking in wet pants and soaked socks is not fun. If you think your kids will want to splash, bring a change of clothes. And if you have water shoes, bring them too.
Have an idea of the trails you want to hike.
Starved Rock is really big, and there is a lot to explore in one day, especially if you have little ones. Break your time into more manageable, and therefore enjoyable, hikes. Check out their guided hikes before you go as you may want to adjust where you park based on which trails are calling your name on any given day. You can also pick up maps at the information desks at either the Visitor Center or the Lodge. If you’re looking for waterfalls at Starved Rock, they sometimes dry up in the hotter, dryer months. The most scenic ones are found in St. Louis, French, Wildcat, Tonty, Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons.
Bring your four-legged family member.
Dogs are permitted as long as they are on a leash. Make sure the weather is safe for them, though and bring water for your pup. Leave them at home on days that are particularly hot. If you’re considering making it an overnight trip, pet-friendly cabins are available.
Don’t forget Matthiessen State Park just down the road.
Matthiessen State Park is just a few miles past Starved Rock, but it offers a different experience. Unlike Starved Rock, there is no lodge or store here, and it is smaller, with just five miles of trails. But it is a gorgeous place to hike and can be less crowded, and sometimes less flooded.
Review both family rules and park rules before heading out for the day, and stress the importance of staying on marked trails. There are reports of kids severely injuring themselves because they ventured off the trail at Starved Rock. Follow the rules. If you do these things, your family will have a safe and fun time soaking up a spectacular show put on by Mother Nature.
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This story was originally published on July 18, 2018. It has been updated with the most recent information.