Scientists determined last year that Illinois is the second flattest state in the United States. Florida is the flattest. But before you go throwing them a pity party, let’s not forget that Florida has the ocean and lots of coastline to go with it. It has the Everglades and the Keys. It has alligators and manatees. So, flat? Yes. Devoid of interesting and pretty nature-y things? Hardly.
In Illinois, on the other hand, we’ll accept your pity readily. Not only are we so very flat, but we also tolerate superlatively meager natural wonders. Of the state’s nearly 58,000 square miles, only 430 or so are set aside for public use (and state parks, forests, and conservation areas). That’s less than one percent.
So what can we count among Illinois’ natural treasures? There are a few things. For one, we can claim a tiny stretch of Lake Michigan as our own. But if you are looking to escape to the wilderness, then the populated shoreline hardly counts.
A 5- or 6-hour drive with a steady view of corn and soy would bring us to the state’s southern tip, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge. There we’d find some lovely rocky bluffs and rolling hills and the only significant splotches of green on the map. But it’s not quite enough to draw people from the Chicago metropolitan area, where over 75% of Illinoisans live.
For those of us who grew up in or around Chicago–that is to say, most Illinoisans—Starved Rock State Park is going to be the place that springs to mind when asked about Illinois’ great outdoors. Less than 2 hours from the city, it’s an easy choice when in need of some fresh air and topographic variety. According to the park’s lodge, the place is Illinois’ number-one attraction. (Though they don’t say according to whom.)
This past weekend was my first visit in the winter. In truth, it was my first visit at all since childhood. And for a moment, I will stop turning up my nose at my plain state (pun completely intended and I’m not sorry) and admit that I had a nice time.
Lover’s Leap Overlook
The park is a series of sandstone bluffs and glacial canyons that hug a few miles of the Illinois River.
Looking down on the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff Overlook
Waterfalls can form in all of the 18 canyons in the spring, and a series of well-marked trails allow for easy access for hikers of any skill level.
In winter many of the waterfalls freeze, and hikers can slip and slide right up to their bases, and in some cases, walk behind them. Ice climbers set up at a couple of the taller falls, as well.
Eagles migrate through the area in winter, as well, so there’s a good chance of spotting them from the top of Starved Rock, a tall bluff on the river.
So yeah, it’s a pretty nice place in our very flat state. I admit it.
If you go, walking poles or Yaktrax will provide balance and traction on snow-packed trails. Dress warmly and sneak your sack lunch into the lodge. (They don’t allow outside food because they want to you buy from their overpriced and underdelicious restaurant.) Be sure to check out French Canyon, a short hike from the visitor center. For a shorter trip to LaSalle Canyon, park at Parkman’s Plain, an unsigned lot across from the Old Style sign on Route 71, a few miles east of the main entrance.