Things to do in Starved Rock

Picture this: 80 foot cascading waterfalls surrounded by vibrant cavern walls and majestic rock formations.  Would you believe me if I told you this was in Illinois?  Tucked away two hours outside of Chicago in the small town of Utica, Illinois, lies Starved Rock State Park.

Travelers flock to spend a city holiday in Chicago, Illinois, often forgetting to venture out of the city itself.  Renting a car is highly recommended in order to spend your Starved Rock weekend with ease, and provides smoother access to its neighboring state park, Matthieson.  

Alternatively, visitors can take a train from Chicago’s Union Station to Mendota Amtrak Station, and hop in a 30 minute cab to the state park.  

Starved Rock may be the most underrated attraction of Illinois.  Loved by locals and tourists, Starved Rock can scratch that travel itch for a quick day trip, long weekend, or combined with a Chicago Itinerary.  One thing for sure is that a trip to Starved Rock leaves visitors wondering if they have entered a world outside of the midwest.  

Visitors love Starved Rock activities like hiking, chasing waterfalls, boating, camping, and even trolley rides.  There are so many things to do in Starved Rock!  

Starved Rock, Illinois

Starved Rock Details

Location: Central Illinois.  It is easily accessible from the following larger metropolitan cities: 1.5 hours from Chicago, 2 hours from Madison, Wisconsin, and 2.5 hours from Iowa City.  It is located only 10 minutes drive from neighboring Matthiessen State Park (equally as incredible, just much smaller)

When to visit: Starved Rock is open year-round from sunrise to sunset daily.  The visitors office is open from 9:00am-4:00pm and is closed on federal holidays.  

Spring is the most popular time to visit Starved Rock because seasonal waterfalls are in full force.  However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the best time is really subjective!  I fell in love with Starved Rock’s dazzling frozen waterfalls on my first winter visit.  Fall boasts incredible foliage.  Summer is hot but midwest weather is known to fluctuate.  

How many days: One full day is enough time in the park itself.  Give yourself two days if you would like to hike neighboring Matthiessen State Park and explore the small town of Utica.  

Parking: I recommend parking at the visitor center.  The visitor center parking lot fits 500 cars.  Smaller parking lots are located at certain trail heads.  You can access the overflow parking lot when making a left out of the visitor’s center parking lot, toward the Lodge and Starved Rock campground.  I personally have never needed to use the overflow parking. 

Hiking at Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Hiking in Starved Rock

With 13 miles of trails and 18 canyons to explore, hiking is one of the top things to do in Starved Rock State Park.  Canyons were formed from steam erosion and glacial meltwater- super cool!  

 

All trails begin from the visitor center or from individual parking lots off Routes 178 and 71.  Trails are dog friendly and open year round.  

 

While exploring, visitors can also admire abundant native wildlife like: groundhogs, foxes, beavers, muskrats, bald eagles.  Always do your part to be respectful of wildlife because you are a visitor in the animal’s natural home.  Do not disrupt wildlife by feeding or antagonizing in any way.  

Saint Louis Canyon

Length: 2.1 miles

Difficulty: Easy

As Saint Louis Canyon is one of the most popular waterfalls at Starved Rock, you can imagine that it is heavily trafficked.  This out and back can connects to many other trails.  The best time to hike is during the rainy season or after rain to check out a flowing waterfall.  Nonetheless, its beautiful sandstone canyon walls are worth exploring in any season. 

French Canyon

Length: 2.5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

French Canyon trail is very quick to access past the visitor’s center/main parking lot.  The narrow entrance through the canyon walls makes you feel like you are on an expedition.  This heavily trafficked out and back also connects to many other trails.  Expect a lot of stairs! 

French Canyon at Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock and Sandstone Point Overlook

Length: 4.3 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Loop trail leading to an overlook of the Illinois River.  Exceptionally beautiful in the fall during foliage season.  There are some steep stairs but this trail consists of primarily paved walking.  It’s approximately an hour and a half to complete, and heavily trafficked like the other trails. It is easily accessible from the visitor’s center.

Trail Signs at Starved Rock State Park

Chasing Starved Rock Waterfalls

Chasing waterfalls is one of the most popular things to do in Starved Rock State Park!  Running waterfalls in Illinois is a HUGE draw to visitors because like wait- what?  Waterfalls here, in the midwest?  I’m still in shock, even after my sixth visit! 

 

Starved Rock Waterfalls are seasonally produced by heavy rain or snow melt.  The best months to spot them are March – May.  

 

Waterfalls are running in all 18 canyons during this time as rainfall and thawing are frequent at the start of spring.  The longest lasting waterfalls are at LaSalle Canyon and St. Louis Canyon.  

Boating at Starved Rock

Another fun Starved Rock activity is boating.  Visitors are permitted to launch their own kayak or canoe on the west end of the park.  Kayak rentals and boat rides are offered seasonally May – October.  Both can be booked online in advance.

Guided Starved Rock Activities

Want to learn more about the trails as you walk?  Or interested in a trolley ride or boat tour?  Reserve online at the Lodge website in advance.  Visitors can book a tour regardless of if they are Lodge hotel guests. 

Hiking at Starved Rock

Camping at Starved Rock

With 133 campsites having access to showers, flush toilets, and electricity, camping at Starved Rock is a popular choice.  7 of these campsites are disability accessible.  The campground is open year-round and visitors can make reservations online in advance.  

 

Starved Rock State Park Campground is located just outside of the park off Route 71.  There are no trails connecting the campground to the park.  Camping at Starved Rock is not permitted outside of the campground. 

Starved Rock Accommodation

If you are looking for alternate accommodation to camping at Starved Rock, consider staying at Starved Rock Lodge.  Starved Rock Lodge is conveniently located just outside of Starved Rock, and has both cabin and hotel room options.  

 

The cabins and lodge hotel are connected in the same parking lot.  There is a restaurant/lounge directly next to the hotel.  All hotel and cabin guests have access to an indoor pool and hot tub.  Alternatively, Grand Bear Resort is a popular option 5 minutes away. 

French Canyon at Starved Rock

Things to do near Starved Rock

There are so many fun things to do near Starved Rock State Park to extend your long weekend or vacation.  Consider driving 10 minutes to neighboring Matthiessen State Park.  

Explore local small town shops like the red Blacksmith Shop & Barn from LaSalle County Historical Society.  Don’t forget to snap your photo at the Utica letters sign (the letter “i” is shaped as the state outline- SO very Illinois).

If visiting in October, check out the annual Burgoo Festival!  During the summer months, Canal Market takes place every Sunday Memorial Day through September.  

Looking for adventure?  Book a ziplining tour at Zip Chicago in Marseilles 30 minutes east of Starved Rock or consider guided rafting on the Vermilion River less than 10 minutes drive away. 

Starved Rock Hiking

Starved Rock Packing List

Here are a couple of can’t-miss items to toss in your suitcase when taking a day trip to Starved Rock:

Trail Shoes– I cannot stress the importance of comfortable shoes with strong traction.  Be good to your feet!  

First Aid Kit– Safety first.  Never know when you’ll need a first aid kit!  Always be prepared on the trails.  Band-aids, gauze wrap, motion sickness medication, etc.  

Water Bottle– Hydration, hydration, hydration!  I recommend at least a gallon of water per person for a full hiking day.  

Hydration Backpack– Consider packing your water into a Hydration Backpack like a Camelback or similar..  I have found this much less strenuous on my back, and there are still enough side pockets to hold your camera, snacks, and a sandwich.

Packable Backpack– Alternative to a Camelback.  Packable backpacks are GREAT because you can roll them up and throw them into a suitcase or carry-on bag, and they take up LITERALLY no room at all.  They provide an ample amount of room for one day of adventures.

 

For the chilly weather…

Base layers– Wear warm clothing under your jacket and pants.  Alternatively, consider fleece-lined leggings with a water-resistant exterior.

Puffer jacket– I prefer a puffer jacket to a long parka because this is also packable, and easy to roll up into your backpack if you get hot.

Rain shell– Wear this over your puffer jacket to make sure you stay dry if it snows.  The best part is these are lightweight and packable!  Weather fluctuates, but your comfort shouldn’t.  

Hiking Boots– Comfortable, waterproof hiking boots make all the difference in snowy weather.  Keep your feet dry!

Hiking at Starved Rock

Starved Rock FAQ

What are the park hours?

Sunrise to sunset daily.  The visitors center is open 9:00am-4:00pm daily, with the exception of federal holidays.  

Is there an entrance fee?

Nope!  Starved Rock State Park has free entrance year-round.

So there must be a parking fee?

Nope- free again!  

Are any activities not allowed?  

Rock climbing, hammocking, swimming, biking on hiking trails, or carving/painting sandstone are all prohibited at Starved Rock State Park.  These measures are in place for the safety of guests and the fragile ecosystem.  Starved Rock sandstone is fragile and crumbles easily.  

Can I have a picnic?  

Six picnic shelters are available through the park on a first come first serve basis.  There are also a variety of benches located throughout the trails.  

Hiking at Starved Rock

Looking for more midwest hiking trails?  Consider exploring Indiana Dunes National Park one hour outside of Chicago or Matthieson State Park, just around the corner from Starved Rock.  

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Alyssa

As a full time employee who loves her job, learn how I honor my wanderlust while working a 9:00-5:00 (because I want to!) This blog welcomes all, and specifically provides resources for those seeking travel intertwined into a busy schedule (3 days to 5 weeks).