Starved Rock State Park, Illinois – A Visitor’s Guide

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With over 2.4 million visitors a year, the 18 sandstone canyons and 14 waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park should not be missed for anyone traveling in Illinois. We hiked the park last summer, so keep reading to see how to have a great trip to this beautiful 2,630-acre state park.

A small waterfall at Kaskaskia Canyon at Starved Rock State park, Illinois, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois - A Visitor's Guide

Why Starved Rock State Park Is Famous

Starved Rock State Park has spectacular waterfalls in amazing sandstone canyons. Many of the views are within a 2-mile hike from the Visitor Center or the historic Starved Rock Lodge.

Stay at the lodge or its cabins to enjoy fantastic views of the Illinois River. You can walk the Bluff Trail for a grand view of the rock formations or take the River Trail to go into the canyons themselves.

Where The Name Starved Rock Came From

The park rangers explain that the park's name comes from a legend. The legend says that the Ottawa and Pottawatomi were in conflict with the Illiniwek people who were driven back to make a stand at Starved Rock. The other tribes surrounded the area and waited for them to run our food.

Where Starved Rock State Park Is Located

Only 95 miles from the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, Starved Rock State Park is four miles south of Interstate 80 (tolls) on IL-178 S/E.

The park fronts the south riverbank of the Illinois River near the river's lock and dam. Above the dam sits Plum Island where you might see bald eagles during the fall and winter months.

How Far Is Starved Rock From Chicago?

Starved Rock State Park sits 95 miles southeast of downtown Chicago, 56 miles east of Joliet, and 106 miles from Evanston.

You will take the Interstate 80 tollway on your drive. The tolls do not take cash; instead, you can use the I-PASS (Illinois) and EZ Pass, or you can pay by your license plate within 14 days of your trip at the Illinois Tollway site.

The waterfalls dry up by August in Starved Rock State Park (Photo by James Monnett).

The Best Days/Times To Visit Starved Rock State Park

The best time to visit Starved Rock State Park is Monday-Thursday. In 2021, 2.4 million people visited the park.

On Friday-Sundays from June to late October, the Park Rangers often close the entrance to the park by 10:00 a.m. when the parking lots are full. They often open them again by 3 p.m. as the crowds start to thin.

The Best Time Of Year To Visit Starved Rock

October is the busiest month at Starved Rock State Park as people flock to see the spectacular fall colors. April and May are great times to visit, as the water flows over the waterfalls through June. Summer is a great time of year to enjoy the many hiking trails.

Day Visiting Starved Rock State Park

Plan to arrive by 9 a.m. on the weekend to have a spot in the parking lots. On weekends, arrive in the morning to enjoy a full day in the park.

Illinois state parks—except beaches—are free to all visitors. Lunches, snacks, and drinks are available for carryout from the Starved Rock Lodge. Begin your day at the Visitor Center for trail maps, hiking tours, and restrooms.

Parking At Starved Rock

You can find the main parking lots near the Visitor Center and the lodge. RVs and campers should use these larger lots. The lodge guests have a separate gated lot for their use. Rangers will close the parking lots as they fill. All parking is free.

For smaller crowds, park in one of the three lots just past the Kaskaskia Canyon and the Council Overhang formations on the east side of the park.

The gorgeous rock formation at Starved Rock State Park

What Is There To Do At Starved Rock?

People come to Starved Rock to hike the trails into and around the canyons. You can enjoy French Canyon within half a mile of the Visitor Center, so it is great for the whole family.

You can camp next door to the park, kayak the river, fish, and visit Matthiessen State Park 2 miles south, with its 11 miles of horseback stables and riding trails.

Kayaking At Starved Rock

You can join a kayak tour to see the sandstone cliffs of Starved Rock. A popular summer and fall activity is to kayak along the Illinois River below the cliffs. Some of the tours stop for lunch in the park.

Many people bring their own kayaks for a self-guided tour to Plum Island and to see the sandstone peaks. Or, you can throw in a line and fish the river from your kayak.

Camping At Starved Rock

You can bring your RV or your tent for camping at the Starved Rock Campground. Reservations are a must and can be made up to 6 months out. The campground offers 129 Class-A premium sites with a concrete pad, picnic table, electric hook-up, space for an RV or 2 tents, and a fire pit with a metal cook grill.

The campground has a site fee which is higher for holiday weekends where there is a two-night minimum. Click here for reservations.

Sandstone cliffs at Starved Rock State Park (Photo by James Monnett).

Hiking At Starved Rock State Park

You can hike to 18 different canyon and rock features in the park. From March-June, most of the waterfalls will be running. In July, some of the streams that feed the waterfalls dry up. The park has two river overlooks accessible from the trails by stairways.

The Starved Rock Overlooks

The original Starved Rock outcropping is best seen from Lover's Leap Overlook. In the winter, Eagle Cliff  Overlook can give a good view of the bald eagles flying over Plum Island out in the river. Beehive Overlook, Oak Canyon Overlook, and Hennepin Overlook all give different views of the Illinois River.

Easy-Moderate Hikes From The Visitor Center

Hikes from the Visitor Center are easy to walk on flat sections of the trail. Many hikers would classify these as easy hikes because they are under 3 miles roundtrip. But since most of the trails involve stairs at some point, others classify the hikes as moderate.

French Canyon Trail

The French Canyon hike should be at the top for any family hiking. The canyon lies only 0.4 miles from the Visitor Center on a 2-mile loop. Signs are easy to follow. The spring-fed 45-foot high waterfall flows year-round.

Plan on wearing waterproof boots/shoes, as you will be walking alongside the stream on your way up the canyon. In the summer, closed-toe adventure sandals can be a great option as well. Children will love being in the canyon with shallow water all around.

A small waterfall and the gorgeous rock formation at Starved Rock State park

St. Louis Canyon Trail

This 3-mile round-trip hike was one of our favorites. The hike crosses some wood bridges as it climbs the bluff with cool sandstone rock formations to see. Along the way, you will pass three other small canyons: Aurora, Sac, and Kickapoo.

Then you descend the trail as you enter the canyon. St. Louis Canyon is the biggest canyon in the park. You will find the easy trail bringing you lower and lower to the canyon floor. Soon you have the rock all around you with the stream gurgling at your feet.

St. Louis Canyon Waterfall

As you hike along the stream in St. Louis Canyon, you can step over the water to either side as the canyon opens up to the bowl. Around a bend, suddenly, you can see the 80-foot high spring-fed waterfall. You can stand right alongside the plunge pool as the water splashes down.

Wildcat Canyon Waterfall

Plan on doing the moderate 2-mile hike to Wildcat Canyon waterfall using the Bluff Trail to begin. Stand on any of the three lookouts at the 80-foot-high waterfall. Then you can continue down the stairs to see the falls from the bottom.

You will see Wildcat Canyon Waterfall at its best in the spring as the winter melt keeps the water cascading down the cliffside. At the bottom, this trail may be muddy and wet, but it is worth it.

Kaskaskia Canyon and waterfall in Starved Rock State park

If you are an avid hiker, you can do most of the trails in one day. Plan on bringing lots of water, wearing good hiking shoes, and dressing in layers. Hiking poles will help on the stairs and along the streams.

Click here to see these hiking poles on Amazon.

Parking And Hiking on The East Side Of Starved Rock State Park

We chose to drive to the east side of the park on our last morning to see these sites on our way back to Michigan.

Hiking from the nearby parking lots made Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons easier to visit with a 2-mile loop (8-mile roundtrip from the Visitor Center). The Ottawa Canyon Waterfall is beautiful and well worth seeing.

The Frozen Waterfalls

Some of the waterfalls are spring fed, so they flow year-round. St. Louis, Ottawa, and LaSalle canyon waterfalls both freeze into spectacular icefalls in the winter.

Ice climbers and photographers flock to the park to see these magnificent ice falls. Bring ice cleats for your boots, as the stairs and the trails can be treacherous.

Click here to see these ice cleats on Amazon.

Starved Rock Lodge

Staying in the historic Starved Rock Lodge is the best way to enjoy the park. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps built the lodge out of white pine timber.

Joseph F. Booten designed this lodge as well as many other historic buildings in Great Lakes state parks. It was declared a National Historic Registry building in 1985.

Staying At The Starved Rock Lodge

The lodge offers three stay options. To have the whole family together, one of the 16 cabins surrounding the lodge is a great choice. Or, stay in one of the 69 rooms in the lodge itself. All options have private bathrooms, flatscreen television, and free wifi.

We stayed in one of the original rooms in the older wing. It was clean and comfortable. We enjoyed a view of the woods. You can also choose a room in the newer, modern wing of the lodge.

Swimming At The Starved Rock Lodge

The  Starved Rock Lodge includes an indoor swimming pool with a gated children's swim area. You can enjoy one of two saunas and a steaming hot tub. You cannot swim in the waterfall plunge pools or in the river because of the current from the dam.

Dining At Starved Rock Lodge

We enjoyed a delicious burger and fries on the patio of the veranda outside the Backdoor Lounge. The view of the dam and the river below was spectacular. Other dining options include the Cafe, the Backdoor Lounge (order carry-out for your hike), and the Lodge Restaurant.

Starved Rock Lodge - The Lodge Restaurant

People come from miles away for Sunday brunch and special meals in the Lodge Restaurant's Main Dining Room. The room has an amazing You can enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Reservations are recommended for lunch and dinner during the summer and fall. The Main Dining Room can host up to 200 people for a wedding or other celebration.

On our Sunday/Tuesday visit, we saw family reunions, a bridal party, and some type of retreat group staying in one of the large cabins.

Staying Outside Of Starved Rock

Small town Oglesby sits 6 miles from the state park and offers a few motels as well as the Great Bear Resort and Waterpark, where you can enjoy the waterslides and lazy river after a great day of park exploration.

The towns of Peru/La Salle to the west and Ottawa to the east offer more hotel and dining options. They are within 15 miles and 20 minutes by car.

The Most Popular Illinois State Park

Starved Rock State Park was the most visited Illinois state park until 2021. In 2021, 2. 6 million people got outside to enjoy the 100 miles of the paved pathway at Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park.

People have traveled to Starved Rock since 1904 when the park was reached by railroad and ferries traveling on the river.

Make A Visit To Starved Rock State Park

A small waterfall at Kaskaskia Canyon at Starved Rock State park, Illinois

Put Starved Rock on our list of places to visit when traveling to Illinois. Hike the trails, kayak the river, or sit with a drink in hand on the lodge patio and soak in the beauty. Starved Rock State Park is not to be missed.

Check out these other state parks to visit:

Salt Point State Park, California

Flathead State Park, Montana

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