Starved Rock State Park is well-known for its impressive bluffs and steep sandstone canyons. The park features 18 of these canyons, several of which have seasonal waterfalls. Hiking through these canyons and along the scenic overlooks on the Illinois River are the best ways to see this park. The well-maintained paths, many with wooden stairs and boardwalks, make these hiking trails substantially more accessible for non-hikers. The trails here are also all dog friendly so feel free to bring your pup with you.
Starved Rock State Park is located about 2 hours from Chicago and about 2.5 hours from Milwaukee, making it a great weekend or long day trip from either city. We recommend spending at least a day here, if not the whole weekend, depending on how much hiking you want to do. Here is our guide for spending a day in the park.
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Hike the Park
If you are only spending one day in the park, hike as much as you can. We hiked in both directions of the visitor center, in the pattern outlined on the map. This route totaled about 6 miles. Our route brought us to the main attractions of French Canyon, Wildcat Canyon and St. Louis Canyon. We highly recommend seeing each of these canyons as they all seasonally feature a waterfall. Visit in the spring to ensure flow at the waterfalls!
Start your hike by heading east of the visitor center (? on the map). Hike in a counterclockwise fashion to your first stop, French Canyon. French Canyon is the easiest canyon to access, as it is a very short hike from the visitor center. You do have to do a short scramble up some rocks and through shallow running water (depending on time of the year) to access it, but we found this scramble quite easy to manage. French Canyon is 45 feet tall with a very pretty and peaceful flow of water.
Next, continuing to hike counterclockwise, you can either hike along a relatively flat interior canyon trail or on the wooden boardwalk/staircase path to access Wildcat Canyon. On the way out, we chose to hike on the wooden boardwalk/staircase path as it led us through Pontiac Canyon on our way to Wildcat Canyon. Pontiac Canyon can be viewed from above on the boardwalk, but you cannot go down into it so don’t expect astounding views.
After passing through Pontiac Canyon, you continue on the boardwalk to Wildcat Canyon. Here, you can view the Wildcat Canyon from above which is very pretty, but the views are nothing in comparison to the ones from inside the canyon. Continue hiking in a counterclockwise fashion to reach the stairs leading into the canyon. The stairs here are steep but very manageable for anyone without joint problems. The views at Wildcat Canyon, the deepest canyon in the park at 90 feet, are stunning. This was our favorite Canyon we saw in the park.
Next, continue counterclockwise, heading Northwest, to hit several viewpoints including Beehive Overlook, Eagle Cliff Overlook and Lover’s Leap Overlook. These overlooks give impressive bluff views. Out of these, our favorite overlook was Eagle Cliff Overlook as the views here were most unobstructed.
After seeing these viewpoints, head back on the wooden boardwalk/stair trail in a continued counterclockwise manner. You can either head back through Pontiac Canyon and then onto the interior canyon trail (slightly longer) or on the wooden boardwalk you hiked out on (slightly shorter). We opted to hike back through Pontiac Canyon and then on the interior canyon trail in order to hike back toward the visitor center or lodge.
At this point, you can either hike back to the visitor center to get a snack, hike to the lodge to eat at The Cafe, , continue hiking past the lodge onto the trails west of the park, or complete your hiking for the day. We elected to head towards the trails on the west side of the park after passing by the lodge/cafe.
Aurora, Sac, Kickapoo and St. Louis Canyon
On the west side of the visitors center, you can hike out to St. Louis Canyon. This 1.5 mile out and back hike is very easy to follow. On your way to St. Louis Canyon, you will pass through Aurora, Sac and Kickapoo Canyon. These canyons are viewed from above/on the path, similar to Pontiac Canyon discussed above. After passing through these canyons, you’ll take an offshoot of the main trail to get to St. Louis Canyon. At the end of this trail, you will be afforded pretty views of the waterfall and there is some area where you could set down a blanket and have a picnic if you please. This is the only spring fed canyon in the park so it tends to last longer into the summer than the others that are rain fed.
After visiting St. Louis Canyon, head back east towards the visitor center (on the same trail you came out on) and then head north on the offshoot trail to the main visitor center parking lot. This will complete your 6 mile hike. If you are feeling ambitious, drive to one of the many other parking lots in the park to check out some more of the 18 canyons and the 13 miles of hiking trails this park has to offer.
Where to Eat
For eating, you have several options. If you are looking to eat in the park, either pack a picnic or eat at The Cafe in the park. The Cafe has a basic menu but does afford you some pretty views overlooking the Illinois River and Bluffs on the patio. If you eat at The Cafe, you are eating there for the views and convenience, not the food. Dogs are allowed on the patio. The visitor center also has some homemade fudge, ice cream and candied nuts if you are looking for a snack rather than a meal.
If you would prefer to eat somewhere with more variety on the menu, consider eating in the small town, Utica, just north of the park. For a meal, eat somewhere on Mill Street such as the Lodi Tap House or Canal Port. If you are just looking for a snack, there are several touristy ice cream and popcorn shops on the main drag.
We opted to stop in Rockford, on the way back to Milwaukee, at the Thunder Bay Grille, to eat on the patio where dogs are allowed. Located just off the freeway and about halfway on our trip home, this was the perfect location for us to stop with our pup. The menu is diverse and delicious. We recommend the Salmon Fresca and the Bison Smoked Meatloaf.
Where to Stay
If you are looking to make a weekend trip out of your visit to Starved Rock, you’ll have limited accommodation options. In the park, you can either camp at the campgrounds, stay at the lodge or rent one of the small cabins associated with the park. Airbnb and hotel options are few and far in between in the area. If you plan on spending a lot of time hiking/in the park, staying in the park is your best option.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Starved Rock State Park. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!