Top 3 Must-See Canyons at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois

Peter Kyle

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Top 3 Must-See Canyons at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois

Visiting Chicago for the first time?

Consider exploring outside the city for an opportunity to hike one of Illinois’ most beautiful parks.

Illinois is best known for its city on the lake; boasting world-renowned museums, vibrant shopping districts and an abundance of nightlife venues, just to name a few. But sometimes you just need to get in a car and drive out past the suburbs to take a break from the almost never-ending busyness of the city. To your luck, en route within only a 2-hour drive southwest of the city where the road is straight and narrow, and the sky meets the treetops in every direction, a place where towering canyons and powerful rivers exist.

The journey to this adventurous destination in Illinois requires a solid pair of hiking boots, packed snacks, a water bottle, and an early morning (assuming you are coming from the city or beyond).

While the LaSalle county area hosts not only Starved Rock State Park but also other beautiful parks, we will focus solely on Starved Rock State Park because it may very well take a good chunk of your day to explore.

A Hike Through Time

As the name of the State Park implies, its history is a tragic one. It is said that in the 1760s, the Indian Chief of the Ottawa region was shot down by an Illinois confederacy member. The battle continued until a group of Illinois confederate members was cornered by Indians, and fled to the top of what is nowadays known as Starved Rock. Legend has it that several of them died of starvation while others were killed after they became too weak to fight for their survival.

It is estimated that Native Americans lived in the area dating back to almost 8,000 BC while the French arrived at the area in the 17th century, building a temporary fortress on Starved Rock.

In the late 1800s, a hotel was built along the edge of the river. In the early 1900s, the land was officially sold to the state when it finally became a park in the year 1911.

Small Mineral Stream Flowing from a Canyon

Small Mineral Stream Flowing from a Canyon

Hiking and Exploring

The area across Starved Rock holds over 12 miles of hiking trails with various paths and routes to pick and choose from. Accompanied by a good friend of mine from University, we set out in the early morning in hopes to escape the mid-July afternoon heat. For our hike, we did not set up an itinerary but rather wandered into the deep forest and let our curiosity guide us along the way.

My hiking buddy exploring the 350-foot, Eagle Cliff Overlook along the grand Illinois River

My hiking buddy exploring the 350-foot, Eagle Cliff Overlook along the grand Illinois River

Along the various trails, you will likely confront vibrant sandstone cliffs, up to 18 unique canyons, and numerous waterfalls. Despite the photo above, I highly recommend against getting close to the cliff's edge.

Of the 18 canyons, the top 3 must-sees that I recommend for you are: French Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, and LaSalle Canyon. Feel free to explore beyond these 3 since even I was not able to come across all 18 canyons during my day trip to the State Park.

If you are more of an organized trip planner, unlike myself, then go ahead and refer to the Hiking Trails Map to get a better look at the area before your trip. The map includes information regarding parking options, trails, distances, canyons, and more.

Approaching the heart of French Canyon - Skyhour

Approaching the heart of French Canyon

French Canyon

The French Canyon is probably one of the more popular canyons for its proximity to the visitor center. You can choose this as your first destination along the journey, or save it for last since you will likely pass by the entrance trail twice.

Weather conditions, largely influenced by the season, decide whether this canyon appears as a full-blown waterfall with vibrant, green moss covering nearly every surface of the canyon.

Aside from simply climbing into the canyon, you can also hike up along the right end to peek into the canyon from above.

Wildcat Canyon

From French Canyon there are numerous trails that can be taken to reach Wildcat Canyon. The north route passes along the river with two beautiful overlooks, Lovers Leap and Eagle Cliff, posing as a great location for snapping photos and absorbing breathtaking views over the vast Illinois River. The alternative option is the quicker ~20-minute route, leading directly to Wildcat Canyon along Campanula Trail.

To reach the mouth of this canyon may be a wet or, if you are lucky, a dry journey that is dependent on your agility skills as well as the season of your visit. In the Spring and early Summer, with increased rainfall, the Canyon becomes a waterfall. Water jets out far enough for hikers to walk behind it while staying completely dry. But to get to that point, you will likely have to remove your hiking boots and roll up your pants in order to pass across the river that seems to guard the Canyon as if a moat to a castle.

Following the adventurous discovery of Wildcat Canyon, prepare to climb some serious altitude along the lush green wooded trails onto LaSalle Canyon. 

Exploring alongside a sandstone ridge - Skyhour

Exploring alongside a sandstone ridge

LaSalle Canyon

Arriving at LaSalle Canyon means that you have reached the highest Canyon among those at Starved Rock. Being only about a 30-minute walk from Wildcat, but not nearly as far as the hike through and to Illinois Canyon which is located in the far SouthEast corner of Starved Rock State Park.

While many of the other canyons at this park periodically become waterfalls due to the fluctuating wet and dry seasons, LaSalle Canyon commonly maintains its high volume of water all year round except during the coldest weeks and months of the winter season.

Usually starting in mid-December and leading into February, ice climbing becomes a popular sport in Starved Rock State Park. With LaSalle Canyon being the most popular frozen “waterfall” for beginner climbers to scale. Other canyons that can be scaled in the winter include Ottawa Canyon, Tonti Canyon, and Wildcat Canyon.

To obtain more information regarding ice climbing at the park, check here.

Colorful Mushroom Found Along The Hiking Trail - Skyhour

Colorful Mushroom Found Along The Hiking Trail

Aside from the many canyons to explore in the park, there exists a lot of natural beauty from the flowing riverside to the dense forest.

In the deeper days of summer, you might just run into wild blackberry and/or raspberry bushes which you can easily pick and snack on along the route. But be careful not to eat the wild mushrooms or berries that you are not familiar with for they may be poisonous or cause an allergic reaction.

Aside from just hiking through the park, there is also the option to camp among one of the many campgrounds in and around the State Park. Depending on your style of camping, you have the option to simply prop a hammock between two trees, set up a tent, or book a wood cabin to stay the night.

Things To Know

Pets are permitted into the park, so definitely feel free to bring along your little furry friend. The trails are open to the public from sunrise to sunset, all year round. And aside from ice climbing in the winter months, there is also an option to enjoy cross country skiing.

All in all, Starved Rock State Park is a beautiful place to enjoy a day at. It is seen as a quiet, adventurous contrast to the well-known and respected city of Chicago. If you are planning a multi-day trip to Chicago and want to add a spontaneous trip out of the city, then consider this to be a top choice!

Peter Kyle
Photographer & Writer
Chicago, United States
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