Home Magazine The 10 Best Day-Trip Hikes

The 10 Best Day-Trip Hikes

Starved Rock State Park
Photograph: EJ Rodriquez/istockphoto

Chasing Waterfalls Amid Sandstone Canyons

North-central Illinois

Drive time 1 hour 45 minutes

Summer may be peak season at this crown jewel of Illinois parks, but its legendary canyons, bluffs, and trails are arguably at their most appealing between March and May, when snowmelt and spring rains feed Starved Rock’s stunning waterfalls. Follow the trails marked in green to the falls at French, Wildcat, LaSalle, Ottawa, Kaskaskia, Illinois, Aurora, and St. Louis Canyons. The sandstone formations, carved millennia ago by glacial forces, make for eye-popping scenery in their own right — and are best admired from the trail, because climbing the notoriously crumbly rock is ill advised. Or tackle the Starved Rock and Sandstone Point Overlook Trail, a four-mile loop, rated moderate in difficulty, that offers a commanding view of the Illinois River. The park’s name comes from the death by starvation of a band of Illiniwek seeking refuge on a butte here during a battle over the death of Ottawa chief Pontiac in the 1760s — a solemn reminder of whose land you’re hiking through and the privilege of communing with it.
Look for Bald eagles. The Plum Island Eagle Sanctuary, which occupies a 45-acre island in the Illinois River opposite the park’s visitor center, is a wintering area for the birds. In spring and summer, you’ll have a chance of seeing a mating pair that are permanent residents.
While there Reward your exertions with a pint at the Lone Buffalo, a taproom in nearby Ottawa operated by Tangled Roots Brewing Company.


Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Photograph: Allison Cisneros/USDA Forest Service

Communing With Illinois’s Original Landscape

Northeastern Illinois

Drive time About an hour

Bison, the prairie’s once-abundant original inhabitants, were reintroduced in 2015 as part of a conservation initiative at this 18,500-acre preserve, which occupies the site of a former ammunition plant and is the first federal tallgrass prairie in the country. You can’t walk among the bison — currently the herd numbers around 50 — since they roam in pastures fenced off from the park’s 33 miles of trails, but sightings are common. Years of painstaking restoration of the area’s tallgrass habitat has resulted in an unparalleled variety of birdlife. Keep your eyes out for sandhill cranes, black-necked stilts, dickcissels, Henslow’s sparrows, and the rare black-billed cuckoo. Created in 1996 and considered one of the most significant conservation triumphs of the 20th century, Midewin offers a chance to experience the natural prairie that covered much of the Midwest but is now all but obliterated.
Look for A prehistoric glacial erratic. Follow the Henslow Trail to where it crosses Route 53 to see this 19-ton boulder that was pushed south by an ice sheet, possibly from as far as present-day Wisconsin.
While there The nearby village of Elwood boasts a rare attraction: a paved section of the original Route 66 — America’s Mother Road — that you can actually drive on. (It’s on what’s now Douglas Street.)


Mississippi Palisades State Park
Photograph: Illinois Office of Tourism

Breathtaking Views of America’s Mightiest River

Northwestern Illinois

Drive time Just under 3 hours

The riverbank bluffs, or palisades, that are the centerpiece of these 2,500 acres make for exhilarating hiking and gorgeous panoramas. Fifteen miles of relatively short, interconnected trails ascend the bluffs and plummet into cool, fern-filled ravines, offering views of erosion-carved limestone formations with names like Indian Head and Twin Sisters. But you don’t have to scramble to earn your views: Several paved paths lead to platformed overlooks that take in the confluence of the Mighty Miss and the Apple River. Have an old-fashioned picnic in one of the shelters built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In spring and summer, look for the colorful splendor of brightly blooming lobelias and bluebells.
Look for Woodland mammals. Weasels, muskrats, and badgers make their home here.
While there The historic downtown of nearby Mount Carroll has rightly earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. It features brick-paved streets and remarkably well-preserved 19th-century Victorian houses.

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